Musings Monday: 5 Common Mistakes I’ve Made in Transformative Justice Work

Content Warning: mentions of abuse, violence, sexual assault, oppression.

Whenever I get the phone call, or text message, or email, my heart seems to drop into my stomach and my fists clench, like I’m about to throwdown in a school yard or poetry slam.

“He hurt me, and he’s hurt others– what should I do?”

“She touched me… but I don’t want to call the police. I just want her to stop doing this!”

“They’re a marginalized person, I don’t want to leave them but… but this relationship is so messed up! How can I fix this?”

See, I recently attended a training in Chicago (originally called Zhigaagong, O’nionkserì:ke, and Shikaawke, on the territories of the Miami, Peoria, Potawatomi, and Illinois Native Americans). At this training, run by the amazing Just Practice Collaborative, we talked about transformative justice and community accountability, reminding me about all the times I’ve been pulled into a situation of interpersonal violence and oppression among poetry communities, queer and trans social circles, and activist collectives. Not only did it remind me of how I’m brought into these situations, I also remember every single one of the mistakes I made.

Maybe you’re like me, the type of person a friend of a friend calls because they think you can help out, start a process, talk to an abuser, find community resources, or just know somehow what to do. Maybe you’re like me, in that you’ve also been abused and an abuser, that you’ve worked on your shit and continue to work on your shit, and just want the people around you to work on theirs and stop hurting each other and being hurt. Maybe you’re like me, in that you think there’s another way than tearing people and families apart with over-policing and under-resourced mental health and community services.

If so, this rueful, yet hopeful, post is for you. Here’s some of my mistakes. I hope they help you and your people out.

Wait, what’s TJ?

If I was going to explain TJ to your Lola or grandma, it would go something like this:

“Lola, this is the idea that there are some other things people can do instead of calling the police in situations like when their friends are having a fight or when Tito Nonoy is hurting Tita Lenlen. We try to solve the problem together, as a group of people, as a community. We try to make sure that the solution doesn’t use violence or revenge, and most times it means changing the ways the whole family and community works so that this behaviour doesn’t happen anymore.”

“Huh,” your grandma will say. “Sige, anak. But who is in charge?”

“Whoever we choose to be in charge, Lola. Maybe you. Maybe Ate Bing. Maybe Kuya Jose. We make sure everybody gets someone that can listen to them, and someone organizes a plan that everybody trusts. Everybody has to agree, though.”

“What if somebody doesn’t agree, anak?”

“Then we don’t do that specific thing. We can do other stuff besides calling the police– making a safety plan, having a community meeting to teach people other ways besides hurting each other, having a mediator, and other stuff like that.”

“Ay jusko, this is complicated and hard.”

“Alam ko, Lola. I know.”

1. I didn’t know my options.

In the beginning, I thought “transformative justice” and “community accountability” were the same things. Nobody explained to me, like in the imaginary exchange with your Filipino grandma that I just had in the above section, that there were other options besides trying to have a community support somebody’s accountability process– i.e. to support someone to be responsible for their actions, so that they can stop hurting people and repair the relationships around them.

Here are some situations where a community accountability process isn’t an option:

  • If the person that did harm doesn’t want to take responsibility
  • If the survivors want revenge
  • If an institution, like the courts, the police, social workers, etc., get involved
  • If there’s not enough people in the community to offer support or organize a process

 But you can still do TJ! The Community Interventions Toolkit lists different kinds of options. There’s also the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective’s Pods and Pod Mapping. I’m going to write further about this in the upcoming sections.

2. There wasn’t enough support for everybody involved.

Usually, if a community is survivor-centric, people remember to make sure that the survivor gets support. If folks know about TJ, they also think about getting the person who’s done harm some kind of support, whether it’s to remind them of their humanity while they go through all of this, or whether it’s to keep them on track about how to take responsibility, or both.

But the support train doesn’t end there. The support people also need support– maybe it can be just meeting with each other, or with the main organizer. If there’s a main organizer that people go to, that person also needs support– either their own counselor, confidante, or another person who’s organized this sort of stuff but isn’t involved in this particular process.

What does support look like? Listening, mostly. Like, at 2am when you’re breaking down crying because everybody’s so angry and sad and you don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore. The other part of support, besides the listening, is keeping you on track, and reminding you why you’re doing this, or, being honest with you about when you need to take a step back and whether the whole process needs to be put on hold.

If there’s no people who can keep confidentiality and be supportive for everybody that’s taking part in the process or the planning, people are going to burn out and ghost on you. I’ve been the support person that didn’t have anyone to talk to, and though I tried not to ghost on the whole thing, I got burned out quick, and all it would have taken was somebody to check in on me and see how I was doing to keep me steady. At the same time, I could have asked at the beginning of the process for a facilitator to have regular meetings with me to give me support.

