Centering Survivors is Not Disposability Culture: on who’s responsible for transformative justice

Art by Priyanka Meenakshi

Art by Priyanka Meenakshi

CN: sexual violence, mention of an abuser by name

 

You can’t center healing for trans & queer people of color without centering the needs of survivors.

Our mental health concerns often stem from violence. This is our reality. This is why we must stand by survivors of violence. By allowing survivors to sustainably live and love, we give them the opportunity to continue healing themselves and others.

Transformative justice is a process for supporting all persons involved in an act of violence, leaving nobody to heal alone. However, that requires a lot of resources – more than most organizations or communities have.

Rest for Resistance (R4R) will always focus on healing the abused over uplifting active abusers, while understanding that people can be both abused and abuser. While we don’t believe anyone is disposable from society as a whole, we also recognize that R4R doesn’t have the capacity to support every single person. We can’t and won’t offer space to someone who is known to actively harm others in community.

Our role in transformative justice is not to support the abusive parties, but to create resources for survivors of violence to heal.

 

Abusers Are (almost) Everywhere

Last Sunday night, a former editor here, Alberto Hernandez, was called out online for sexual abuse and other manipulative behaviors. No one else in R4R had heard of this until a friend of mine showed me the call-out post. I immediately reached out to them to understand what was going on.

Even now, I don’t know anything beyond what the post said. Here’s why I don’t need to know more.

During our conversation, Alberto’s responses were alarming, only showing concern for themselves. First, they asked how many people reacted to the post. Then, they didn’t deny the narrative of the survivor. There are other small details in our interactions that, in hindsight, are red flags.

This person had joined R4R a few months ago. Since then, they had been working to become central to R4R.

That last part terrifies me.

It’s common knowledge that actively abusive people find their way into positions of leadership within activist communities. Yet knowing that can never make it easier to face reality when it happens. Alberto was someone who I began to trust because so many mutual friends trust them.

It seems like they relied on the fact that other people are harmed within QTPoC spaces like Audre Lorde Project to appear like they had dealt with the same. Now the survivor’s story and the former editor’s immediate response – total lack of either accountability or self-defense – make it seem otherwise, as if the vague stories were more manipulation than truth.

While the former editor has claimed to need support due to harmful community dynamics, and probably we all need support due to harmful community dynamics, there is a point where one individual contributes to that collective harm too much to be centered in healing spaces.

And that, at least from my perspective, is what happened. There’s no way to know what took place between those two individuals, but there’s also no way to let a person who may be coercive stay connected to any cause that’s centers survivors.

 

Where Transformative Justice Falls Short

The person who wrote the post calling out Alberto asked that non-Black people not contact them about this matter. If, in the future, they wish to share more details with me, I will hold space for them.

To center survivors, we must be nuanced in our approach. We have to hold space for everyone’s version of events. First, the survivor who is speaking out has to be kept from further harm. Every person will need different support, and those needs should be respected.

Then, transformative justice requires that – given there are resources to support both persons – the actively abusive person is isolated, but not completely cut off from community. Their support group is made up of people who have agreed to create the conditions for that person to understand their violent behaviors and heal in ways needed to cease harm.

Unfortunately, that’s usually where transformative justice fails.

It’s hard enough to get multiple people to meet the support needs of the survivor(s), especially in a society that silences and blames victims of violence.

It’s even harder to involve people who have taken accountability for similar patterns of harm. Not only must they volunteer to offer what the perpetrator of violence needs, but that support team also requires ongoing support for themselves as they continue learning about respect and accountability.

Without all these participants involved in concurrent transformative justice processes, cycles of abuse will continue. So driven by fear of that reality, the support persons for survivors often try to overreach, extending compassion and help to the abuser in the situation as well, which leads to burn out or much worse.

Our communities have limited capacity to address violence, and survivors and their supporters can’t carry out the whole process alone. That’s all the more reason to use the healing resources we do have to unapologetically center survivors.

 

Observing Power

We can’t center the survivor without recognizing who the survivor is. Not every situation is cut and dry, with one person clearly in a position of power over the other. When that happens, it’s only by hearing as much as others feel safe to say that outsiders can spot who is the root of the abuse. Therefore, we must keep these questions in mind:

Who has more privilege and social support in that relationship?

Is anyone here using a form of violence as self-defense?

Besides what’s obvious, what other forms of violence (like gaslighting) could be at play?

These types of questions challenge people outside the abusive dynamic to actually understand situation as opposed to only focus on who looks hurt. Anyone can claim to be the target of abuse – that’s one way people can manipulate others to dispose of survivors – and so it’s important to observe nuances to see whose words line up with their actions. This guide offers a valuable introduction to types of violence, community support, and questions like these to identify the nuances of abuse.

Transformative justice isn’t neat and tidy.

Some people who have survived horrific violence are actively abusive. They still deserve support, but definitely not from the people who they are abusing or otherwise harming. However, there may be others with whom they can work on developing accountability, understanding their violent behaviors, and ideally ending those behaviors for good – that’s who we need more of in order for transformative justice to work.

