Saturday, January 1, 2011

Interview about Community Accountability

Hi all!

I'm Anna Vo, and I live in Europe, but lived in Australia for 20 years, and Aotearoa for 8 years before that. Melanie from Berlin, interviewed me for
The rest is explained in the interview. More conversations about racialistic stuff to come, in future posts :)

1) how did you come to anti-violence work?

In a way it commonly starts, I think, a situation occurred between two friends of mine, and being someone who has experienced partner violence, stranger violence - both sexual and non-sexual - they came to me for support. I found that, as commonly happens, the survivor had trouble expressing and asserting their opinion/will/intention, and the perpetrator was quite vocal, defensive and aggressive. There had to be some common ground for mediation, but both were too emotionally invested to find it themselves, so they asked for mediation.
I currently offer a mediation support service in a social centre in London, but I find that people would rather turn to friends that they can trust, rather than someone they have never met before! Which is totally understandable. Especially if they are specifically seeking support that is non-institutional or non-professional.

2) why have you stayed with it so long? what in the work continues to challenge / interest you? what do you get from it?

It's hard to explain, but basically, I find that there are always so many subjective truths and perspectives, and often people can't see from other points of view. I've always had an observer type of position, and believe to be fairly capable of achieving a more objective or neutral perspective, and usually am okay at communicating that to people. Of course there are always lots of hurdles, and no matter how you word or approach some things, some people will refuse to accept what is being expressed. It's really tough, and can be very frustrating. Also, my bias is usually with the oppressed or less vocal party, and that can really rub the more aggressive or defensive person up the wrong way. I always want to be the good guy, but often am intensely disliked because I am a messenger of sorts, telling people things what they don't want to hear about themselves… how their behaviour is not so great sometimes.
So what do I get out of it? It's idealistic, but I try to defend people that find it hard to defend themselves. And I really really love that moment, the click, when both/all parties start to understand the other… when there is a concept or emotion that has been evading them, and blocking them from feeling empathy… and then after lots of hard work or talking, it suddenly becomes clear and they can see another person's perspective/experience. It's not something I do full time, just when the need arises, or else I would be pretty drained if I was doing this every day!

3) what do you do to promote your own healing and self-care while doing this work ? do you see this work as a part of your own liberation (and how)?

As I do this once a week, I make sure that the evening of that day is a time I spend in a non-demanding environment. I make sure I don't follow it up with another activity or interaction that is draining or emotionally demanding. I try to keep it low-key (like a movie at home, or a book in bed) or nurturing (like a good hearty meal, or a nice time with a loved one). Other than that I constantly am revising and self-analysing the way I interact, the words I use, the manner in which I communicate, and how it affects others. I write a lot, about my thoughts and feelings and challenges, and even fiction helps me see situations from afar, the forest for the trees. I also make music which is a satisfying way to get out of those heavily emotionally and psychologically engaging sessions.

My own liberation? I suppose the best way of learning about oneself is looking outward. Which is difficult to apply at times, because I'm quite stubborn, but I'm doing it slowly, and can see common patterns or processes of behaviour in myself and the people around me. And when I see negative ones, I try to constructively avoid them by communicating to myself or others that that is what I would like, for those things to not happen again. Sorry if this is too vague or abstract. But what I'm talking about is passive aggressiveness, defensiveness, shame, blame, victimisation, accusing language, extreme language, black and white concepts, ultimatums, threats, avoidance, dismissiveness, unnecessary conflict, misdirected anger, lack of communication, self-righteousness, authoritarianism, patriarchy or sexism, feelings of powerlessness, lack of assertiveness, lack of accountability or responsibility, lack of recognition of privilege, and other feelings and behaviour that are conditioned in all of us, through television and movies, and the people around us when we were growing up. Like many, there was a lot of violence, aggression, and absence of communication in my family and it is difficult to wean these patterns out.

Generally speaking, my ultimate goal is to make people aware of how they behave, and how it affects other people. Mutual aid, active care, and co-operation. With no motive of gain or recognition, except to make other people feel better instead of worse.

4) in terms of comm accountability and transformative justice processes, you mentioned that you have a lot of experience with mediations and confrontations, and generally dealing with perpetrators of violence. can you share anything from those experiences that might be useful for others working on the same stuff? successes, failures?

