The Nitty-Gritty: How The Transformative Justice Systems of BIPOC and Activist Communities Are Influencing the Counterculture

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The Nitty-Gritty:
Sexual Violence and Transformative Justice in Alternative Communities

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How The Radical Justice Systems of BIPOC and Activist Communities Are Influencing the Counterculture

Written by Mischa Byruck
Illustration by Amandine DeLauney

Posted June 4, 2020

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“Finally, we became tired of the slaughter, tired of the taste of each other’s shame.” 

- adrienne maree brown, How We Learned (are learning) Transformative Justice

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As #MeToo stories about famous journalists, comedians, and corporate leaders ate up column inches over the last two years, “alternative culture” communities experienced their own reckoning. Leaders of co-ops, co-living spaces, Burning Man camps, sex parties, tantra and meditation schools, and members of independent groups of artists, activists, and performers have been accused of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault. 

[[This article appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]

Sometimes, lawyers have been called and charges filed, but often, these communities choose to figure out justice on their own. They create informal, often digital tribunals; deploy phrases like “due process,” or “innocent until proven guilty;” and mete out punishments. The people who have done harm usually ride out a temporary period of ostracization. Then they either return to positions of power, or move on to a new community, where the pattern of harm repeats itself.  

This kind of communal justice rarely heals the harmed, shifts the behavior of the harm-doers, or disrupts any of the conditions that led to the harm itself. What if there was another way?

“Transformative Justice” is a philosophy developed largely by Black and Indigenous women, which increasingly guides the way alternative communities respond to sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. The idea is that communities are already equipped to respond to violence, and can do it nonviolently and without the state. People can opt to engage in the hard work of transforming the transgressor, healing the survivor, and changing the context in which abuse occurred, rather than calling the cops or kicking the person out. 

What does Transformative Justice look like in practice? Mia Mingus, the founder of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, describes it on her blog:

Most Transformative Justice interventions involve a community accountability process, where a few members of the community work directly with the person who harmed to take accountability for the harm they’ve caused. This process, in the best-case scenario, works so that the person who caused harm understands their actions and the impact they had on the survivor(s) and others involved, apologizes, makes amends, repairs damage caused by their actions and — most importantly — works to change their behavior so that the harm doesn’t happen again.

 

What A Process Can Look Like

Reid Mihalko, 52, is a popular sex educator. He co-founded the organization Cuddle Party and has lectured across the country. A couple years ago, The Daily Beast published allegations that Mihalko had pressured someone into sex. He quickly issued a public apology, after which his community proposed an accountability process in the spirit of healing and transformation. Wanting to set a positive example, Mihalko agreed, and his pod members meticulously documented the process in a series of public Medium posts. Unlike virtually everyone else I spoke to who has gone through a similar process, he also agreed to talk to me on the record.

The process started by convening “pods,” a word with a specific definition in this context — here’s how it’s described on Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective website:

Your pod is made up of the people that you would call on if violence, harm, or abuse happened to you, or the people that you would call on if you wanted support in taking accountability for violence, harm, or abuse that you’ve done. [Grammar lightly edited by NewMo]

Over the course of a year, Mihalko and his “accountability pod” engaged in the work of transformation — part coaching, part therapy, and part (re)education. One of his first projects was understanding why his initial apology compounded the harm (which happens frequently with hasty apologies), and writing a new one. Following that, his process focused on reflection, study, and learning around consent, integrity, privilege, power, and accountability. He also stopped his sex education work, his primary income source, for a year.

At the same time, a “survivor pod” came together to support Mihalko’s original accuser. (She later stepped back from direct involvement in the process logistics, but her pod kept her updated and she remained available for questions.) This pod also gathered stories and offered support to anyone else who had been harmed by Mihalko. The two pods established goals and timelines, communicated with each other, and updated members of the sex education communities where Mihalko worked about their progress. 

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. The people I interviewed for this article generally agree that being part of a pod requires at least 50 to 100 hours of emotionally exhausting labor, which is almost always unpaid. It includes consent and privilege education, counseling, mediation, and facilitation. And Mihalko was lucky: His process was run by experienced facilitators and educators, most of whom he knew already. 

I work in San Francisco as a men’s life coach. Last year, half my clients were going through accountability processes, for everything from ongoing creepy behavior to rape. I try to help my clients see their actions through the lens of their own values, rather than from the shame of being called out or the desire to perform their penitence. Supporting harm-doers without excusing them is challenging. At times, my clients display denial, resistance, victimization, and even callous self-righteousness. I’ve often found myself “siding with my clients,” and becoming overly invested in their “success,” rather than accepting the messy realities of their learning. 

