Sparking Conversations About Accountability and Healing

The following is the first 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.

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

For more than 40 years, those of us working to end sexual and domestic violence in Virginia have been striving for a radically hopeful future: one where relationships, families, and communities are healthy, equitable, nourishing, and joyful. Over the past few years, the Action Alliance and others in the movement have been contemplating how and to what extent our actions match our vision, particularly around responses to the spectrum of harm, including physical violence: Will our current responses get us closer to equity and liberation?

If the answer is “no”, what pivots can we make today toward a horizon that is more aligned with the future we crave…for ourselves and our descendants?

For decades, a primary response to violence has centered on involving police and courts. Since the Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994, victim advocates and other community partners have invested billions of grant dollars and extensive time and effort into modifying the criminal legal system to become responsive to survivors of violence.

The stated reason for this investment has been not only to increase safety for survivors but also to hold perpetrators accountable.

But here’s the critical question: Does the criminal legal system actually deliver accountability for those who commit harm? Or is it more accurate to say that the criminal legal system delivers punishment rather than accountability?

What are the differences between punishment and accountability?

Accountability after harm means acknowledging one’s actions, taking responsibility for the harm done, understanding the impact of the harm on other people, and taking steps to avoid committing harm in the future. Sometimes an accountability process goes even further and takes steps to repair the damage caused by the harm.

Punishment imposes isolation, deprivation, and sometimes suffering as a consequence of violating a rule or law. When punishment happens-–whether admonishing a child, suspending a student, or incarcerating an adult—the elements of accountability are almost always absent.

In fact, punishment and accountability rarely overlap. Consider these questions:

  • How often does punishment (incarceration, for example) involve the person taking responsibility for their behavior and acknowledging its impact?
  • How often does it involve the person who caused harm taking steps to repair what they did and changing for the future?

We know from working with survivors (and many of us being survivors ourselves) that accountability is more likely than punishment to bring forth healing and transformation—both for the person who was harmed as well as the person who caused harm. Why, then, do we spend so little time learning about and practicing accountability?

We owe it to survivors to think more critically about what accountability truly means and to stop assuming that punishment and accountability are the same thing…because they are not.

We can build opportunities for accountability that exist outside of the criminal legal system for survivors who want more options than arrest and incarceration.

  • How many times have you sat with a survivor who’s said, “I don’t want them to be arrested…I just want them to understand how they hurt me and to never do that to me or anyone else again?”

We can learn how accountability practices are more likely to promote healing and change than punishment.

  • How many times have you seen a survivor move on more easily once the person who harmed them took responsibility for their behavior and acknowledged its impact?

Let us think about how the choices we make today in this movement will shape the lives of our descendants in the future.

  • Do we want to continue to focus solely on punishment as a response to harm, or do we want to create alternatives that are more empowering, and more likely to promote growth and thriving?

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 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.

The discussion guide is designed to be a toolkit for holding conversations in your workplace, communities, and families. It was written to spark discussions about what paths already exist to promote accountability and how we can practice it in our own lives to model it for our friends, families, coworkers, and communities.

Why are we asking you to start with conversations in your workplaces? Our movement has made future-altering pivots in our work before…but such important change doesn’t happen on its own. We have to dream up a new future that we want to work toward….a new horizon. To build and live into new ways of being, we must first imagine the future we want…together.


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.

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