This month we’re featuring a guest post by Liz London, a colleague and friend. Liz teaches restorative justice and has studied conflict resolution. She writes about accountability which is vital today to the national conversation about race, racial injustice and white supremacy. Accountability means taking responsibility whether it be on an individual basis for a micro aggression you’ve committed or on your work team for not being fully inclusive in your policies. This is an excerpt of her full article.
Teachings of Restorative Justice
Restorative justice emphasizes repair of the harm caused by wrongdoing to the community and the individual victim(s). It centers accountability over punishment and offers practices that allow harm-doers to take accountability in meaningful ways. More recently I have been challenged to deepen my understanding of accountability – how hard it is and how radical a cultural shift is required to truly embrace it.
Much of my learning on this comes from a fantastic video series produced by the Barnard Center for Research on Women called “Transforming Harm: Experiments in Accountability,” which I highly recommend. Among the many kernels of wisdom in this series is an exploration of how damaging a punitive and individualistic culture is to the potential for accountability. As Rachel Herzing of the Center for Political Education puts it, “A lot of how we get trained to be in the world is about protecting our own interests, being right, protecting our egos, having a sense of importance, and accountability asks you to strip some of that away.”
If we receive messages that when we make mistakes we are bad people, it dramatically decreases the chance that we will genuinely own up to those mistakes. If we don’t have models and structures for taking accountability, many of us will “shame-spiral,” and get so caught up in that shame that we don’t do any of the work of accountability and repair.
Accountability Requirements: Deep Listening, Reflection and Change
The reality is that all of us make mistakes and do harm. It is part of being human. While that harm is not always to the same degree, it is a given. If we don’t figure out a way – as individuals and as a society – to acknowledge and repair those harms, as well as to see that work as a strength, not a weakness, then we risk doing even greater harm.
I am directing this message as much to myself as to anyone else. For all the reasons above, I have often done a poor job of taking accountability when I’ve messed up. I get scared. I get defensive. Outwardly I may say I’m sorry and I may feel guilty and ashamed, but that is different than truly, courageously, facing the harm I’ve done and taking real steps to repair it. Stop and think about how you react when you cause harm.
In the video series, Sonya Shah of The Ahimsa Collective says, “So many things get in the way of accountability. I think one of the first things is that, as a culture, we haven’t been socialized to really build the muscle of accountability. Accountability is really hard work. […] Accountability requires a lot of deep listening to what is it that this person’s trying to tell me about what I did that impacted them.”
That hard work Shah is talking about is an area of growth for all of us and one I’m pushing myself to step into. As she says, it requires more than just an apology but an active engagement with the impact of our words or behavior when we’ve hurt someone or caused harm. It requires deep self-reflection about how to address the wrongdoing and keep it from repeating.
It is even more needed in this moment of reckoning with how deeply anti-Black racism pervades not just our history but our institutions, our media, our relationships, and our communities today. If we are not serious about taking real accountability for that harm, nothing will change.
I’d challenge all of us to imagine, as individuals and communities, what it would look like to fully embrace accountability as a vital part of sustaining strong relationships and building toward a more just world. And then, I challenge us all to live our lives in alignment with that. It almost certainly won’t be easy but, I am convinced, it is necessary, and it can be transformative.
Liz is the founder of Constructive Communities, a consulting practice focusing in conflict resolution and restorative justice training and facilitation. She has worked with community-based organizations, youth development practitioners, public schools, non-profits, government employees and grassroots movements. She holds a MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University and a BS from Vassar College.