Accountability Is a Healing Practice…And Most of Us Have a Lot to Learn About It

The following is the second in a series of posts inspired by the Action Alliance’s soon-to-be-released Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet: A Discussion Guide to Support Sexual & Domestic Violence Programs as You Hold Conversations About Harm, Accountability, and Healing.

You can find the first post, Sparking Conversations About Accountability and Healing, here.

Scroll to the end of this post to find out more about our upcoming webinar (June 25th) and how to gain access to this new resource!


We use the word accountability practically every day in our work. But what does it mean really? What does accountability look like when it’s happening? Does “doing” accountability change anything for the better?

Growing up in this movement as a young advocate, I often heard the word “accountability” used as a synonym for “punishment.”  When someone said, “That person needs to be held accountable for what they did,” what they really meant was “That person needs to be punished.” It’s taken decades for me to understand how detrimental it is, within a movement founded on the ideals of liberation, to think of punishment and accountability as interchangeable.

The truth is that the processes of accountability and punishment are so dissimilar that it’s hard to find commonalities between them. If we are striving to create a future where relationships are equitable and joyful, it seems as though punishment would be a vestige of days gone by. In its place, accountability offers the promise of addressing harm in a way that is more trauma-informed and healing-focused. When we inaccurately describe punishment as accountability, we miss out on the possibility of repair and transformation. We also do survivors (and ourselves) a profound disservice.

What are the differences?


Punishment imposes suffering, deprivation, or other shame-based consequences as a way of enforcing rules. Whether it’s a time out, a suspension, being expelled, or being incarcerated, punishment often involves being removed from one’s community. The process of punishment can cause feelings of shame and isolation.


In simple terms, accountability is recognizing and taking responsibility for one’s actions, acknowledging the impact of those actions, taking steps to repair the harm as much as possible, and making the changes necessary not to repeat that harm in the future.

Even though this sounds simple, most of us aren’t very good at it.

But that’s not entirely our fault. In mainstream American society, accountability is traditionally linked to punishment and even revenge. Unsurprisingly, not many people volunteer to be punished, and as a result, we shy away from holding ourselves accountable to protect ourselves from the social costs of taking responsibility for harming someone.

If we think accountability is about punishment, we’re getting it wrong. Accountability is about communication, acknowledgment, and repair, not punishment. It can (re)build trust and relationships, deepen understanding, help share power, and even lead to personal transformation.

Unlike punishment, which is always reactive, accountability can be proactive and future-oriented. Accountability can be present even when no harm has occurred.

How does accountability promote healing? Connection is an essential human experience often shattered or lost when we experience harm or trauma. Accountability can boost and even restore connection by investing time and energy into acknowledging and repairing harm.

In this way, accountability practices are healing practices. At their best, both healing and accountability offer restoration for people and communities on a path to wholeness.

To be able to practice effective accountability at the organizational or community level, we must first practice accountability on an interpersonal level; a great place to start is practicing with colleagues who share our commitment to building toward a just and equitable future where we all get to thrive.

So how do we learn more about accountability? How do we practice it?

In response to requests from Virginia’s Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies, the Action Alliance wrote a discussion guide, the Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet, to help those of us working in sexual and domestic violence programs begin to think more broadly about what accountability can and should look like, not only after harm is committed, but also in all aspects of our lives: our relationships, families, workplaces, and communities.


Want to get your hands on the new discussion guide? 

The Action Alliance will hold a webinar on Tuesday June 25, 2 pm-4 pm to launch the new Harm and Accountability Conversation Seed Packet: A Discussion Guide to Support Sexual & Domestic Violence Programs as You Hold Conversations About Harm, Accountability, and Healing. Webinar participants will be introduced to the discussion guide and its conversation starters and will be given free download access to the new discussion guide.

Register here (look for “Harm and Accountability Toolkit” as the training title)!

Kate McCord is the Associate Director for the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance and has worked in the movement for more than 30 years.

Read more news

Find Support Near You

Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Agencies

  • Start Typing Locality