Category Archives: Writing

You Are Not Entitled To Our Deaths: COVID, Abled Supremacy & Interdependence 

Photograph of a melting iceberg taken from above. White pieces of ice of varying sizes of all different shapes float over dark blue water. The ice is white, with shades of grey as well and some of it is submerged under water, creating a ghostly white-blue. There is a main large piece of ice that is towards the center of the frame, in a triangular-is shape and most of the other ice descends from the left upper corner. Some are clustered close together, while others float farther out. The photo is beautiful and almost looks surreal and like a piece of abstract art.
[Image description: Photograph of a melting iceberg taken from above. White pieces of ice of varying sizes of all different shapes float over dark blue water. The ice is white, with shades of grey and some of it is submerged under water, creating a ghostly white-blue.]

These days, I am struggling to find grace for abled people (i.e. non-disabled people). I have taken a break from engaging with most abled folks in my life because frankly, I don’t know how to convey the magnitude of disabled rage I feel about this pandemic and the stunningly self absorbed levels of abled entitlement. I cannot casually check-in anymore or be asked how I’m doing in the middle of mass suffering, illness and death. I cannot listen to or read about the high rates of infections, illness and death in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities with no mention of BIPOC disabled people in the middle of a pandemic. I cannot listen to the CDC say they are “encouraged” that only those “who were unwell to begin with” will die from Omicron and then hear about so-called-comrades’ vacations outside of the continental U.S. I cannot be part of any more so-called political conversations that don’t acknowledge disability, ableism and abled supremacy in the middle of a pandemic

We will not trade disabled deaths for abled life. We will not allow disabled people to be disposable or the necessary collateral for the status quo. We will not look away from the mass illness and death that surrounds us or from a state machine that is more committed to churning out profit and privileged comfort with eugenic abandonment. 


We know the state has failed us. We are currently witnessing the pandemic state-sanctioned violence of murder, eugenics, abuse and bone-chilling neglect in the face of mass suffering, illness and death. We are the richest nation in the world and we continue to choose greed and comfort over people and life. The state is driving the knife of suffering deeper into the gut of those already collapsed on the ground. The cruelty is sweeping and unapologetic. 

This is no surprise to many of us on the far left. We have seen what the state is willing to do to its own people. We have never been able to rely on the state because we know the state does not care about us or our people. We have always had to organize outside of the state. This is nothing new. We have been here before and we are here again. 

We know we need systemic change so that our peoples can literally survive this pandemic, but we also know that the kind of changes we need are most likely not coming. It is in the interest of those in power to keep people uncared for, sick and dependent on dwindling crumbs. This is one reason why ableism and poverty are so effective and why they are often inseparable. There are many things we cannot control or change right now, even as we desperately wish we could. As we fight for systemic changes, we can also try to change what is happening inside of our communities. We can learn from our mistakes and try to, at the very least, not make things worse than they already are. 

Pitting the need for state and systemic change against individual and community change sets up a false binary. Both are necessary to get out of the pandemic mess we are in, just as both are necessary for any kind of liberation we are fighting for. We need to provide hazard pay to essential workers, end evictions, pay people to stay home, make tests free and accessible to everyone and we need everyone to wear masks, stop holding/attending indoor in-person gatherings, stop unnecessary travel and get vaccinated and boosted. There are people on the left who are only talking about the need for a state response, while they themselves are still not vaccinated and boosted or continue to throw/attend indoor in-person gatherings. If transformative justice teaches us anything, it is that systemic change alone is not enough. There are also many changes that must happen at the community and individual levels as well. 


Vaccines have laid bare how deep ableism runs in our political movement culture. Disabled people have always known this. I have been incredibly angered and disappointed by abled comrades in our movements, who have reinforced abled supremacy via abled culture and entitlement, shirking their responsibility to challenge abled supremacy and act in solidarity with disabled people and communities. 

Why have we allowed and contributed to the framing of vaccines as an individual choice instead of collective action, interdependence and solidarity with disabled people (especially those who are high risk), elders, children who cannot get vaccinated, the global south, essential workers and those who do not have the option to work from home? For those who are able to be vaccinated, getting vaccinated is not about personal choice. It is not like deciding to get an abortion; stop saying this. Not getting vaccinated is not “my body, my choice,” it is more like drunk driving or exposing someone to secondhand smoke. 

We should be talking about getting vaccinated and making it part of our political left culture. Not only posting about it on social media, though that is valuable, but more importantly, engaging in direct conversations with those in our lives. Not in an attempt to shame, because we know from transformative justice that shaming people is not useful, but in a way that invites conversation and sets clear consequences, not punishment. 

Getting vaccinated and boosted should be framed as part of our political commitment to interdependence, disability justice and solidarity. I have been truly disheartened, though not surprised, by the amount of people in our movements who are able to get vaccinated, who have not done so and continue to eat out and attend gatherings, instead of staying home to protect others. As someone who has experienced tremendous abuse, including sexual abuse, within the medical industrial complex, I do not support forced medical treatments of any kind, including vaccines. I want you to want to do the right thing. I want you to want to protect and care for other people. If you are able to get vaccinated, but are adamant that you do not wish to, then for our collective safety, isolate yourself, stay home and stay away from other people. 


Abled culture teaches abled people to be entitled. You are entitled to never have to learn anything about disability and ableism. You are entitled to get to move through the world, and through our movements, with little-to-no understanding or political analysis about disability, even as you pontificate about every other system of oppression and violence. Abled culture in our movements mean that we will say, “we must center those who are most impacted,” all day every day, but then not include disabled people, especially those who are high risk, in the center during a global pandemic. Abled entitlement means that you will still continue to plan your vacation abroad, even amidst the Delta surge; you will still post pictures from your giant family holiday gathering amidst the Omicron surge. 

You are not entitled to our deaths. You are not entitled to the deaths of our loved ones in the name of capital, privilege and “normal.” You are not entitled to our silence about our pain and suffering and the wet tar grief that envelops us. You are not entitled to our fear and terror at the worsening conditions and chaos of this pandemic, wondering if we will ever be able to safely leave our homes again.    