As I said before, it's usually very difficult to communicate with someone that what they have done has upset someone else, especially if they associate themselves with feminism or fights against general, theorised oppression. What occurs very often is that people involved with a lot of activism find it very difficult to admit to their own destructive or insensitive (or violent or abusive) behaviour. So that is the initial challenge, and I am still trying to find a nice way to say " this person feels that you're a perpetrator". No matter how its communicated, there is usually a pretty aggressive reaction. So, with them, while this is happening, I try to explain it in other terms, in analogies that they can relate to. If I know something about their lives, I equate it to a situation where they may feel like a victim, like if they are riding a bike, and a car driver cuts them off… I know this sounds trivial and simplistic, but sometimes it has to be an external example that doesn't threaten people, which then you bring back to a real situation of violence, where the stakes are higher, and then people start to understand the feeling of having less power in a dynamic. Obviously perpetrators usually have more power, and they are unaware of it, or reluctant to admit it. So those are initial steps. Of course, people usually believe they are acting to the best of their knowledge and ability, and to explain to them that there was an oppressive or abusive result regardless of this, can be really difficult. Sometimes, people immediately recognise the situation and are really sorry, which cuts out that step.
But next is figuring out what the survivor wants to happen, what the perpetrator would like to change or act on in light of the circumstances… and every situation is different. A common resolution is that there is social separation of the two parties, where they arrange to not be at the same events at the same time. Or maybe the perpetrator will be excluded from activities for a period of time. Usually the community supports this by organising around that, (eg. if both are facilitating at a workshop event, etc), but sometimes it's a difficult matter of confidentiality, where a community may be needed to support the outcomes of a survivor's requests, but it is part of the request that people don't speak of the event, or of the specific details of the incident.
Then, thirdly, there are the processes of realising those defined terms. As usual, things in practice don't pan out as well as they do in theory, and conflict usually arises out of that, especially when people are missing out on things, eg. events, that they resent missing out on, or resent sacrifices in general that they hadn't thought of in beginning the mediation process. So continual mediation is necessary to iron out those things. Some things don't get resolved, and some requests get ignored, so there are a lot of tense and angry emotions surrounding this process.
Another issue is the reaction or behaviour of the community surrounding said people. Lots of people will have formed a judgement about a situation, and it is tiring and sometimes futile to remind people not to make decisions about circumstances that they aren't knowledgable about! This results in character judgements, prejudices, gossip, all manner of puerile, high school behaviour, and is very disappointing. What is good to remember that even in a violent incident, one of intended or accidental assault, there is always a set of conditions that determined that behaviour, whether we understand them or not. And working through these conditions is the only way to help avoid another similar occurrence. If there is patience and understanding, then people can really work through their shit if they want to.

5) especially for me, as someone with far more theory than praxis, i'd be interested to hear how your practicing of community accountability has affected how you feel about / see the theories?

I think the main thing is that trust is really important. If people don't trust me as a mediator, then it's not going to work, and it's better to find someone that they feel like they can relate to more. Me being of a certain race, class, gender, sexual preference (non-white, immigrant, working-class, female, mainly hetero), means that some people will relate to me more, and others not. And that is what decides if they want to to talk to me or trust me. So in the past, people that have come to me either know me personally, or know me by a reference from someone they trust. I am finding that now that I am in a foreign country and city, where people don't know me; less people come to me for support - the trust and pre-knowledge just isn't there. Especially as this is a group of people that don't normally trust their personal lives to strangers…

6) what do you envision for future work for yourself and your communities? what would you like to see and be a part of creating?

Uhm, I would like to start an open, transparent though confidential, trustworthy collective of people doing what I am trying to do - counselling and mediation. I would hope that it encourages people to talk about their feelings and conflicts more, and practice self care, and care for others. This year I've lived in Berlin and London, and have seen some people completely ignore what I feel is very obvious - the suffering or need of others, or the needs of themselves. In these places and in America and Australia where I've also lived, I've witnessed many times over:
- avoidance of emotional issues in favour of humour or courtesy, because people feel like that shit is 'heavy' or personal, and they want to keep things light,
- complete disregard for others that are suffering or clearly need help or guidance, sometimes out of apathy, laziness, or resignation, or sometimes because the novelty of having a 'fucked-up friend' is more valuable or humorous than helping them,
- hesitation or difficulty in asking others about their emotions, communicating about feelings and very evident problems, in spaces, group dynamics, social interactions, etc. One example is accepting a couple in a peer group, even though one is visibly abusive to the other, because it's too much trouble to say or do anything, and people don't want to cause conflict. This to a point of not even talking about it between other friends (!?),
- people that have trouble refusing or saying no. Often people who are very active or helpful will agree to a lot of involvement/participation in different things, which results in their own anxiety or depression or stress. This extends to personal situations, eg. sexual encounters. They don't promote self care, which can be very destructive!
- people will flat out refuse accountability when approached about oppressive or abusive behaviour, when someone is upset or uncomfortable as a result,
- and finally, although this list is in no way definitive, people who don't know how to ask for help. People that are in trouble or need support or an ear or a friend, feel guilty or shy or don't want to 'burden' someone with their problems.

It would be awesome if I could one day see less of this stuff happening, and people being more open, direct, and accountable.

7) you spent some time in germany, i'm not sure how involved in anti-sexist & queer anti-violence work you were here, but i'd be curious for more international perspectives on 'definitionsmacht'. thoughts? comparisons with the discourses in australia and other places you've spent time?

any thoughts on how to bring definitionsmacht and transformative justice together?

