Community Accountability, Relationship Skills, Neurodivergence and Sci-fi inspirations aka. Fire and Worms

content warning: this post mentions sexual assault and abuse

EC12221_Fa

About a month ago, my long present interest for transformative justice (TJ) and community accountability (CA) was renewed intensely. I was part of and witness to a few conflicts, some a little violent, and it made me regret once more how we often utterly lack in current western culture the skills and processes to engage with conflicts, let alone abuse. I started devoring book and articles on TJ/CA (check out resources at the end). More than anything I wanted to find a training to nurture my practical skills. I was blessed to learn that Rain Crowe, a witch I had met before and have deep respect for, was holding a Trauma-Informed Conflict Transformation course, the first session of which I participated in last thursday. I don’t have the hope that I can share everything I want on this topic in one post, especially since it connects to so many other, so I will say what I can here and more will come in future posts.

In this piece, I will explain a little what transformative justice and community accountability are and how people have extended it to the work of nurturing relationship skills (creating « Accountable Communities »), how this shows up in my life particularly as a neurodivergent person and share a lively metaphor on conflict (by Rain Crowe) as well as some inspiring ideas from the science-fiction novel A Woman on the Edge of Time.

Some basics on Transformative Justice/ Community Accountability and the Accountable Communities framework 

Tranformative justice and community accountability are theories and practices used in radical/activist communities (in the West, to my knowledge).  They draw heavily  (and sometimes appropriate) from Indigenous justice models (1).

In the introduction of the print version of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Partnever Violence in Activist Communities (print edition), community accountability is defined this way:

« What we call « community accountability » (some call it transformative justice, others call it as many names as there are people) has existed for as long as we hold collective memory. A simple definition of community accountability: any strategy to address violence, abuse or harm that creates safety, justice, reparations, and healing, without relying on police, prisons, childhood protective services, or any other state system. Instead of police and prisons, community accountability strategies depend on something both potentially more accessible and more complicated: the communities surrounding the person who was harmed and the person who caused the harm » (xxiii)

In the zine Transformative Justice and/as harm, A.J  Withers says about Transformative Justice:

 TJ works towards community based solutions that do not involve the state. It is different than restorative justice (RJ) as it has not been co-opted by the state it recognizes the fundamental injustices that pre-exist and inform harm (it does not presume that there is a just foundation to which the situation can be restored). While TJ can be broad, four general themes emerge as its key principles: (1) a commitment to prison abolition and the understanding that the criminal justice system (CJS) is unjust; (2) a commitment to and belief in healing, not simply protecting/punishing; (3) an understanding that sexual assault happens within the context of systems oppression that must be overthrown; (4) and, the belief that communities have the capacity to solve our on problems and do not need to turn to the state for this. (p.17)

In the past decades, Community accountability/TJ process have been put in place in radical communities mostly in situation where sexual assault and partner abuse had occurred or were occurring. One reason why that is the case is that for people who are so harmed, particularly people of color, poor, queer, disabled or otherwise marginalized folks, often it is not safe, accessible or even desirable to engage with the police. Meanwhile, since in most cases the person doing the harm is known to and part of the community of the person they are harming, CA/TJ process may feel more accessible and desirable. One consequence is that women and trans people—the people who are the most often harmed by sexual and intimate violence—often end up « bearing the brunt of the Community Accountability learning curve » (1)

I know quite a number of people (mostly women and trans) back home (in France) who have been involved in those processes (I have been part myself in mediation, that is, in cases of conflicts, not of assault) and have read about some of those happening in the United States and Canada. What stands out strongly in both the stories I heard and those I read, is, not surprisingly, that holding those processes is extremely difficult. It requires people, time, resources and skills that are rarely available as needed.

In the piece « Think, Re-Think: Accountable Communities », an article in The Revolution Starts at Home, Connie Burk, from the Northwest Network of bi, gay, lesbian and trans survivors of abuse, says:

We have seen this happen again and again with Community Accountability processes: survivors are exhausted, the community divided and angry, and the folks who caused the harm suck up the attention, community resources, and all the air in the room. (p.270)

In making the realization « that we do not have the skills, shared values and cultural touchstones in place to sustain Community Accountability », the Northwest Network has experimented with another framework which they call « Accountable Communities ».

Accountable communities shifts the emphasis from a collective process for holding individuals accountable to individual and collective responsibility for building a community where robust accountability is possible, expected and likely. (p.273)

An amazing thing they’ve done in this framework is to begin offering a Relationship Skills class (in 2002, and it is still going on!). Connie Burk describes the Relationship Skills Class (RSC):

RSC is a six-week skill building class that explores all forms of relationships- including but not limited to intimate partnerships- using the lens of « personal agency » (making choices and being responsible for our choices) from a number of perspectives. The RSC series originated in a support group for queer domestic abuse survivors held at our organization. After spending a long time working together on issues of power and control, signs of abuse, ways to safety plan, and so on, group members asked for more information on building the skills they needed … they wanted to shift their focus to what kind, loving, sustainable relationships could look and feel like… (p.276-277)

Formalized relationships, a neurodivergent perspective 

The Accountable Communities framework and its perspective of people engaging collectively in building the skills to create loving, equitable relationships is extremely exciting for me. In some ways, I have been engaged in that work for a while.