You enjoy connection at the expense of our isolation. Your wants are always more important than our needs. When you choose to gamble with your own health, you only take into consideration your own risks and never the risks of others. Abled entitlement ensures your risk assessment will always be, “f I get sick, I will be able to recover OK. My family will be OK. My children will be OK.”  Never, “Will they be OK? Will their children be OK? Will their family be OK? Will everyone they might also interact with be OK?” Never, “Could this harm their neighborhood? Their state? Their country? Their continent?” Shielded by your abled privileged bravado of “it won’t happen to me.”  Never, “Who might I be exposing? I might be OK, but someone else may not.”

Abled supremacy means that many of you mistakenly think that if you do get COVID and if you end up with long COVID, that the state will take care of you or that your community will. You believe this because you do not know about the lived reality of disability in this country. Abled privilege means that you don’t have to listen to disabled people or learn about ableism and abled supremacy. Our government does not care about the disabled people that already exist. So, if you think it will care for you if you become disabled from COVID, as millions more will, then that is a function of your ableist ignorance. 

I need you to care about disabled people’s lives more than you care about a vacation, a party or a celebration. A cornerstone of being disabled in an ableist world is isolation. This is part of the trauma of ableism. Disabled people are marked over and over by isolation through material, social and cultural inaccessibility, stigma, fear, violence and shame. We live with various forms of social distancing our entire lives. During this pandemic, many disabled people, particularly those who are high risk, have not left their house or seen anyone for years, save the people they live with. You take the luxury of in-person connection for granted and feel entitled to it, even as thousands around you die and suffer, even as you may risk prolonging and worsening the pandemic. 

We don’t know when the next variant will emerge as a threat. Scientists are watching many variants that have not become threats yet. The longer COVID is allowed to circulate within a community, the more chance it has to mutate and spur a new variant. We cannot keep risking collective safety for individual indulgence. We cannot keep sacrificing long term needs for short term wants.

Disabled people are not disposable. We are your feared present and your inevitable future. We are what age and time promise more than anything else, and this is one reason you fear us and why you have continually pushed us away and hidden us. You don’t want us too close, don’t want a daily reminder of difference and privilege; you don’t want to have to change your life for us. We are to be landfilled away, conveniently forgotten about so you can play pretend without interruption. 

Pandemics, climate change, pollution and toxins have tilted the scales and upped the ante that disability is our collective future. You may have been able to avert your eyes from state violence, poverty and crisis, but what about when the very air you breathe becomes a threat? What about when there is nowhere left to escape climate disasters? Individual safety by itself is a myth. There is no individual safety without collective safety and collective safety requires that no one is safe unless everyone is safe. 

You interrogate your privilege, but never your abled privilege. You educate yourself about oppression, but never ableism. You love your queer, BIPOC, working class, abolitionist, anti-racist, feminist, immigrant communities, but never seem to remember that disabled people exist in these and every community. 

My people are dying and terrified. And you don’t seem to care. You don’t seem to care because you don’t see them–see us–as your people too. When you talk to me about racial justice or housing justice or healing justice or gender justice, who exactly are you talking about? Whose justice are you fighting for? Because it never seems to include disabled people or if it does, it is only in theory, not practice; only to make yourself look better. Or it is only when disabled people are in the room or when we initiate the conversation. 

I do not wish to be your token politicized POC disabled friend or comrade. If you care about me, then I also need you to care about disabled people and disabled communities because if you don’t care about them, then you don’t care about me. If you care about me then I need you to check your abled entitlement and challenge abled supremacy, especially the current abled culture that deems disabled people as disposable in this pandemic.

I need you to not only say that you are in solidarity with disabled people or that you value disability justice; I need you to practice it. I need you to engage in the hard conversations with fellow abled people about vaccines and boosters, masks and canceling indoor in-person gatherings, unnecessary travel and work. Many disabled people have been doing this labor because we do not have a choice. We have been losing connection, yelled at, mocked, ridiculed, told we are overreacting, harassing or controlling simply because we do not wish to die. Simply because we do not want others to die. Simply because we cannot afford to risk being at the mercy of a triaged medical system that may deem us unworthy of treatment because of our disability, illness, class, race, skin color, accent, immigration status, gender, size. Simply because many of us knew what was coming, what is coming, and we knew we could not stop it without you. And we knew you would always choose your own comfort and pleasure over collective safety, over interdependence. How to put into words the demoralizing impact of needing people who do not need you? 


We should be framing this pandemic in terms of interdependence. This is the right political framing because it is the only moral and humane framing. Interdependence acknowledges that our survival is bound up together, that we are interconnected and what you do impacts others. If this pandemic has done nothing else, it has illuminated how horrible our society is at valuing and practicing interdependence. Interdependence is the only way out of most of the most pressing issues we face today. If we do not understand that we are interdependent with the planet we as a species will not survive. 

Abled culture teaches you to act as if you are independent, to buy into the myth of independence. Reject this. Embrace interdependence and know it is the only way we will be able to end this pandemic. Know that if we center disabled people, first and foremost those who are high risk, it will help everyone. Everyone wearing masks and getting vaccinated and boosted, means less people overrunning hospitals, so that ICU beds and hospital staff can be available for those who truly need it. It also means that non-emergency surgeries and other vitaly needed medical procedures do not have to be postponed because of an overwhelmed medical system. Less people traveling unnecessarily means less chance for the virus to spread and mutate, and that those who do need to travel (e.g. to take care of a sick loved one) will be at less risk. For those who can, staying home and not going out when you don’t have to creates safer conditions for those who are not able to stay home. Declining invitations to gatherings and explaining why, not only helps to stop the spread, but also models by example collective care, boundaries and interdependence. 

Reframe your disappointment for having to cancel that event or gathering as an opportunity to practice interdependence, solidarity and disability justice. In the same way that you might refrain from attending or purchasing something you enjoy because you want to support workers on strike, support the most vulnerable groups from this pandemic. This includes the global south, which is filled with BIPOC disabled people, because we know that they will bear the brunt of the global north’s entitlement, selfishness and greed (e.g. not stopping the spread of the virus, waiving patent rights for vaccines). If we all step up to protect the most vulnerable, if we all practice collective action together, then we can significantly help to reduce risk and harm. 