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I’ve become convinced that creating a world without rape requires us to support harm-doers, that this means offering them a loving space to transform, and that our society’s criminal justice system cannot do this effectively.

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I have also seen, again and again, the power of this love-sustained work to shift harmful behavior. My clients have become more discerning around sex, more mindful of privilege and power, and far more willing to take actual accountability for the harm they’ve caused. I’ve become convinced that creating a world without rape requires us to support harm-doers, that this means offering them a loving space to transform, and that our society’s criminal justice system cannot do this effectively.

Resolving the Unresolvable

If there’s no judge or jury, no trial or evidence, and no possibility of sentencing, how do we know when a process is complete? In fact, there is no widespread agreement that community accountability “works,” in the sense of infallibly preventing further harm by a transgressor, healing the survivor, or transforming the community. In their guide to facilitating these processes, Fumbling Towards Repair, Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan write that “failure is a given.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

I put the question of resolution to Angel Adeyoha, who was on Mihalko’s pod. Adeyoha has been teaching and mediating at the intersection of mental health, sex, and sexuality for over twenty years. (Adeyoha uses the pronouns they/them.) The marker for success, says Adeyoha, can’t be whether “transformation” has occurred — it’s impossible to measure, and you don’t want to incentivize the performance of contrition. It also can’t be forgiveness by the person who experienced harm, since there are times when a community may deem a transgressor “ready” even if their accuser hasn’t forgiven them.

One metric to consider when closing a process, says Adeyoha, is “the percentage of the community who trust the transgressor.” In their experience, 10% of people in the surrounding community will support the transgressor no matter what, whereas another 10% will want to cancel them forever. (Indeed, Mihalko admits, “there are still people who don’t feel resolved by this process.”) Still, says Adeyoha, if 80% of the community are able to trust the transgressor enough to allow them to re-integrate, that’s a good sign.

Mihalko’s process was relatively smooth. For one thing, he was willing to do it — many people who have caused harm are not. The very idea of entering into a process, let alone a lengthy or public one, can create a shame reaction. “It feels like shit before it feels better,” notes Adeyoha. 

I also spoke with Misha Bonaventura, a mediator with Clearing Conversations and the co-founder of Bonobo Tribe, a conscious sexuality community in the Bay Area. She mentioned some other reasons transgressors may be unwilling to enter a process: “Transgressors I've worked with (who are mainly men at this point) get scared about admitting anything, because then it could result in someone going to the police later on,” Bonaventura explains. “They call a lawyer and the lawyer says, Don’t say anything! That freaks them out, so they don’t want to do the process.” 

Even without a written mea culpa, simply participating in a process could open a harm-doer up to legal prosecution in the future — or be used as negative “character” evidence in a future criminal case, divorce proceeding, or custody battle.

To make things even more complicated, these processes sometimes just blow up, even when there seem to be positive intentions on all sides. For example, one mutually abusive couple I saw never got their process off the ground, because one person weaponized the process itself as a threat. Another was derailed after a few months when the transgressor repeated harmful behavior at a party; another, after the transgressor re-traumatized the survivor by attempting an apology in public; another, when a late-night Facebook post blew up into an online flame war of accusations and name-calling. 

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Community accountability processes risk becoming smokescreens that enable abusers, but they can also easily become punitive inquisitions that deny transgressors the opportunity to change. Still, for all their faults, these processes can radically shift people’s perspectives — even about behavior that feels unforgivable. 

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In one process I supported, after the transgressor had done a year of accountability work and was about to be reintegrated into his community, the survivor wrote a 20-page letter that described her rape in detail and emailed it to everyone they both knew, condemning him along with everyone who had been part of the process. His pod, burnt out and feeling all their work had all been for naught, re-banned him from their community.

Community accountability processes risk becoming smokescreens that enable abusers, but they can also easily become punitive inquisitions that deny transgressors the opportunity to change. Still, for all their faults, these processes can radically shift people’s perspectives — even about behavior that feels unforgivable. 

A survivor's first instinct, Bonaventura points out, is often to save others from experiencing what they experienced. A community accountability process can help them relax, knowing that someone else is holding their harm-doer accountable. These processes can also convey the reality that sexual violence often occurs without forethought or conscious intent, a realization that’s critical to the essential project of Transformative Justice — to, as one activist puts it, “tolerate people without tolerating harm.” 

Zarinah Agnew is the co-founder of Alternative Justices, a decentralized collective that worked on over 50 accountability and healing processes in the last four years. She says: “You’d be surprised what happens when you take shame out of the way, and give people who have been sexually or physically violent a chance to speak and share.”