Community accountability has to involve all members of society in order to be effective. Those of us who already address violence in our everyday lives can’t take on these dynamics alone. If you’re talking about abuse, holding space for people, and centering survivors – great! You’re an important part of transformative justice processes.

By supporting each other, we can be more resilient and provide greater emotional support to the people around us.

 

Justice for Survivors

I believe that through transformative justice, a community can address and maybe even end abuse. There are a few success stories. However, a community can’t rely only on survivors of repeated violence to do this work. We need more hands on deck.

Once a person sees someone else as a vulnerable target, they are no longer able to listen to them about the harm caused, let alone transformative justice. They are more likely to get defensive or violent when the targeted person points out their harmful thinking and behaviors. It’s nobody’s responsibility to talk sense into someone who sees them as a target.

Here at R4R, we don’t have the capacity to follow transformative justice processes internally. We can’t hold hands with abusers while creating healing resources for QTPoC survivors.

The former editor has been fully removed from our site in order to support survivors and put their needs first. Seeing a person’s name or face can be triggering, especially in spaces for healing. While no space can remove all triggers, our team is committed to creating an online home where QTPoC survivors can feel affirmed, centered, and safe.

This is not to say that actively abusive people have nothing to contribute to a community; all of us, including violent persons, have potential to act in ways that support others. Rather, this decision reflects the damaging nature of giving space and support to known abusers who have shown an unwillingness to be accountable – or in this case, an unwillingness to say anything at all.

Until a violent person takes accountability and creates change in their patterns of behavior, the best thing to do is limit the harm being caused. A community might agree on an accountability plan, but the person who caused harm has to then make the decision to act in accountable ways. Each of us can only be responsible for ourselves, and that responsibility includes going to spaces where we can get support without causing harm to those who are supporting us.

We need multiple support spaces in society in order to transform violence and offer community-based justice for survivors. The more harm a person has contributed to, the more important it is that they consciously engage in transformative justice – getting the support they need from people who are prepared to give it, then passing forward that knowledge and those newfound accountability skills to others who cause harm.

“Community Accountability processes often center on a group holding individual accountable for their actions. This has contributed to a distorted understanding of ‘accountability,’ i.e., the mistaken idea that accountability is at its most fundamental level an external process rather than an internal skill.” – Connie Burk, Think. Re-Think. Accountable Communities.

Transformative justice requires that we take ownership of the harm we cause. And alongside that, it’s important to also take accountability for our individual healing. We must tend to our own healing in order to extend that healing to others. As Lama Rod Owens says, to love myself unconditionally is to give permission for others to love themselves too.

 

Helping Survivors Heal

Our vulnerability looks like a weakness to some, but I believe it will also protect us.

My truth helps me to know who to trust, who is a survivor fighting for the health and wellness of other survivors. It shouldn’t have to be like this, and I don’t expect any survivor of violence to have to prove their experiences. Yet the more we are able to speak out, the more honest we can become about how abusive our society is, the safer the world – or at least our homes, our spaces – can be for survivors.

A person might be vague because they’re unable to verbalize their experiences, which is common for trauma survivors. However, like our former editor may have done, a person might be purposefully vague about mental health and related experiences because they are saying just enough to manipulate others. When they dodge details, other people are left to fill in the blanks with what’s familiar to us, but that means we are building bonds on assumptions.

By telling our stories, we can reclaim power.

“Storytelling, as an organizing strategy, shifts the dynamics of power that allow violence in the first place […] Sharing experiences by way of telling stories helps communities acknowledge the tools and expertise they already have and encourage them to build their capacity even further.” – Rachel Herzig and Isaac Ontiveros, Making Our Stories Matter: The StoryTelling & Organizing Project (STOP)

We’re never going to speak about violence in perfect terms. Fear of making mistakes, of saying something that’s oppressive, shouldn’t hold us back from healing or from taking strides toward transformative justice.

It’s up to us to work together to create spaces where survivors feel safe to speak, where they are believed, and where their knowledge of abuse and survival skills is respected. And if that means we have to shut some people out of healing spaces until they can learn more accountability, that’s not an act of disposability – we’re centering survivors.

edited by O.A.O.

Resources:

The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence within Activist Communities (all above quotes found within this book)

8 Steps Toward Building Indispensability (Instead of Disposability) Culture by Kai Cheng Thom

Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective reading lists: 2015 & 2016

Critical Resistance: Resources for Addressing Harm, Accountability & Healing

Your Friend Has Been Abused: What Do You Do? by SL Abuse Help


Image description:

The abstract image is made of curvy lines of various thicknesses. They're black, dark purple, pink, red, and light blue.


About Priyanka Meenakshi:

Priyanka Meenakshi is a writer and artist based in Bristol. She currently illustrates for gal-dem. See more of their work at priyankameenakshi.com & @priyankameenakshi on Instagram.

About Dom Chatterjee:

The editor-in-chief of Rest for Resistance and founder of QTPoC Mental Health, Dom believes in the power of community to combat oppression. They are a non-binary desi-dutch-american person living with multiple disabilities.