The solution cannot be that everyone has to get COVID. That is eugenics because many disabled high risk people will die and those who do not die will have serious complications and lifelong impacts to their health and wellbeing via COVID and the possibility of long COVID. Do not buy into this eugenic thinking that expects the most vulnerable to be sacrificed. Long Covid is real and it can happen to anyone. 

This pandemic will create millions more disabled people with chronic illnesses. Are we ready for what is coming next? Are we prepared for how many more disabled people with chronic health conditions there will be? Are we ready for how that will and should necessarily shift our movements and political work? Or are we going to continue to shut out disability and disabled people from movements and communities? Are we going to continue to not include ableism and abled supremacy in our liberation work?

If there was ever a time to be in solidarity with disabled people, it is now. It has been through this entire pandemic. This is about what you can do now. Now is the time to recalibrate, to get (back) in alignment with your values. We don’t need your apologies, we don’t have time for that, we just need you to do better. If you are abled, talk to other abled people. Because of ableism they will be more open to hearing it from you than from us. Help to educate them. Do not participate in upholding abled supremacy. Unlearn everything that doesn’t serve interdependence. 

Interdependence is ultimately about “we,” instead of “me.” It understands that we are bound together, by virtue of existing on this planet. Interdependence is generative and grounded in care for one another. It doesn’t live in obligation or entitlement, but rather a loving willingness and a sacred giving. Interdependence cannot exist in scarcity, competition, comparison, domination or greed. It flourishes in abundance, appreciating and honoring difference, collective care and collective access. Interdependence can exist between two people or six billion and everything in between. 

Interdependence asks us to imagine new ways forward with intention and soulful commitment to each other. We need you. We need all of us. There is no getting out of this pandemic alone. There is no stopping the spread or pushing our government, schools and businesses to do more, alone. We need each other. We need each other. We need each other.

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How To Give A Genuine Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

This write-up is in two parts:

The Four Parts of Accountability: How to Give a Genuine Apology Part 1

How to Give a Genuine Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

Please read Part 1 before you proceed.

 

This write-up is based on the curriculum I developed for the BATJC’s Apology Lab that I facilitated in the summer of 2019. 

 

[photo of a jar lid filled with white large beans with black writing and designs on them. each bean has a different word on it: practice, courage, grow, trust, hope, faith, commit, love.]

[photo of a jar lid filled with white large beans with black writing and designs on them. each bean has a different word on it: practice, courage, grow, trust, hope, faith, commit, love.]

 

 

APOLOGY: THE WHAT

In my time doing transformative justice work, I have found that these are the components of a good apology. Depending on the relationship and your track record of accountability with the person or people you are apologizing to, you may not need to do all of these steps every single time. However, I would encourage you not to skimp, especially if you haven’t done the work to build up a strong track record or culture of accountability, reliability or trust in your relationships.

The goal of these steps is not to be over-accountable, but to be thorough and to tend to those who were harmed, hurt or impacted by your actions. Again, here we are focusing on people you love or care about and with whom you want to be in relationship. We are focusing on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm.

 

1. “I’M SORRY.” It may seem silly to begin with this, but I cannot tell you how many apologies I have heard that do not include “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” It is important to apologize in your apology.

 

2. NAME THE HURT/HARM. This is an opportunity to name what you did and demonstrate that you understand what happened. If your behavior was racist, say it was racist instead of “confused” or “hurtful.” If you made an assumption, own that you made an assumption. If you bullied or gossiped about someone, name it. Every single one of us knows what it is like to have someone skip this part of their apology or skirt around actually naming their behavior. This step in particular can go a long way to help build back trust and is a moment to practice humility and clarity.

 

3. NAME THE IMPACT. A quality apology acknowledges the impact, no matter your intention. It is not to say that intentions don’t matter at all—the difference between someone purposefully setting out to harm you vs. someone who harmed you unintentionally is important. However, this is not the place to explain or wallow in your intent. This is a time to tend to the impact your actions (or inactions) had on someone else. This is a chance to practice care, empathy, and compassion. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you.” “I would be very hurt and angry too.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me again.”

 

4. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY BY NAMING YOUR ACTIONS. This step is probably the most important part of an apology. You need to name your actions and what you did. This is a chance to put yourself in the apology and the hurt/harm. This is a chance to truly take responsibility. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you because you told me that you don’t like to be teased about that and I teased you about it anyway.” “I would be very hurt and angry too. I promised you I would be there and then I didn’t show up and I didn’t call.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me with something confidential again because I shared something that you had confided in me and I explicitly swore to not tell anyone.” “I made a mistake.” “It was my fault.” “I did/I do ______.” “I didn’t/I don’t _____.”

This is a place to practice true remorse, show vulnerability and to again, focus on the impact, instead of the intent. This is a great opportunity to practice integrity.

 

5. COMMIT TO NOT DOING THE HURT/HARM AGAIN. The final step of an apology is to commit to not doing the hurt/harm again. This step is key because it doesn’t matter how great your apology was if you continue the hurt or harm. “I promise not to tease you about that ever again.” “I don’t want to be the kind of person you can’t trust because I care about you and I will work to earn back your trust, knowing that will take time.” “I will do my chores from now on.” “I will ask you what you need next time instead of making assumptions.”

The hardest part of this step is that you actually have to do the thing you say you will. This is where our own daily work to be accountable to ourselves and others plays a key role. Hopefully you are building the skills to change your behaviors already, so that you can make good on your commitment.

 

 

APOLOGIZING: THE HOW

Here are some things that I have found extremely helpful when it comes to apologizing. All of them require different skill sets within themselves that we can practice in our day-to-day lives.

 

– Address it as soon as possible. This is one of the most important things I have learned, especially for low-level harm and/or hurt. The sooner you can address it, the better. This is also why we practice, so that we can shorten our response time. Like firefighters who practice being able to get to a fire as quickly as possible, knowing that a quick response will lessen the damage, we can practice getting better and more comfortable with apologizing and taking accountability, so that we don’t run, freeze or hide from it.

When we put off apologizing, we run the risk of several things happening:

  • The hurt/harm and impact worsens and thus will be harder to repair (e.g. hurt grows into resentment, resentment into bitterness, bitterness into contempt);
  • The person begins to create their own story (e.g. “they don’t care about me because if they did, they would apologize” or worse, “maybe it was my fault”);
  • We begin to create our own convenient story (e.g. “well, it’s been so long now, I can’t apologize,” “it will just make things awkward, “it wasn’t really that bad”);
  • They move on and your window to apologize or stay in relationship closes.

There have been times when I have pulled over to the side of the road to apologize. I want people to know that they are a priority in my life. I have found that addressing things as soon as possible can also work to deescalate a situation, especially because we expect people to hide and avoid taking responsibility when they know they have done something wrong. Addressing it right away, openly and earnestly can go a long way because the longer you wait, the bigger and more overwhelming it will seem. We want to practice enough so that we can face what we’ve done head-on immediately and with intention, instead of running away and hoping it will blow over.

This is not to say that there aren’t times when you may need to take some time to respond. Preparation is important, but all too often people use preparation as an excuse and a shield. Like a fire drill, practice your preparation now. Practice with small apologies and practice the many mini skill sets needed: desiring the discomfort of growth, accountable sharing and active listening, humility, building relationships in your everyday life where you can have nuanced conversations about accountability and that can support you in your accountability.

There is a window of apology. It is the amount of time that the person who was hurt or harmed is open to receiving an apology and/or staying in real relationship. There is no set amount of time for this window and it varies from person to person and relationship to relationship. It is also impacted by factors such as timing, healing or life circumstances. However, the more that window closes, the harder it is to apologize and stay in any kind of meaningful relationship. Once the window completely closes, it can often mean that though they may be open to receiving your apology, they have no desire to have you in their life. There are, of course, apologies that come many years or decades later, but the cost is the relationship and not having that person in your life.

 

– Be genuine. Philly Stands Up talks about the concept of “the spirit of accountability.” They say that someone can write a letter of accountability and say all the right things, but if it doesn’t have the spirit of accountability, it will fall flat. The same is true for apologizing. Your apology should have the spirit of accountability in it. Most of us can sniff out a disingenuous apology and it feels terrible to receive. If you are not genuine in your apology, you can cause more hurt/harm. I cannot emphasize this enough: if you don’t want to apologize, don’t apologize. This is a great chance to practice self-assessment. Apologizing is something that many of us feel forced to do and therefore, we often receive apologies that consist of someone carelessly going through the motions. Again, if your apology is not genuine, it can cause more hurt/harm. Your apology and accountability should come from you, no one else. You must take responsibility for your apology.

 

– Give your full attention. When you are apologizing to someone you care about, give them your full attention. This is not a time to rush, this is a time to go slow. This is a time to be thorough, not distracted. This is a moment to figure out what you and the other person need in order to be present. Put away your phone and agree to meet at a place and time where you can communicate well.

 

– Treat it as sacred. Apologizing is part of accountability and accountability is a sacred practice of love. If you’ve hurt someone you care about, it is sacred work to tend to that hurt. You are caring for this person, the relationship you share, as well as your self. You are engaging in the sacred work of accountability, healing, and being in right relationship. This work is part of the broader legacy of transformative justice, love, and interdependence. Do not take it lightly and give it the respect it deserves.

Give yourself the time to get into the right head, heart, spirit, and soul space. Get clear on why you want to apologize and what values you want to ground in. Bring a meaningful object to hold or wear, if you need. Honor the process.

 

– Be proactive. Whenever possible, work to be proactive in your apology. You do not have to wait for someone to tell you to apologize. You can apologize on your own. You can build a strong moral compass and solid values so that you know when you’ve done something that you regret or that is not in alignment with how you want to treat people. These can be powerful moments for others to witness, as they help to shift the punitive mentality by literally demonstrating the opposite. These can also be some of the most tender moments. For example, apologizing to someone who is used to being treated poorly in a relationship and who would never have told you to apologize.

 

– Build a culture of accountability. Every time you are apologizing, use it as an opportunity to build a culture of accountability in your relationship whether with your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, dates or partners. Use it as an opportunity to build accountability as the norm in your relationships. Start small and build from there. Do not start with the hardest apology you need to give. Start small.

Even if your apology is about something small, understand that it is connected to a broader collective cultural shift we are trying to create, one where we all proactively apologize and take accountability for our behavior, big or small.

 

– Let go of outcome and control. This is one of the hardest things to do. Apologizing is a chance to practice risk, embracing the unknown, and faith. Apologizing to someone so that they will apologize to you is not apologizing—it is manipulation. Do what you need to do to get to the place where you can apologize without expecting anything in return. You cannot control anyone else, only yourself. Your apology may not be received well or the person may not want to be in relationship with you anymore. Choose growth and being uncomfortable over your fear. This is an opportunity to practice when the stakes are low (e.g. apologizing for hurt, misunderstanding, conflict), so that we can build our skills to be able to do it when the stakes are much higher (e.g. apologizing for harm, violence, abuse). This is an excellent place to practice courage because we can only truly practice courage when we are afraid.

 

– Practice, practice, practice. There is no way to get better at apologizing if you don’t practice apologizing. You have to put in the work; you have to put in the hours. Each apology is different and will give you the chance to practice different things. You will learn how to navigate apologizing well in one relationship in your life, which may be completely different than another relationship. Start with low-level things and build your skills up to high level things. Identify all the many qualities and skills sets you need to develop in your self: active listening; accountable sharing; self awareness and self reflection; asking for help, especially with more challenging apologies; rebuilding trust; making amends; healing your own trauma; learning how to not spiral into a puddle of shame when you make even the smallest of mistakes; knowing what your values are and how you practice them every day, week, and month.

 

[The Four Parts of AccountabilityHow to Give a Genuine Apology Part 1]

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The Four Parts of Accountability: How To Give A Genuine Apology Part 1

This write-up is in two parts:

The Four Parts of Accountability: How to Give a Genuine Apology Part 1 

How to Give a Genuine Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

 

This write-up is based on the curriculum I developed for the BATJC’s Apology Lab that I facilitated in the summer of 2019. 

 

[Image designed by Danbee Kim that reads, “Four Parts to Accountability: self reflection, apology, repair, changed behavior.” Each part is in a separate red box, with a drawing of three small potted plants underneath. A quote by Mia Mingus at the bottom reads, “True accountability is not only apologizing, understanding the impacts your actions have caused on yourself and others, making amends or reparations to the harmed parties; but most importantly, true accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm, violence, abuse does not happen again.” There is a small box at the bottom that reads, “For more, visit http://bit.ly/BAC2020”]

[Image designed by Danbee Kim that reads, “Four Parts to Accountability: self reflection, apology, repair, changed behavior.” Each part is in a separate red box, with a drawing of three small potted plants underneath. A quote by Mia Mingus at the bottom reads, “True accountability is not only apologizing, understanding the impacts your actions have caused on yourself and others, making amends or reparations to the harmed parties; but most importantly, true accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm, violence, abuse does not happen again.” There is a small box at the bottom that reads, “For more, visit http ://bit.ly/BAC2020”]

 

 

START HERE

Apologizing well is a fundamental part of accountability. It is a skill that we should all understand and practice consistently. You cannot take accountability if you do not know how to apologize well.

 

This write-up primarily focuses on apologizing to people that we care about; people with whom we want to continue to be in relationship; people who are already in our lives and with whom we have loving or caring relationships. There are many different factors in apologizing and everything cannot be covered here. This write-up does not cover how to apologize to people to whom you’ve done severe harm, violence or abuse. Nor does it cover how to apologize to people who have power over you or across significant power differences, for example. Though there are similar threads and principles that run throughout every quality apology, I strongly recommend that people ask for support from their pod people and/or work with an experienced transformative justice practitioner who can help you navigate the specific complexities of the situation, harm, violence, relationship, community, culture for other types of apologies.

 

Here, we will focus on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm. We begin with these because most of us do not know how to navigate these smaller experiences and our relationships suffer or even end because of it. We stress relationship building in transformative justice work because without strong relationships, we will not be able to respond effectively to harm, violence and abuse within our own communities. If we are not going to rely on police, prisons or the courts, then we are the ones who will have to address things such as domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, murder, stalking, child abuse and child sexual abuse.

 

If we cannot handle the small things between us, how will we be able to handle the big things? Learning how to address these smaller hurts or breaks in trust, can help us learn the basic skills we need to address larger harms. It can also help to reduce and prevent larger forms of harm and violence (e.g. hurt becoming conflict, conflict becoming harm, harm becoming violence). For example, if you cannot have a direct conversation with your friend about how they hurt your feelings or the toxic language your roommate used, then how will you be able to respond effectively to sexual violence or abuse in your community or family?

 

As I say in the Apology Lab, “this is a lab about how you can apologize better, not how someone else can apologize better to you.” While I know that we have all received terrible apologies and have people in our lives who need to learn how to  apologize better, this is a chance for you to reflect on your own accountability, not someone else’s. As you read this, I encourage you to think about who you need to apologize to, rather than who needs to apologize to you because we all have people we need to apologize and make amends to. We all have work to do and we can all be part of helping to build a culture of accountability in our relationships and communities.

 

This write-up came out of a four-hour lab that only began to scratch the surface of the world of apologizing and the landscape of accountability. There is much from the Lab that is not included here such as ‘what not to do,’ practices, ‘things to consider’ and going more in-depth information about all the information written in this write-up. In the Lab we also offer examples of apologies, with our main example being an apology that I made. I do this because we cannot ask others to do what we are unwilling to do and we must be willing to practice the things we believe in. These are the basics of integrity.

 

The Apology Lab is part of our on-going work to build the skills we need for transformative justice (TJ).

 

SETTING THE CONTEXT: ACCOUNTABILITY

Within the world of transformative justice, accountability is the ecosystem in which apologizing lives. Accountability is simultaneously complex and simple, concrete and ever changing.

 

Accountability is not merely confessing what you’ve done; it is a process that must be practiced. It operates within relationship and though there are key common threads, accountability will look different depending on many variables such as the kind, severity, and length of harm, violence and abuse; the nature of the relationship(s); the quality and consistency of prior accountability work done, if any.

 

For most of us, we have been taught to fear accountability and struggle to know how to conceive of it outside of punishment or revenge. Accountability does not have to be scary, though it will never be easy or comfortable. And it shouldn’t be comfortable. True accountability, by its very nature, should push us to grow and change, to transform. Transformation is not to be romanticized or taken lightly. Remember, true transformation requires a death and a birth, an ending and a beginning. True accountability requires vulnerability and courage, two qualities that we are not readily encouraged to practice in our society.

 

Accountability is generative, not punitive. If you want punishment, you should be upfront and transparent about that. Do not ask for accountability, when what you really want is punishment or revenge. Just as it takes work to be accountable, it also takes work to receive someone’s accountability. TJ is a specific kind of approach to harm and it may not be appropriate or possible for every situation, especially if little-to-no preparation work has been done (i.e. pod building, education and study of TJ, practice of TJ values).

 

We need to move away from “holding people accountable” and instead work to support people to proactively take accountability for themselves. It is not another person’s job to hold you accountable—that is your job. People can support you to be accountable, but no one but you can do the hard work of taking accountability for yourself. Don’t wait until someone else has to bring up your behavior. Whenever possible, work to proactively take accountability for yourself. Say something the moment you know you’ve made a mistake, caused hurt or harm, or acted out of alignment with your values. Check in with someone about your behavior before they have to say something to you. Communicate well. Build a strong moral compass and get clear about your values.

 

Accountability should be proactive. We should be forthcoming about our mistakes, rather than hoping no one finds out about what we’ve done. Ideally, we would proactively communicate with others as soon as we know we’ve messed up or haven’t done what we said we would do. This is true whether someone has made us aware of what we’ve done (or not done) or whether we’ve come to the realization on our own. We would care more about doing the right thing, than “getting caught.” We would not put the labor of reaching out and checking in about our accountability on someone else, especially those we’ve harmed. We would proactively do the work to be accountable for ourselves including the work to not run away or hide.

 

For example, if you didn’t do the task you said you would do because you took on too much, you would communicate about it as soon as you realized you would not be able to get it done. You would apologize and proactively let people know when you would be able to get it done, or take the time to think of suggestions for other ways it could get done. You would acknowledge that you took on too much and promise to work on doing better next time, which may mean that you invest time to work on learning how to say “no,” or your time management, or your need to please others, or your habit of procrastination.