The Survivor's Experience

One woman I spoke with, who went through a process with a co-worker who stalked her, says the process helped her humanize her stalker. “Once you’ve triggered the fear response, it’s hard to turn off,” she explained. But the process “helped me understand who he was as a person, and where he was coming from, which was unexpected.”

Her outcome is a relatively positive one. Traditional, punitive justice systems focus on a crime’s severity, as determined by the law. But in community accountability, the focus is on the harm experienced, which often doesn’t correspond neatly to such hierarchies. One person, who was stalked, might experience flashbacks and dissociation for months, and need to quit their job; a different person, who was raped, might remain highly functional professionally, but find themselves lashing out at friends. Trauma doesn’t have a set shape.

Community accountability echoes this realization by keeping itself flexible. There are no set guidelines for what to do after coercive behavior, or stalking, or assault. Every concrete recommendation — the survivor receiving counseling, the transgressor leaving community gatherings, someone writing an apology letter, etc. — is based on what the people in the pods agree will best support the needs of both transgressor and survivor.

Even with all this support, the process can be as messy for the survivor as for the transgressor. As Elizabeth Long, a community organizer, educator, and survivor, writes in a recent anthology about the Transformative Justice movement called Beyond Survival: “After a year of TJ work, I was exhausted, resentful, and heavy with grief and shame.”

“People do harm in the process of surviving all the time,” warns Adeyoha. And Ejeris Dixon, a political strategist and co-editor of Beyond Survival, writes: “I’ve witnessed and experienced survivors raising their voices, yelling, seemingly directing the entirety of their pain at the support team.” Survivors can lash out at process organizers, or circumvent the process to seek revenge on their abuser. So refusing to idealize survivors is as important as refusing to demonize transgressors. 

As Long writes, “I want the person who raped me to have the community love and support needed to heal, transform, and have the liberated relationships we all deserve… [and] I wish my rapist were dead.”

So Why Not Just Call the Cops?

I spoke with over a dozen people for this article, and they all agreed on one thing: The criminal justice system almost never resolves sexual violence issues, and often makes things worse. 

Michelle Alexander summarized this perspective in a 2019 New York Times opinion article based partly on the work of author Danielle Sered. Sered’s main critique of America’s criminal justice system, Alexander writes, is that it

fails to take accountability seriously... [It] lets people off the hook, as they aren’t obligated to answer the victims’ questions, listen to them, honor their pain, express genuine remorse, or do what they can to repair the harm they’ve done. They’re not required to take steps to heal themselves or address their own trauma, so they’re less likely to harm others in the future.

This critique could also apply to ostracizing harm-doers from communities.

As Kaba and Hassan write in Fumbling Towards Repair, “punishment is passive — it happens to someone. It does not require taking responsibility…  Accountability is actually harder because it requires real transformation — accountability is active.”

For many people, the financial and emotional costs of participating in state justice systems outweigh the benefits. Andy Izenson is a New York-based attorney who’s facilitated accountability processes for years, and says, “People tend to have an unrealistic expectation of what will happen in court.” So Izenson offers a spectrum of potential processes to survivors. Litigation is all the way on one end: It’s adversarial, expensive, and will end in a judgement, often concluding in a way that satisfies no one. There’s also “collaborative legal work,” representing one person but making an agreement not to go to court. Towards the other end of the spectrum, there’s mediation through a neutral facilitator, and at the far end is community-based processes. 

“When you dig under people’s desire to involve the police in a dispute,” Izenson says, “what they actually want is for their pain to be validated and understood, [and] if you can provide validation and understanding through community, there’s no need for state violence.” 

Also, as Kaba and Hassan point out in Fumbling, “because of the high rate of sexual violence in prisons, we are essentially sentencing people to judicial rape when we incarcerate them.”

A Complicated Lineage

The philosophy of Transformative Justice was largely developed by people unwilling to subject their own community members to prison: Indigenous groups, Black feminists, Quakers and other peace activists, and prison abolitionists. There are also other, related philosophies, like “Restorative Justice,” which is similar to yet less radical than Transformative Justice, and is used in institutions like schools or workplaces.

“Restorative Justice is firmly rooted in Indigenous justice practices,” says Adeyoha. In many tribal contexts, Adeyoha explains, ostracization or punishment via incarceration have never been options: “You don’t get rid of anybody. The people who are your people remain your people.” 