I was only counselling in one situation in Germany, and there was definitely an inclination towards both parties defining the situation. It started off as the survivor labelling it and describing it, but after a while, with some mediation, it became clear that the situation was not so simple, and it was important to take into consideration the experience and opinion of the perpetrator. The survivor then changed their opinion after the other perspective was explained, although there was definitely lack of communication and accountability by the perpetrator, which totally sucks. I am not familiar with the debate surrounding definitionsmacht, but I think it's important to take into consideration all parties involved without any prejudice. So whilst my judgement is non-biassed, my advocation will always remain on the side of the oppressed. I try not to get caught up with theorising, and try to focus on real-life situations that re always individual and relative.
This applies to any location and situation, and also definitely applies to transformative justice processes. That practical bias, of listening and vocalising for the defenceless, is of utmost importance. But a rush to make decisions and judgements don't benefit anybody.

8) as community accountability / transformative justice stuff is still very much theory, or dream in some ways, there are lots of elements of these processes that remain undefined / in question. from what i've read from other practitioners, and for myself, those questions are tied up in issues of :
-maintaining confidentiality while trying to have transparency with others
-how to assess the situation so as to evaluate options for action without questioning or doubting the survivor, or putting them "on trial"
-if a conflict arises between the needs / wishes of the survivor and those of the community, other survivors, others involved in the process. or a conflict between the needs / wishes of the survivor and peoples' commitments to social justice.
where do you have questions? (and any answers!)

To maintain confidentiality, I try to remain as general as possible, and share experiences that can be transferred to other situations, eg. a member of a touring hardcore band takes advantage of his/her position of power and has non-consensual sex with another person. Unfortunately this is a common enough occurrence that it should be shared with other people in order to benefit them in future situations, and should be made public if it is in danger of happening again. It isn't necessary to state the origin or the genders or the details of the incident; and if it can be resolved privately, then that is ideal. But the importance of sharing some aspects far outweigh complete privacy.
Only in situations where the perpetrator refuses to participate in the resolution process, must people need to listen to the survivor alone. However, no one need be on trial, because there is no sentence/verdict involved, and this is purposely outside of a court of law. Therefore, the options of action should generally involve the survivor's self-care, and their perception of their own life/behaviour/mental process/situation. If they wish for an external punitive process that inevitably involves the unwilling perpetrator, then what usually happens, is that each member of the community (ie. the jury) will decide for themselves if they want to act on the punitive process or ignore it. No-one can force members of the community to act against their own opinion/judgement, the only hope is that their opinions and judgements are fair and without prejudice. It's tough one, but hopefully we can build groups of people that can view situations as objectively or fairly as possible, and are committed to social justice, rather than buy into patriarchal ideas of sexuality, morality and social standing.
Questions I have?
When will every single person drop their pride and ego for long enough to accept that they have an effect on others? And that sometimes it is a very very negative effect. I just hope somehow, one day, people learn a little bit more empathy, and drop their defensiveness, and that will make it easier for everyone to take responsibility for their actions! And then these processes won't be necessary anymore!

9) i've talked to a lot of people who feel that community accountability is a pipe dream because it requires a strong community and already understands itself as anti-sexist and anti-oppression, and they just don't see that around them. what do you think about this? do you see opportunities for accountability, even in the messy, problematic, and under-equipped communities around us?

I think, in places like Berlin, there is a lot of potential for community accountability to form, maybe if people overlook the pedantic, administrative details, and focus on the parties and emotions at stake. I felt, living there, that anti-sexism, decentralisation and horizontal organising, were really strong themes entrenched in the society there. And if that can transferred across to social and economic circumstances (eg. in conversation and friendships and community accountability), and not just professional ones (eg. females in bands or carpentry or metalwork and other trades), that would be a good start.
In other cities, and countries, it might be more difficult, if you look at how people were brought up (eg. Mexico, Vietnam, Japan, Italy, in patriarchal, authoritative, or Catholic socialisation), but those are just generalisations. Under a microscope, in every place, there are pockets of promise, where there are enough people striving for mutual aid and social accountability, so I think it's possible, if people are more altruistic in their behaviour and motives.

10) how do you live out accountability (and its contradictions) in your own life?

I'm not sure. I try to help friends and strangers who ask for help, so appear to need help but don't ask. I'm hyper aware of how I make others feel, to the point of annoying others, but in other ways I appear completely insensitive. I'm wracked with guilt every time I do things that scream of my privilege (dissent, veganism, advocating, using academic words or theories) and constantly apologise. I ask for consent on even the smallest things, like hugs, or if I can ask them about something personal. But sometimes I forget and people remind me that they don't want to be touched or talk about some things, which is good that they speak up. I try to speak up for people that I can see aren't equipped to speak for themselves, but often that makes me seem like a self-righteous self-appointed representative, which backfires often. I try not to upset or hurt others. I try to make people around me happy. I immediately apologise when I mess up, although sometimes that is really difficult, when the behaviour is deeply conditioned. I try to remind people around me that there are people in this world fighting for their lives, or their freedom to move, or for their families' survival. I try to call strangers and my friends out on their shit, because I would like to think that we are struggling for a common goal of social justice.

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