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Learning about Transformative Justice from Philly Stands Up!

Shaya French was an intern with Black & Pink for summer 2014 from Bard College.

Jason talked about transformative justice in the January 2014 “Message From Jason.” Transformative justice is a set of practices for holding people accountable who cause harm. Abolishing prisons won’t stop people from hurting other people. How do we respond when acts of violence occur?

Transformative justice is practiced by several activist collectives in California, New York and Pennsylvania, and probably other places. Most of these collectives focus on addressing sexual abuse.

In June, I talked with Jenna Peters-Golden, who is a member of Philly Stands Up! (PSU) and learned about how PSU holds people accountable.

The accountability process begins when someone in the community approaches PSU. Sometimes people come to PSU and say things like “I really messed up and the person I hurt told me I need to work with you guys.” Other times people who have been sexually assaulted ask PSU to track down the person who hurt them to begin an accountability process. If PSU has the capacity to take on a situation, two collective members will start meeting with the person. They design a process that is shaped by demands from the survivor like “pay for my STI testing/abortion/doctor’s appointment”, “deal with your drug/alcohol problem” or “write me a sincere letter of apology.”

Each accountability process is unique based on the specifics of the situation, but each process generally includes:

1. Identifying the actions and behaviors that precipitated the process.

2. Accepting the reality of harm caused

3. Recognizing behavioral patterns

4. Creating strategies for unlearning these patterns and learning new ones

PSU develops a plan with the person they are working with and adapts the sessions to the person’s needs. The group is also very intentional in practicing preferred social behaviors. Preferred social behaviors include maintaining clear expectations about physical and social boundaries, practicing empathy, and showing respect. For example, if someone is late or misses a meeting they will talk about how that is inconsiderate and discuss how that can be communicated better. PSU also helps people develop more structure in their life and will assist people with finding housing, jobs, a therapist, etc.

Most PSU sessions consist primarily of talking. PSU frequently asks people to tell stories about the instances of assault, and together they look for relationship patterns and themes that led to the behaviors the person is trying to stop doing. PSU also gives people homework which might be keeping a log of when they feel frustrated or angry, maintaining a journal about the accountability process or reading materials about patriarchy, substance abuse, privilege and oppression. In accountability sessions, participants practice new behaviors through role plays. For example PSU members will pretend to be a new sexual partner and the participant will practice disclosing that they have sexually abused people in the past and are working on an accountability process. Most sessions last 9 months, because PSU has found that is generally enough time to get people on the right track. Knowing when to end a session is tricky and frequently based off of if the initial demands have been met, if the person has concrete resources like anger management, books, free therapy, and feels comfortable talking with friends, and if their relationship with substances is changing in a helpful way.

Accountability sessions are just one part of PSU’s work. PSU also holds educational workshops on consent and abuse prevention and works to build the movement for transformative justice and prison abolition.

Here are several questions to reflect on. If these questions inspire you, consider writing down your answers to them. If you reach any insights, please send them in and we’ll print a selection of answers in an upcoming newsletter. Address the letters to “Black & Pink—Transformative Justice.”

  • What does healing and apology mean to you? When has someone who hurt you done or said something that caused you to forgive them? What did they do? Why did it work?
  • When have you done or said something for someone that you’ve hurt? What was it? Did it repair your relationship?
  • Do you think the accountability process described above would help   you reconcile harm you’ve caused? Can you imagine this type of process helping people you know who’ve caused harm to not cause harm again?

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