As Canadian professor Naava Smolash, best known for her viral essay “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture” (written as Nora Samaran), points out in another essay called “If Black Women Were Free:” “The skills and tools of Transformative Justice (were) generated by Black women in response to daily lived realities.”

And Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective founder Mia Mingus writes:

... [U]ndocumented immigrant women in domestic violence relationships, disabled people who are being abused by their caretakers and attendants, sex workers who experience sexual assault or abuse, or poor children and youth of color who are surviving child sexual abuse have long been devising ways to reduce harm, stay alive, and create safety and healing outside of state systems, whether or not these practices have been explicitly named as "Transformative Justice."

Community accountability philosophies have recently moved closer to the mainstream. Restorative Justice approaches are now offered as nonprofit programs to keep youth and first-time offenders out of prison across the US. Examples include the Center for Court Innovation in New York City, and Community Works in Oakland. 

Thus, familiar questions of appropriation arise: Do white communities and men — the people least likely to face the justice system, and the most likely to receive fair treatment from it — have a right to adopt these practices at all?

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“If this just becomes a trend,” says Esteban Kelly, a founding member of the Transformative Justice collective Philly Stands Up, “it re-entrenches all the damage.”

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The answer, say some practitioners, is a guarded “Yes.” Esteban Kelly, a Philadelphia political strategist and founding member of the volunteer Transformative Justice collective Philly Stands Up, says that adopting these practices should require a simultaneous self-education about the legacy of racism, to avoid what he calls the “familiar patterns of cultural appropriation.” 

“If this just becomes a trend,” he says, “it re-entrenches all the damage.”

Community Responsibility

So what does it take to apply a philosophy originally developed by Indigenous, Black, and activist groups to communities that are both less marginalized and less opposed to prisons?

The most important factor is that there actually is a community at all. Julie Shackford Bradley is the co-founder and coordinator of the Restorative Justice Center at UC Berkeley, and she says that community accountability works best in contexts in which “there’s an intentional community, and the conflict is limiting what they want to do.” In a tight-knit co-op, Burning Man camp, or volunteer organization focused on important social justice work, these processes can be “beneficial in repairing relationships among people who may not have been directly involved in harming each other, but have experienced the fracturing of the community because of an incident of harm.” 

These processes can also help by allowing the community to “look at itself for enabling the behavior” in question, Bradley says. If, for example, an assault occurred in a communal house and drugs were involved, a process might look at the role of the other members of the communal house around encouraging or enabling irresponsible drug use. “It’s not just the individual, it’s the community that does the deep thinking about its obligations,” she says.   

This broad sense of collective responsibility required by Transformative Justice points to a key cultural challenge in adapting it to non-marginalized spaces. Facilitating a community accountability process is traditionally unpaid work, developed in communities where the investment of time and energy was necessary for survival. For people more accustomed to paying therapists for emotional labor, the prospect of spending dozens of hours over months engaged in emotionally draining interpersonal work can feel daunting.

At the same time, this presents the possibility that community accountability work could be paid more often, which in turn could create a more robust ecosystem of practitioners. The question is, which tasks should be paid, and are there some that shouldn’t? 

Traditionally, no one accepts money for being in someone’s pod. Indeed, Alternative Justices (Agnew's organization) makes its volunteers sign pledges not to. Adeyoha, Bonaventura, and Izenson do charge some clients to set up processes, but the vast majority of their community accountability work remains unpaid. For my part, I often encourage clients to enter into processes, but I don’t participate or report their progress to the pods; it would be an ethical breach, and it would create a perverse incentive for my clients to “perform” their transformations for me.

Accountability As A Way of Life

Every month, around 40 people over a massively diverse range of ages, races, and genders gather in an Oakland church for the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective’s monthly potluck. 

Travis Vachon, a white programmer in his mid-30s, sits at one of the long tables. He’s representative of the people now adapting Transformative Justice to fit their lives. “I've been slowly working TJ building blocks, like pod-mapping, into my close circles,” he says. “I find it particularly helpful for housemates, because they are the kind of folks I would absolutely need support from in a crisis. I lived in a 50-person co-op for a couple years, and I wish we had this tool then. As it was, the cops got called a few times, and that sucked.” 

When people first encounter community accountability, they tend to think of it as a conflict resolution tool, like Non-Violent Communication. In that framework, the process starts when something bad happens and then people spring into action to deal with it. This is a misunderstanding. 

“Community accountability,” says Izenson, the lawyer, “is a way of engaging with interpersonal harm, with community, with oppression, and with the carceral state. It needs to pervade your whole life in order to function. It's not a band-aid that you can apply to relationships that otherwise lack resilience and trust."