When I began doing radical organizing at 16, I was particularly attracted to groups who practiced what we call back home « formalism » (I don’t know if/how the following shows up in radical communities in other countries). « Formalism » is a mode of organizing where, in short, a lot of attention is put into how we organize. Formalist are very attentive to group dynamics, how power is distributed, who talks more, who does the dishes, and use tools and processes in order to attempt to share the power and make sure everybody feels as well as possible. In france, « formalism » is considered the opposite of « spontaneism ». People who are more into spontaneism believe that since radical/anarchist organizing is about freeing ourselves from structure of oppressions, we shouldn’t create structures in our groups and thus be « spontaneous ». In my experience, advocate for spontaneism are very often white abled men (manarchist) who can talk for a long time very easily and thus do not personally feel the need for structures to help them take space or feel welcolmed.

This is only a simplified explanation, but it brings me to my next point: While the groups I have participated in have been mostly (and more and more) formalist, until recently my social relationships have mostly stayed within the ream of « spontaneism », meaning : doing it like we’re used too, following implicit rules we learned without being aware of it. A notable exception to that is when I began entering non-exclusive relationships, because the feminist polyamorous culture encourages strongly to talk about needs and boundaries and to negotiate agreements between partners (see resources for a great book on that). But even within those relationships, while we made agreements about how we could « see » other people, our relationship in itself and our interactions remained vastly « spontaneist ».

One of the reason I feel most comfortable in formalized groups and relationships, is probably because I am neurodivergent (though there are many ways to be neurodivergent, affected not the least by the other identities we hold). I can be intensely unnerved (anxious) when I am with people and do not know what is going to happen and there is no place to talk about it. I may be having very strong needs (like wanting very badly to tell a story of something that just happened to me, or to get a hug) and at the same time be extremely aware of the needs of the other person through the non-verbal signs they are giving. Most social interactions, 50% of my mind at least (more likely 90% if there’s more than one person) is busy analyzing my needs, the other person’s needs and figuring out how to meet them all. Usually I don’t succeed at all ( who could do that on their own?) and I feel overwhelmed, unsatisfied and guilty, sometimes for long after the interaction ended. (3)

One of the most satisfying relationships in my life right now is with a friend in France who is neurodivergent as well. We share a common experience of being targeted by ableism/saneism/neurotypical supremacy and both feel more at ease when needs and boundaries are discussed and negotiated formally and with transparency. I have actual notes from meeting we had together to talk about our needs and boundaries around touch, frequency of calls and visits etc. Now that I’m in the US, we talk only over the phone, and because of troubles we were having stemming from unstated needs and boundaries in our calls, we now have a strict policy for our conversations. Each time at the beginning we ask each other: « How much time do you have for this phone call? What do you want to talk about? What are your needs? »  (eg. I have 30 minutes, I want to talk about this blog post I have a hard time to write and I need you to be encouraging) and we share the time roughly evenly unless there are special circumstances (if we call each other in time of crisis this process doesn’t apply).

So, one can understand why I am so excited by the Relationships Skills Class offered by the Northwest Network (I contacted them about having them come on my campus!) and by the Trauma-Informed Conflict Transformation course.

Fire and Worms 

I won’t talk much about the course right now, but Rain Crowe used one imagery that I want to share here. She compared conflicts to fire, and talked about how on the West Coast there has been a policy of fire suppression for 50 years enforced by forest services. Because of this policy, instead of low-heat fire burning underbrush, downed limbs, etc regularly, those fuel load have accumulated, so when a fire does happen it is a huge high-heat devastating fire that burn miles and miles of acres of forest. Similarly, instead of anticipating conflict and addressing tensions when they arise, we let them build until it all ends in flame: we break up, we hate that a*******, the collective ends, he kills her etc..and the fire has devastated everything in its path: group of friends, communities and individuals.

This bring me to the last part of this post. In the transformative justice strategic science fiction reader, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha talks about the book Woman on the Edge of Time, which brought me to read it. Woman on the Edge of Time was published in 1976 by Marge Piercy, a white working-class jewish women, and is the story of Consuelo, a Chicana living in poverty in the seventies who is inprisonned in a mental health hospital after defending her niece from her abusive partner. She is contacted by Luciente, a person from an utopian radical future (exact year 2137). There are a lot of wonderful ideas to take from this future (and also some not as good), and I will probably come back to it in future posts, but I want to focus here on  » wormings ».

