This is Part V in a 5-part series on creating communities of resilience and care by examining abuse and accountability.
In researching for this blog series, I interviewed folks in the Portland-based Transformative Lenses Collective (TLC).
They are a group of several non-men who came together around 2014 for the purposes of addressing abuse. Interviewing them was a transformative experience of its own. I had been to a couple of meetings several months prior, but being a single mother and grad student trying to start my own business, survive capitalism, and heal from PTSD meant that I didn’t really have enough spoons to be a regular member – no matter how much I loved them and the work they were doing.
In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting to see all of the same faces I recognized from months prior, as abuse intervention work is notorious for high turnover rate and massive burnout. This group is clearly different, though, and a good portion of this article draws upon the wisdom they shared with me.
Forming a collective
The non-profit transformative justice organization Generation Five poses the idea that anyone, anywhere can form a collective. They distinguish ‘collective’ from ‘community’ in that a collective can be a breakoff of a community, however small, designed to take concrete action on an issue. While Generation Five’s goals are specifically to eradicate child sexual abuse, this concept can be applied to everything from rape in adult contexts to domestic abuse. That means you, reading this right now, could form a collective by yourself or with community members who also share your concern for eradicating abuse. You could tackle it in the workplace, in your family, in your activist organizations, honestly anywhere.
Forming a collective is a way of legitimizing and lending authority to the work you’re setting yourself out for. It’s really easy to assume that we are powerless and that authority is something that lives outside of us. The process of forming a collective starts by recognizing that each one of us has the potential to enact meaningful change. Through this, we start to form a more coherent understanding of what we seek to do, and we begin to meet allies and see that we aren’t alone. The power of one becomes the power of two, ten, or twenty.
Create the collective’s culture
Something that really stands out to me about TLC is their culture of care: Each member is invested in the wellbeing of every other member. There is a sweetness, kindness, and gentleness about them as a group. There is no uncomfortable feeling of competition or valuing of each other based on the labor they provide. The valuing of each member is based upon their inherent worth and the authentic relationship developed between the members.
Relationships and trust are things that develop over time.
Centering your collective on values of nurturance and care is of primary importance. Honoring the needs and boundaries of each member must be a part of any collective or it will fall prey to the very pitfalls of imperialist, capitalist thinking that is the foundation of abuse culture. Forming a collective to address abuse must be rooted in abuse’s opposite: caring relationships.
Take this slowly. This is a time for getting to know each other. Check-ins are a good way to share what’s going on in everybody’s life and slowly build a sense of intimacy and vulnerability. Set norms of open communication and boundaries for safety, deciding what will and will not be shared outside of group meetings.
Don’t forget the joy; it’s important to make room for the lighthearted! Share food potluck style, bring a special tea every time you meet, plan retreats every so often where you can watch movies, go swimming, have a wintery day in with hot cocoa and pajamas, binge-watch trashy reality TV, whatever feels regenerative and nourishing to the group – make self and group care a part of the norm.
This isn’t easy work. It is work that for many requires a lot of personal transformation and discomfort of stepping into vulnerability. Many will be survivors, and trauma can be an impediment to one’s ability to trust and form healthy bonds. Honest and direct communication sometimes feels unsafe. Feelings can sometimes seem unsafe. The beauty of this, however, is that learning about communication, boundaries, and how to be in mutual and caring relationship is work that requires practice, which means being in relationship. Even if it’s messy, even if it feels weird, it is work that cannot be done alone, and there is no better place to practice than with others who are seeking to dismantle rape and abuse culture.
Grounding the collective with research
In the early stages of forming a collective, group research instills a sense of confidence in the work you are preparing to do, and may also serve to support creating a culture of care, as well as personal growth and healing.
Some topics that may serve you to explore include:
- Creating a healthy group culture
- Dynamics and tactics of abuse
- History of abuse intervention
- Various models for justice and accountability
- Understanding trauma
- Researching local resources for survivors
- Researching local abuser intervention resources
- Rape culture
- Systems of oppression
- How to avoid replicating oppressive dynamics in group cultures
- Healthy communication
Interviewing TLC, this process is one that stood out to me as a crucial formative practice. While learning from doing hands-on work has its own benefits, TLC took their time in the research and study phase, about a year. This process served the double purpose of grounding themselves in research while building trust and relationship.
Do the work and grow
Some collectives may decide they want to offer support for facilitating accountability processes, supporting survivors in coming forward, or branch into community outreach and education. There are so many ways this work can manifest, such as publishing zines, networking with other collectives, and putting on conferences.
Some collectives may decide their membership level feels full, safe, and intimate as it is. Others may decide they need more members and support. Community education is a great way to meet people who might be interested in joining or supporting the collective.
Considering the risks involved with taking action is important. Confronting abuse in communities does not come without its issues, and these are important things to prepare for and assess. Challenging the status quo is going to be uncomfortable and may even present big problems. Each member of the collective has to decide their own personal limits.