For best results, people must care for each other proactively — checking in with each other and, more importantly, conducting regular circles in which problems are raised; emotions are welcomed; and transgressions are not shamed, but rather treated as opportunities to shift behavior. Ultimately, says Izenson, “this is systematized love and care.” 

A popular anonymous zine, An Accountability Process Primer, says: “We can’t expect to be good at supporting someone who’s experiencing serious violence when we can’t support each other on an everyday basis.”

Rachel Zellars founded the Third Eye Collective in Canada, which supports Black women experiencing gender and partnership-based violence. In a recent interview, she describes the work of Transformative Justice similarly: 

Stories trickle into our collective, and women who have been harmed reach out for psychic and emotional support from us. We send over delicious meals, we talk on the phone a lot, we text, we support women who just want to get through their semester without failing, we reach out to other community members for advice... we meet for coffees. We drink a lot of coffee.

 

The Work of Revolution

Although these philosophies are increasingly popular in alternative communities, that doesn’t guarantee success. “There are often shared values,” says Agnew, of Alternative Justices, “but we also see a ton of bystander behavior.” She continues:

“Usually what happens is that everyone has been bopping along, thinking they are living with their ideological soulmates, and then someone gets assaulted... and you all realize that you are not actually value-aligned, and you all believe deeply different things. And suddenly you have to figure that out and at the same time deal with your poor comrade, who is acutely suffering and looking to the community for support, but all they find is their community in existential crisis.” 

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One of the main challenges of adapting these principles is the lack of what Izenson calls “a coherent or cohesive definition of community.”

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This observation points to one of the main challenges of adapting these principles: The lack of what Izenson calls “a coherent or cohesive definition of community.”

A common characteristic of relatively wealthy “alternative” communities is transience. Many people bounce around different scenes, or even different countries, dipping in and out of “communities” at their leisure. 

In a context that welcomes this kind of movement, callouts and ejection may make more sense than communities that are harder to exit: People can always just move on. It’s comparatively easy for a white anarchist with a trust fund to leave their DC warehouse, or for a San Francisco techie to leave a sex party collective. Compare these to calling the police on the breadwinner of a six-person family in a small village in Alaska, or publicly indicting a 50-year old Latino activist in LA. On the other hand, community accountability could also be framed as a challenge for those of us with more optionality to treat our “chosen families” as reverently as we would if we couldn’t just “kick people out.”

Alternative communities can easily mask their flaws under the veil of iconoclastic philosophies. It’s easy to believe that when you throw away social norms around sex, drugs, or relationships, that you’ve also somehow done away with years of patriarchal conditioning. Yet no one should be surprised anymore when male leaders are accused of abusing their power around sex. In fact, it's become a truism that this will happen in virtually every organization, movement, co-op, and collective at some point. Ironically, this can still be true if those same communities enact “zero-tolerance” approaches to sexual assault and immediately expunge sexual harm-doers: Punishing and ostracizing rapists can mask, and therefore inadvertently propagate, the underlying issues of patriarchy, sexism, and ingrained abusive behaviors that Transformative Justice aims to transform. 

Indeed, Transformative Justice may be a more revolutionary innovation than the sex positivity and psychedelic investigations that many “alternative” comunities are proud of.  We can’t create responsible, safe, or nurturing environments — much less claim the mantle of the counterculture — without doing the hard, time-consuming interpersonal work that prepares us to handle the inevitability of interpersonal harm. 

After his process wrapped up, Reid Mihalko restarted his career as a sex educator. When he reflects on his process, he expresses exactly the kind of sentiments one might want to see: Humble contrition, and a deep recognition of his own privilege. “None of it was comfortable,” he says. “I made missteps in this process, and my pod and I agree on things we could have done differently.” While the process created serious reputational and financial repercussions for him, he continually emphasized gratitude for all the time and effort his community gave him. 

“You know what sucks more?” Mihalko says emphatically. Fucking oppression. And I’m not that oppressed.” 

 

[[This article appears in Issue One of The New Modality. Buy your copy or subscribe here.]]

 

Update: After the publication of this article, we posted a Transformative Justice Resource List with links to resources like websites, books, articles, case studies, exercises, practitioners, and workshops.

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Transparency Notes

This article was written by Mischa Byruck, a men’s coach in San Francisco. It was edited by Lydia Laurenson, editor in chief of The New Modality.

During the editorial process, it was reviewed by several people in affected communities to help us make the final text sensitive to their experiences. Some of the reviewers were people we quoted in the article.

There's more about our transparency process at our page about truth and transparency at The New Modality.

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