3. We didn’t have a plan.

“Yikes,” you may be thinking. “What do you mean you didn’t have a plan, Lukayo? Why would you even be part of anything if there’s no plan?”

Okay, so, let me be more clear: We didn’t have a plan that had a clearly articulated goal. We didn’t know when the process would be complete, or what to do if somebody continued to do harm. We had something that looked like a plan, though. The somewhat-plan was this, paraphrased, and conveyed to the person who did harm: “You have to stop coming to these spaces indefinitely and to get help.”

What happens if the person shows up to the space? What kind of help? How do we know this person has been “helped”? When can this person return to the space, if ever? How does this help the community, and the person who has done harm, transform?

We didn’t ask these questions, and shit began falling apart in about six months, and was a trainwreck in a year’s time. We never got answers. I hope the survivors got closure and some kind of justice, but I stay up late at night thinking about whether or not any transformation took place at all.

The Creative Interventions Toolkit I mentioned earlier has a great section on Goal Setting that’ll help with planning, though honestly, you should probably read the whole thing before you even start a process, so you can consider your options, check to see if there’s enough allies and support, and then figure out a plan together. This isn’t just about making a plan for the process, but also a communications plan on how everybody’s going to talk to each other and how meetings are scheduled.

4. We didn’t have consent from everybody.

Get people’s consent. Sounds basic, right? Like the support stuff above, it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds. If you’re in polyamorous relationships that are heavy on communication, you may start to get what I’m hinting at.

Picture this: A survivor, X, wants to do a process with the person who’s harmed them, Y, but does not want to be in the same room ever as Y. X gets a support team, A, and Y gets a support team, B. Y wants their friend, W, to be the facilitator. Team B checks in with Team A about facilitator W. Team A checks in with X, who does not want W, but would prefer Z instead. Team A goes to Team B, who goes to Y, and Y agrees to Z being facilitator.

Phew. We haven’t even started on the plan yet– though at least the communications and confidentiality plan must already be created if people are checking in with each other.

Problems begin when there is no communications plan and discussion about confidentiality. Another problematic situation is when “the community” (whether it’s the facilitator and support teams, or random “allies”) decide “what’s best” for the survivor and how to “handle” the person who’s done harm. Nobody checks in with X about what they want, or is interested in Y’s opinion on what’s being asked of them.

Everyone involved should be checked in on regarding every major decision in the process, based on the communications plan that everybody agreed on. Obviously stuff like “should we have coffee or tea at our meetings?” aren’t relevant, but the facilitator, the support team, the goals of the plan, how to start a process, how to finish it, when meetings happen, how frequently– these are all major components. 

If the survivor doesn’t want to take part, you can at least check in on them about what the community wants to do to keep itself safe, like “Hey, is it ok if we run workshops in the next few months about accountability in the punk scene? We won’t name you or your situation, but we wanted to make sure that you’re comfortable with what we’re doing to make the rest of the community feel safe.”

5. We didn’t know the difference between “consequence” and “punishment”.

Here’s the biggie for me, and the one mistake that I’ve made more than once when I’ve taken part in this, so I’m going to be really clear about it:

TJ is not about revenge or punishment. It’s about transformation.

If you’re into vendettas and retribution, if you’re the type to scream “kill your rapist!”, that’s your choice, and I totally get it. But that’s not transformative justice, and TJ is not the right fit for you.

I’ve been in processes or witnessed plans where the goal is basically banishing somebody forever, or shaming them constantly wherever they went, or getting them fired from their job. Personally, some of these goals make sense depending on context. These goals don’t make sense in a situation where the survivor says they want to engage in community accountability and transformative justice, and the person who has done harm takes responsibility and wants to change.

At the Just Practice Collaborative training, a simple question arose as a measurement for whether a process or a plan or a tool was TJ or not: “Is this a punishment, or is this a consequence that will lead to transformation?”

When somebody who has done harm comes to you asking for community support so they can change, and they actually, really, seriously want to change, you’re not coddling them, you’re being given a golden opportunity to decrease the number of hurt people in the world. You’re supporting the possibility that there will be less victims and survivors because of this one person. More importantly, this person can raise their kids and their grandkids to stop hurting others and to take responsibility. You’re not just transforming people’s lives in the present– you are changing future possibilities.

As I learn from my mistakes and continue to engage in this work, I try to remember that. I hope you do too.

Want to know more about transformative justice and anti-oppression, and get some cool tools I’ve made? Become a $10/month patron, or get a group together to subscribe as one patron so you all can have access to the tools and troubleshooting tutorials together!