How Do We Hold Each Other Accountable When We Mess Up?

credit: Zackary Drucker The Gender Spectrum Collection

It’s hard work being accountable. It’s even harder holding others accountable. As someone who has been on all sides of accountability: asking for help to stop harm I’m experiencing, needing to be held accountable for harm I’ve done, and helping others create paths to do the same, I’ve learned a lot of us don’t know what to do to hold others accountable when they have caused harm.

The reality is that all of us have, or will, cause harm in some way or another, because we are human. We fail, we learn harmful behaviors and language, we are surrounded by violence, and replicate it sometimes un / consciously. When people cause harm it is possible for that harm to stop and for those involved to find another way to offer community retribution, support, and healing.

Many folks in the communities of which I am a part have shared that they have been let down and distraught by “community” or phrases like “accountability,” “restorative” and “transformative” “justice.” I believe it does not always have to be this way, especially if we are prepared to do the work of holding our loved ones in our communities accountable.

Here are some suggestions, maybe some solutions, but definitely not an exhaustive list of what is possible. This is a place to start.

This list is rooted in valuing humanity and rejecting certain forms of disposability. If we dispose of all the people who have done harm, there is no accountability. How can we hold people accountable if we do not stay connected to them as people who can offer care and support?

Self-Awareness

One of the most important parts of being able to hold someone you care for accountable is to be self-aware enough to recognize when harm is happening and initiate the difficult conversations about it. This requires us to do hard work with the loved one. It also requires us to know when we can, and cannot, offer care or support.

Reflexivity

Along with self-awareness, the process of holding a loved one accountable requires us to examine our own values, beliefs, and ethics. Oftentimes we must do the hard work of unlearning harmful behaviors. If we are socialized in a similar way to a loved one, we must be able to examine those experiences that taught us what we believe to be acceptable. Accountability is also about unlearning how we all may harm others, and finding ways to support each other as we unlearn.

Ask Hard Questions

Sometimes people don’t know where to start. Here are some suggestions to get the conversation going:

  • What did you experience [in this situation]?
  • How are you feeling about the situation?
  • What are outcomes that could be positive, healing, painful, harmful?
  • Where did you learn to think / behave / respond in those ways?
  • What boundaries do you have, or need to create?
  • What may be a helpful approach to supporting you?
  • Who do you want to be?
  • Is your healing practice harming others?
  • What do you need to find healing?

Listen

The best gift you may be able to offer of support is to listen with compassion, curiosity, and care. We listen with our entire bodies, not just our ears and we communicate with more than our voice. We have the capacity to communicate and we can all deepen our capacity for listening.

Ask Harder Questions

One of my chosen family members, RC, taught me how to ask questions that pushed me to really consider power in a new way. When I was distraught at the reality that I had caused someone harm, RC listened and as time passed began to ask me, “what power do you have here?” and, “Who has the most power?” and it helped me understand choice and harm in a different way. One that I am deeply committed to and rarely get to experience because many of us are learning as we go. Here are some questions to go deeper:

  • What power do you have here?
  • Who has the most power?
  • Who do you want to be in the world?
  • What information does the pain and hurt offer?

Community Restitution

When there is harm it impacts so many of us. I’ve often witnessed community members become stunned and unsure how to act or move, and divisions are created. When communities are able to agree that harm has happened and each person involved is valuable, there is power to find a resolution for those directly impacted, and for the community. How powerful if community members gathered to share: “What you have done has caused harm, the response has been rooted in harm. The harm must stop on all sides as we will not allow it to continue.”

Accountability might mean being comfortable asking direct questions: “How is your healing process going?” or, “Do you need support attending the event?” It also looks like paying people a liveable wage for their care and support work, citing those who you learn from properly, and strategically using your privilege for less oppression and more shared power.

What is NOT accountability

Saying, “I’m hurting and since I’m hurting you must do what I say” is not accountability. It is us using our power and so it becomes an opportunity for examining power. Many of us who experience harm want it to stop. However, if we do not have people supporting us it will not happen.

Safety is the responsibility of our communities, not only one organization, crew, or policy to restore. It takes all of us.

Specific Examples of Accountability

Accountability isn’t just about calling people in or out; it can look, smell, taste, and feel like many things. Here are some examples I find are often overlooked:

  • Don’t delete posts or comments on Instagram.
  • Don’t delete tweets.
  • Same with Tumblr and any social media, don’t delete your unlearning process.
  • If you must delete know there is already an archive of what you posted somewhere, so don’t rewrite or reimagine the harm caused. Offer a fair and accurate summary.

Instead use those as part of your archive of un/learning. Share it. Take a picture of it. Say you are working on it and invite others to hold you accountable by speaking up or direct message you or remind you of this or ask you how it is going. I have a thick virtual archive of my own accountability to unlearning and being corrected and reminded by youth, many queer youth of color, that I value as community members, intellectuals, and guides. This holds some of my most important unlearning of cis-supremacy.

Don’t gossip. Limit the shit talking. It really makes a difference. Focus on how you feel and why, and getting to the core of how you can heal from that pain when you are ready. This may seem odd or out of this world or basic or scary, whatever your reaction, it’s fair. It’s one option to consider. It’s worked for many.

CS is another friend who holds me accountable. CS chooses me as community and chosen family and thus their accountability pushes me in ways I have not been and in ways I’m more than ready for. When people are not invested in me as a contributing member of our communities they are often not holding me accountable, but instead wanting me to do what they say. Often there is no follow up. When a close person to you who loves you and values you in their life holds you accountable it is an entirely different feeling. For me it’s a feeling of heat moving through my body, or feeling the center of my chest get heavy, and taking several deep breaths. Sometimes my palms sweat or other part of my body or my mouth goes dry. Sometimes I let out a growl from deep in my core. In short, I feel alive when loved ones hold me accountable, even if it is a difficult or challenging feeling in my body.

Starting the Work

As we remain human, we will fail. How we show up and heal from that failure is critical to our own understanding and collective healing. Learn how to genuinely apologize and decenter yourself. These are amazing life skills.

One thing I’ve learned as time has passed is to find compassion for those who I asked for help from and who remained silent. I understand that I was asking for something they may have never been asked before. As someone who is seen as having strong coping skills my harm was difficult for others to witness and it hurt them. I can find compassion for the way we do a lot of hard work quietly.

Finding the words to say to someone you care for, who is asking you for help, is difficult if we do not know how to help. Much of this we learn as we go along, because context matters and not everyone has the same path. There are more paths to support, healing, and care than we can imagine! Give yourself the gift of finding the path that best fits you!