 

Proactively taking accountability for our actions is an important way we can build trust with the people in our lives. It is a practice that demonstrates our character, integrity, capacity for self-reflection, and the kinds of values that we are committed to. It is a practice of interdependence, a way to care for those we love and our selves, and shows that we have done our own internal work to take responsibility for our actions.

 

I divide accountability into four main parts:

  1. Self-Reflection
  2. Apologizing
  3. Repair
  4. Behavior Change

 

1. Self Reflection runs throughout all accountability work, but I place it at the beginning because you must have enough initial self-reflection to know that you have done something hurtful or harmful and, most importantly, want to make amends or address it genuinely. You will need to—and should—continue to self reflect throughout the different stages of your accountability, but you must begin in a place where you can understand your actions and the impact they had, so that you can get to a place where you are willing to make things right (or vice versa). True accountability must be consensual. Accountability requires change and you cannot change other people, only yourself. In short, you cannot force someone to be accountable.

 

2. Apologizing is a chance to acknowledge and take responsibility for the hurt or harm you caused or were complicit in. It is a moment to demonstrate to those you have harmed that you understand what you did and what the impact was. You may need to apologize more than once or many times, depending on the severity of the harm, how deep the hurt went, how badly trust was broken or if the hurt became a pattern.

Apologizing is a fundamental part of the rebuilding of trust and because of this, it is a key place for you to practice vulnerability. Remember, the only way to build trust is through vulnerability. Trust is key in our work to end cycles of violence because when violence or harm happens, trust is one of the first things that gets broken. Because of this, apologizing and repair are often interdependent on each other.

 

3. Repair is a uniquely challenging part of accountability because it must be done in relationship and cannot be done alone, unlike changing one’s behavior. Of course, you must do your own work on your own time in order to engage genuinely and effectively in the work of repair with those whom you have hurt or harmed (e.g. being willing to be uncomfortable and not confusing being uncomfortable with being unsafe).

Repair includes making amends and rebuilding trust, so that you can assure others that you will not commit the hurt or harm again. It is an opportunity to do the work to be in right relationship with those you have hurt or harmed, and just as important, to also be in right relationship with yourself. Repair can take a long time and usually demands consistency and a level of faith in the face of fear that we are often not taught. It takes a lot of work to rebuild trust and to mend a broken relationship, especially when compounded by past trauma (for everyone involved).

You will most likely have to apologize more than once while you are practicing repair and the process of repair can also help to reveal more harm that was caused or a clearer picture of the depth of the impact of your actions (or inaction). Repair is not linear and does not follow a set path. It depends greatly on many factors such as: the quality of the relationship with the person you harmed prior to and after the harm, your previous track record of apologizing and accountability with that person, your consistency and commitment to repair, and timing.

 

4. Behavior Change is one of the hardest parts of accountability. Changing your behavior is not easy. We have all tried and failed to change our behaviors at one point or another in our lives (e.g. self care, procrastination, new year’s resolutions). Often, even seemingly benign behaviors have deeper roots in trauma that will require some level of healing. For example, if you are struggling to practice self-care, you will inevitably have to confront why you consistently put yourself last. Our hurtful or harmful behaviors are also often part of patterns that we must break and require larger shifts in our lives than “just this one thing,” which is why they tend to be so hard to change. In the example of self-care, you may need to let go of some things or say “no” to something or someone; you may need to assess how you spend your time and why you make space for things that are not what you ultimately want to prioritize. Transforming your behavior is hard work and is easier done with support. Find people in your life with whom you can talk about your accountability, mistakes, things you’re ashamed of or feel guilty about, things you need to apologize for, or times when you weren’t your best self.

Everyone needs to build support for their accountability. Do not wait until you are being called to accountability to begin building your accountability support system, put the time in now so that you don’t have to scramble. If you are not actively building and maintaining accountable relationships, you are proactively building an unaccountable life.

 

It is important to note that there are times when some of these parts of accountability may not be possible. For example, sometimes repair is not possible. This may be because of various reasons such as the person harmed does not want to engage with the harmer, the person who harmed does not know how to take accountability or death.

 

Additionally, it is important to practice all four parts of accountability. For example, if you have apologized and repaired again and again, but continue to enact the harm, people will stop believing your apologies and repair. They may begin to distrust anything you say or the wear and tear of getting their hopes up only to have them dashed again and again could leave life-long scars. On the other hand, if you only change your behavior and do not apologize or make amends to those you have harmed, you miss an opportunity for your own growth, you dispose of relationships and people you care about, act out of alignment of your values, or squander the chance to take accountability and aid in someone’s healing. (Note: Though accountability can aid in healing, your healing should never be solely dependent on someone else’s accountability because they may never take accountability.)

 

We are aiming for practice, not perfection. We will hurt, misunderstand, and harm each other. We are human and we live in an incredibly violent and harmful world. The point is to learn how to be accountable when we inevitably mess up, so that we know what to do. This is not to let anyone off the hook or excuse or justify harm. Instead, this is a push for us to acknowledge the reality of harm, rather than continue to live in the fantasies we’ve created about harm. We will all mess up and make terrible mistakes. We will all hurt people we love and care about at some point. We will all have our time on the chopping block. We want to try and reduce harm whenever we can and that is different than trying to avoid conflict or pretend away hurt.

 

The only way to get skilled at accountability is to practice it and the only time we can truly practice accountability is when we have messed up or caused or been complicit in harm.

 

[How to Give a Genuine Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How]

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Dreaming Accountability

 

photo of a hill of long golden and brown wind-swept grass surrounded by hills covered with green trees and in the distance, lush green pine trees that silhouette the hills in the distance under a cloudy sky at dusk.

[photo of a hill of long golden and brown wind-swept grass surrounded by hills covered with green trees and in the distance, lush green pine trees that silhouette the hills in the distance under a cloudy sky at dusk.]

What if accountability wasn’t scary? Take a breath and let that sink in for a second.

What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred? What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love? To practice the kinds of people, elders-to-be, and souls we want to be? To practice that which we can only practice in real time? After all, we can only practice courage when we are afraid. We can only practice taking accountability when we have wronged or harmed or hurt. Practice yields the sharpest analysis.

 

Accountability is not a destination, it is a skill we can build and practice. It is an art, a craft, an alchemy we can learn how to wield, just as we have learned how to wield hurt and shame and fear. If accountability is a skill we value, then we must make room and make commitments to practice it ourselves each day, each week, each year. We can start small and build up our skills from there. We can start with our everyday relationships and those closest to us: our families, our friends, our partners, our coworkers, the earth.

 

We can start with our self-accountability and the ways that we don’t show up for ourselves. We can acknowledge how most of us are in an abusive relationship with ourselves. We blow past our own boundaries, we punish and beat ourselves up in terrible ways. We can start with the ways we treat and talk to ourselves—ways that we would clearly recognize as abuse if it were being done to another person. After all, our abusive relationship with ourselves lays the groundwork for an abusive world.

 

What if we embraced accountability as a reflection of our undeniable, incredible, tender humanity? As a magnificent example of what it means to be human and flawed and in relationship with one another? What if we welcomed the quickening of our pulse and the beating of our heart as signals of being alive and caring and what is most important to us: our relationships with each other? What if we listened to that fear—the fear of losing someone important to us or of losing ourselves?

 

What if we rushed towards our own accountability and understood it as a gift we can give to ourselves and those hurting from our harm? What if we understood our accountability, not as some small insignificant act, but as an intentional drop in an ever-growing river of healing, care, and repair that had the potential to nourish, comfort and build back trust on a large scale, carving new paths of hope and faith through mountains of fear and unacknowledged pain for generations?

 

What if we understood the harms we’ve caused and have been part of allowing, not as things that don’t need to be tended to or things that will blow over or be forgotten about in time? But instead as one small part of a collective gaping wound that we have been taught to pretend away that sits in the middle of our hearts, our relationships, our families, our movements, our country, our world? What if we all understood our parts—individually and collectively—in that collective gaping wound?

 

What if we could understand that in a violent and oppressive world, the work of love is never done?

 

What if accountability wasn’t rooted in punishment, revenge or superficiality, but rooted in our values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation? What if the work of accountability was held as so supremely sacred, that people who got to practice it—truly practice it—were considered lucky and those who had the honor of supporting it and witnessing it were also changed for the better from its power? What if we understand that no amount of “tough love” or punishment could ever hold a candle to the long and hard labor, fear, and pain of facing our demons and our traumas? What if we learned to desire the challenging and the transformative, instead of the easy and the comfortable? After all, comfort and transformation do not live on the same block.

 

What if we stopped romanticizing transformation and genuinely understood that true transformation requires a death and birth, a letting go and a starting anew?

 

What if we spent more time practicing accountability, not just talking about it? So often, we want other people to be accountable, but what if we practiced our own accountability more? What if we started with the small things and built up our skills for the big things? What if we remembered that addressing the small things between us helps to prevent the big things?

 

What if we talked with each other about the things we’re trying to be more accountable for? What if we built relationships where we could have nuanced conversations about accountability, shame, fear, guilt, embarrassment, insecurity, trauma, and healing?

 

What if we took more time to dream accountability? What it could be and the kind of magic it could grow? What we need in order to practice it more and better, both individually and collectively? What if accountability was so normalized, so everyday, so run-of-the-mill, that it was second nature? That it was our default? That it was something that everyone knew about and you could easily pass a group of children and youth of any age casually talking about it?

 

What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred?

 

What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love?

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Transformative Justice: A Brief Description

photo of the tops of redwood trees forming a circle overhead, taken from below., with sun peaking through the branches and trees.

[photo of redwood trees, taken from below, forming a circle overhead, with sun peaking through the branches and trees.]

This was written for a transformative justice (TJ) intervention I led and I’m sharing it here for others to use in their work. It was meant to be a brief description for those who are not as familiar with the framework and orientation of TJ and do not have the time or capacity to read a large, long document. It is not a history of TJ, nor a complete naming of every part of TJ, or even a thorough fleshing out of all that is named here. It is an introductory description of work that can be hard to describe. It is meant to be a starting point, not an end-point. I hope it may be useful for some of you.  

 

Many thanks to Ejeris Dixon, Mariame Kaba, Andi Gentile and Javiera Torres who helped edit this description so it could be shared publicly. Thank you to the many groups and countless individuals who have been part of creating, building and carrying forward what we now call “transformative justice” and “community accountability.” Special appreciation to the people and groups who have greatly influenced my understanding of TJ: Sara Kershner, Creative Interventions, Mimi Kim, The Atlanta Transformative Justice Collaborative, INCITE!, Communities Against Rape and Abuse, Philly Stands Up, Community Holistic Circle Healing, Just Practice, Shira Hassan, Mariame Kaba, Ejeris Dixon, and The Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. Thank you also to all of those whose names we do not know, who have been practicing this work in big and small ways, long before it was named and documented.

 

Transformative Justice (TJ) is a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence. TJ can be thought of as a way of “making things right,” getting in “right relation,” or creating justice together. Transformative justice responses and interventions 1) do not rely on the state (e.g. police, prisons, the criminal legal system, I.C.E., foster care system (though some TJ responses do rely on or incorporate social services like counseling);  2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence such as oppressive norms or vigilantism; and most importantly, 3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved.

 

State responses to violence reproduce violence and often traumatize those who are exposed to them, especially oppressed communities who are already targeted by the state. It is important to remember that while many people choose not to call the police, many communities can’t call the police because of reasons such as fear of deportation, harassment, state sanctioned violence, sexual violence, previous convictions or inaccessibility.

 

TJ was created by and for many of these communities (e.g. indigenous communities, black communities, immigrant communities of color, poor and low-income communities, communities of color, people with disabilities, sex workers, queer and trans communities). It is important to remember that many of these people and communities have been practicing TJ in big and small ways for generations–trying to create safety and reduce harm within the dangerous conditions they were and are forced to live in. For example, undocumented immigrant women in domestic violence relationships, disabled people who are being abused by their caretakers and attendants, sex workers who experience sexual assault or abuse, or poor children and youth of color who are surviving child sexual abuse have long been devising ways to reduce harm, stay alive and create safety and healing outside of state systems, whether or not these practices have been explicitly named as “transformative justice.”

 

TJ is an abolitionist framework that understands systems such as prisons, police and I.C.E. as sites where enormous amounts of violence take place and as systems that were created to be inherently violent in order to maintain social control. TJ works to build alternatives to our current systems which often position themselves as protectors, while simultaneously enacting the very forms of violence they claim to condemn.

 

Violence does not happen in a vacuum and TJ works to connect incidences of violence to the conditions that create and perpetuate them. It acknowledges that we must work to end conditions such as capitalism, poverty, trauma, isolation, heterosexism, cis-sexism, white supremacy, misogyny, ableism, mass incarceration, displacement, war, gender oppression and xenophobia if we are truly going to end cycles of intimate and sexual violence. TJ recognizes that we must transform the conditions which help to create acts of violence or make them possible. Often this includes transforming harmful oppressive dynamics, our relationships to each other, and our communities at large.

 

TJ invites us to not only respond to current incidences of violence, but to also prevent future violence from happening, thereby breaking (generational) cycles of violence. TJ works to respond to immediate needs in a way that moves us closer to what we ultimately long for. In other words, how can we respond to violence in ways that not only address the current incident of violence, but also help to transform the conditions that allowed for it to happen? We must work to respond to current violence and its impacts in a way that does not undermine our long-term visions for preventing violence, responding to violence, and ultimately ending violence. What would it take to not only respond to rape, but to end rape? To not only respond to domestic violence, but to end domestic violence? To end child abuse? To end bullying? To end all forms of abuse?

 

TJ is community-based, but it is not enough to simply “not call the cops,” because many of our community responses to violence can be just as harmful as state responses, and can sometimes be more emotionally devastating due to the breaking and loss of relationship, family and community. Though state reform is important and useful to reduce harm, TJ focuses on community because we believe there is more possibility for transformation in our communities than the state.

 

Our communities are not perfect and have also internalized the state and its tactics (e.g. shame, blame, revenge, isolation). Many survivors have shared their traumatic stories of not only how the state responded to them when they reported, but also how their communities responded to them when they came forward as survivors. Often survivors are shamed, blamed, isolated, exiled, attacked or threatened with violence by their communities. We must push ourselves to move beyond just saying “no cops, no prisons” and move towards true transformation of violent behavior and conditions.

 

This is why it is critical that TJ is not simply the absence of the state and violence, but the presence of the values, practices, relationships and world that we want. It is not only identifying what we don’t want, but proactively practicing and putting in place things we want, such as healthy relationships, good communication skills, skills to de-escalate active or “live” harm and violence in the moment, learning how to express our anger in ways that are not destructive, incorporating healing into our everyday lives.

 

In TJ interventions we work to actively practice things such as healing and accountability for everyone involved, not only for the survivor and the person who committed the violence. TJ responses are an opportunity for us to not only address incidences of violence, harm and abuse, but to also take stock of and collectively build the kinds of relationships and communities that could intervene in instances of violence, as well as prevent violence. We can ask ourselves:  

 

  • What kinds of community infrastructure can we create to support more safety, transparency, sustainability, care and connection (e.g. a network of community safe houses that those in danger can use, an abundance of community members who are skilled at leading interventions to violence)?
  • What are the skills we need to be able to prevent, respond to, heal from, and take accountability for harmful, violent and abusive behaviors?
  • What do survivors and people who have caused harm need?
  • Why do survivors and people who have caused harm have so few options in our community?
  • What are some of the harmful ways that we treat each other that help set the stage for violence and abuse, and how can we change this?

 

Ultimately TJ understands that we have a collective responsibility when it comes to violence and that no one is born knowing how to rape or torture–these are learned behaviors. TJ is a collective response to violence within our communities and it requires that we understand that it is not about locking-up a few “bad apples,” but that violence is a necessary norm in our current society and actively encouraged. The current rates of domestic and sexual violence are at epidemic levels and violence against oppressed communities is extremely pervasive. Violence is collectively enabled, has a collective impact and requires a collective response. This does not excuse people’s harmful behavior or mean that a person who has caused harm or been violent doesn’t need to be accountable for their actions, but it does mean that we need to understand the context in which harm and violence happen.

 

TJ interventions can take different forms, but more often than not, they include (1) supporting survivors around their healing and/or safety and working with the person who has harmed to take accountability for the harm they’ve caused, (2) building community members’ capacities so that they can support the intervention, as well as heal and/or take accountability for any harm they were complicit in, and (3) building skills to prevent violence from occurring, and supporting community members’ skills to interrupt violence while it is happening.

 

Most TJ interventions involve a community accountability process, where a few members of the community work directly with the person who harmed to take accountability for the harm they’ve caused. This process, in the best-case scenario, works so that the person who caused harm understands their actions and the impact they had on the survivor(s) and others involved, apologizes, makes amends, repairs damage caused by their actions and–most importantly–works to change their behavior so that the harm doesn’t happen again. Changing your behavior is a fundamental part of taking accountability for harm you’ve done and it is often one of the main things survivors want: I just don’t want them to do this to anyone else. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I had to go through.

 

Most TJ work happening in the U.S. is addressing violence that has already occurred between people who know each other (e.g. intimate partner abuse or a sexual assault involving organizers working on a political campaign together). There is also a significant amount of TJ work that has dealt with live and active violence, as well as stranger-based violence (i.e. when violence happens between people who do not know each other such as hate violence, harassment, sexual assault by a stranger). Live violence and/or stranger violence TJ responses (which are not mutually exclusive) may not include an accountability process. This can also be true of any TJ intervention and response–sometimes just getting the violence to stop can be the main goal of a response. Sometimes the primary focus may be supporting the survivor and/or the community to heal or get immediate needs met such as medical treatment.

 

Transformative justice is a large framework, so this description cannot cover everything. We are trying to build alternatives to our current systems and break generational cycles of violence within our communities and families. We do not believe that prisons or cops make us safer. We believe that we can create the things we need. Transformative justice is one way that we are trying to address violence, harm and abuse in our communities in ways that are generative and do not create more destruction and trauma. Transformative justice processes are not perfect, and we are still learning a lot.

 

Some examples and case studies of community responses to violence:

 

 

For those who would like to read more about TJ, here are two helpful collections of readings and media as starting places:

Transform Harm

BATJC 2018 TJ Study readings and media

 

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