The beauty of forming a collective is that you’re not alone in facing these risks. You get to discuss and decide what feels okay, what doesn’t feel okay, and what is too scary to deal with at the moment. You get to prepare contingency plans in the case that things go wrong. For example, if a member of a workplace is deciding to speak up about sexual harassment at work, other members might pool together a fund, prepare a fundraising campaign, or petition to make sure that the member is cared for and that there is leverage on the company to not punish the person for speaking up.
Being prepared for possible outcomes, even just mentally, can have a profound impact on your sense of confidence. It also strengthens the bonds of the group, as you know each one of you has the other’s back.
Use your hands-on experience as a reference for growth. TLC began with the intentions of doing accountability processes for abusers and found that engaged and functioning accountability processes are very challenging not only to start but to maintain, for reasons outside of their control. Using this experience as a point of learning, they shifted their energy to focus on other projects as well, such as community education and outreach, and working with local organizations to address abuse in survivor-centered ways.
Redefining what success looks like
Many very hopeful people come into the work of addressing abuse expecting that accountability processes are models that will produce the results they anticipate. I believed that engaging in an accountability process with my abuser would be simple. This was founded on my being poorly informed regarding how most abuse works, which is that most abusers have very little remorse or sense of responsibility for their actions. Most abusers view themselves as victims and truly believe that the people they have abused are crazy and unstable.
While I really do believe it is possible for an abuser to be accountable, it’s the unfortunate truth that this is a very rare occurrence. Some abusers may engage initially to take a little heat off of a recent exposure, but it is infrequent that they will continue to engage. In a society where the acts of abuse and rape come with very little to possibly no repercussions, abusers have very little incentive to engage in real change. Their attitudes are reinforced at every turn, undermining any efforts at accountability anyways. Along these lines, it would take a lifelong commitment to change.
This doesn’t mean that the work isn’t worthwhile; on the contrary, it is some of the most important work to be doing!
Still, it is important to reconsider what success might look like and have good boundaries to ensure you aren’t repeatedly disappointed, ending up burnt out. In addition, accountability processes in large part are trial and error at this point. Doing this work means being prepared to get things wrong and get a feeling for what does and does not work.
Let’s say your collective is facilitating an accountability process with an abuser who has recently been exposed. Within the first several months, they have been meeting a good portion of the demands asked of them and seem to be engaged, even if they don’t appear to truly understand yet. Then, they begin to drop off, and say that they were never abusive and they didn’t need to do this. The survivor is feeling angry and frustrated.
At the same time, your collective is helping the survivor find the resources they need for healing – individual or group therapy, creating a safety plan, supporting them in learning how to keep themselves safe in dating, being by their side, believing them, helping them to understand that they don’t need their abuser to understand what they did for the abuse to be real.
The survivor feels supported and cared for.
And, at the same time, you are holding events in your community and making zines. You are getting emails from people saying how much your educational workshop, zine, or blog post helped them. You are hearing from people in other cities saying they are inspired by the work you are doing and wanting to know how they can do the same in their city. More survivors are feeling empowered to speak out, expose their abusers, and attempt to hold them accountable.
More abusers are getting the message that they cannot get away with what they are doing without repercussions.
Survivors are supported; things are changing. Is that not success?
While holding abusers accountable and supporting their transformation may present challenges and disappointments, there is still so much work to be done, and it is all good and important.
As a collective, educate yourself about the pitfalls, be prepared for the reality that abusers might not engage, understand that the work you are doing now is culture shifting. As abuse culture erodes, supporting the transformation of abusers and how they are held accountable in our communities is going to look a lot different. The work you are doing is the work of breaking down the conditions that allow abuse to thrive and creating a new foundation where healthy relationships of caring are the norm.
If there’s anything you take away from this series, I hope, above all, it is these three things:
First, the exposure of abuse must be planned for in communities. The likelihood that situations of violence will arise in any given community is high – and if it doesn’t come up, consider yourselves lucky. Regardless, any community will benefit from getting together, talking about it, and preparing for the possibility.
Second, change your expectations and redefine success. Even if you can’t make an abuser take responsibility for themselves, you can still make meaningful difference. I believe that abusers can change in the right circumstances. But first, we need to make those circumstances a reality. Your work is not for nothing. Even little successes are worthwhile.
Finally, this is not work we are meant to do alone. We need each other, and we need to create cultures of nurturance. The pillars of abuse are isolation, competition, and power-over modes of relating. The remedy to these things are community, cooperation, and power-with relating. Strive for these things, as they are the antidote to abuse.
This is Part V in a 5-part series on creating communities of resilience and care by examining abuse and accountability.
For folks in the Portland area: I’m teaching a class called Relationships that Nourish for survivors who are wanting to cultivate skills to find healthy relationships after abuse. This is an in-person 5-week course accompanied by an online private forum beginning April 8, 2018. Find out more on my website or on Facebook.
Images via: Unsplash and author