Wormings, are the process in the book used to engage with tensions, conflict and harm. They are not trials, but, as Leah Lakshmi points out, a form of « community mediation ». I personally really like the name, I imagine it refers to the idea of taking the » worms » out of the apple. In the book, a worming is called for after tension has been building between Luciente and Bolivar, who both are in a relationship with the same person. Many people who live in the village and have been affected by the tensions participate in the worming, which is facilitated by a referee, who is:

« Here to make sure the group crits each justly. I can point out injustice. Watch for other tensions that may surface, clouding the issues, weighing the reaction. Someone not from this village must play referee. »

I really like how something that may be seem very mundane and unimportant, like tension between two people, that expresses itself « only » by criticizing each other, is nonetheless taken seriously enough by the community for some of them to gather in a room and for someone from another village to come over. The idea, taken literally, feels a little overwhelming and from my experience, having two mediators present might be enough to help (with some form of feedback loop with the rest of the community). I can imagine that having many people present might make matter worse by putting a lot of pressure on Luciente and Bolivar. But I don’t live in that utopian future, so maybe social pressure is not as big an issue there^^ . At least it seems to work for Luciente and Bolivar, who decide to spend more time together since « the friction seems to lie in (their) lack of rapport—no friendship yet constant contact ».

About this scene Leah Lakshmi asks

Could this prevent intimate violence from occurring, this working out of the poly jealousy between Luciente and Bolivar? How does just knowing there is a community-based structure in place to work out said tensions help prevent them from building to a fever pitch in the first place?

I’m very sure it would. Taking the worms out is kinda like burning small fires regularly, it might just keep the apple from burning. Or something :).

 

How about you? What do you think? What’s your experience with all that like?

 

 

Ressources

Incite! « a nation-wide network of radical feminists of color working to end violence against women, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color, and our communities » . The Incite! Community Accountability Working Document is particularly useful if you’re looking for something short and practical.

The Northwest Network of bi, gay, lesbian and trans survivors of abuse

The Revolution Starts at Home, which there two versions of: on online (older but still awesome and you know, free!) subtitled Confronting Parner Abuse in Activist Communities and another version, in print and much bigger, subtitled Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communitie, edited by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani and Andrea Smith

Transformative Justice and/as Harm by A.J Withers ( a free zine)

Creative Interventions Toolkit: An Invitation and Practical Guide for Everyone to Stop Violence (also free)

The Transformative Justice Strategic Science-Fiction Reader by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, adrienne maree brown, Alexine Pauline Gumbs and Jenna Peters Golden

Trauma-Informed conflict transformation course by Rain Crow

And also the book The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships and Other Adventures by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy


Picture: Epicormic (vegetative) regrowth from the bark of a eucalypt at Strathewen, four months after Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.
Credit: Robert Kerton

Notes:

1)The most thorough examination of this topic I have read at the moment (though I’m researching documents written by Indigeneous people) is  « Indigeneity, Transformative Justice and Appropriation » in the zine Transformative Justice and/as Harm by A.J Withers (who identifies as a white disabled poor trans man). An excerpt : « While transformative justice and restorative justice are based on Indigenous approaches to harm, it is important to recognize that they are not themselves Indigenous models. Consequently, a number of Indigenous women “complain that many of these models, are termed ‘indigenous’ and hence Native peoples must use them, even though they may bear no resemblance to the forms of justice particular Native nations used at all.” {Quotes from Incite, 2003}  Healing/justice circles were never universally practiced on Turtle Island, yet notions of pan-Indigeneity have constructed them as universal. (p.41)

2)This is from p.272 quote « Think Re-Think » from Connie Burke, this really great article I’m quoting a lot. She only says « women », but it applies to trans people as well. A.J Withers in his very awesome zine (you’re getting that, right?) expands on that: « Frankly, the mistakes that we have made in Toronto on the backs of women and trans people in the name of TJ have been incredibly brutal. In order to build capacity to do transformative justice, maybe we should do more of it when the stakes are not as high. Why aren’t communities working to do TJ when organizations denounce each other, when friendships break down, when collective houses implode, when someone steals, when people behave in oppressive ways, etc. If we want to create communities of healing and care, we need to do that at every site of conflict, not only in relation to sexual assault. » (p.38) He’d dig the trauma-informed conflict transformation course I’m taking!

3)Being socialized as a woman obviously intersects with my neurodivergence here, as it taught me to be attentive to other people needs and to be caring. I’m not sure if that would be such an issue for a neurodivergent (particularly, cis) man. On the other hand as I was raised mostly upper middle-class, talking can come fairly easily to me, so in some case I could be having this 50 or 90% of my brain dealing with all that I explained, and still be talking confidently.

 

 

2 réflexions au sujet de « Community Accountability, Relationship Skills, Neurodivergence and Sci-fi inspirations aka. Fire and Worms »

  1. Thank you so much 🙂 I really loved your post too, and feel like I’m gonna go back to it really often, there is so much in it..; Let’s totally chat, I’ll IM you 🙂

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée.