“Are You Willing to Let the Work Transform You?”

Kate Klein

Reviewed in this article

The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence within 
Activist Communities. South End Press, 2011.
Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (eds.)

To be honest with you, I’m afraid to write this review. Over the past four months, I’ve opened and closed this Word document countless times, typing a sentence and then deleting it again. I’ve had numerous tear-filled conversations with friends and exes, and bombarded my editor with self-loathing emails detailing every reason I’m not the best person for this assignment. In trying to say something conclusive about community accountability, I’ve come to the conclusion that community accountability is really confusing. And scary. And nobody knows exactly what they’re talking about or what they’re doing, but they’re talking about it and doing things anyway because the only other option is to deal with intimate violence the way we have until now. And that isn’t working; in fact, it’s actively harming us. In a society where victim-blaming is routine, rugged individualism is highly prized, and white Western norms of propriety encourage us not to get involved in “private matters,” the idea of attending to other people’s emotions and trauma while acknowledging the ways we’ve inflicted violence on others is terrifying.

I think most people are frightened at the prospect of 
exploring the ways we hurt and are hurt by one another. As activists, we spend so much time setting our sights on systems beyond us, and for good reason: systems like capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy have given us so much to grapple with and survive already. Turning our critical gaze inward threatens our collective sense of self-righteousness; it has the potential to render us speechless, defeated, and defensive. In fact, for many, it already has. In the process of learning about transformative justice, I’ve spoken with many people who’ve seen “community accountability” processes begin with great hope and end with re-victimization, lateral violence, and deep misgivings about our ability to do this right, or do it at all. Meanwhile, the legal system continues to perpetrate systemic violence against racialized, poor, indigenous, undocumented, and gender nonconforming people. While grassroots community organizing against the prison-industrial complex has been going on for decades, the task of ending intimate violence in our communities and simultaneously working toward a world without policing and prisons can be emotionally exhausting. This is especially true when the only immediately available tools are police, the legal system, and child protective services.

Enter The Revolution Starts at Home Collective who, in 2008, started circulating a zine in activist communities that created ripples of excited and nervous dialogue. The stories within it cracked the walls of silence built up around the issue of intimate violence in these communities. Entitled The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Abuse in Activist Communities, the zine was groundbreaking in its honest account of how interpersonal violence impacts so many of us who are supposed to be resisting oppressive violence. It critiqued the myth that police and prisons create “safety” (a belief that permeates the white feminist anti-domestic violence movement) and offered practical strategies for resisting intimate violence without relying on the prison system. Responding to the popularity of the zine and the widespread desire for concrete tools to support activists seeking accountability in their own communities, the editors of The Revolution Starts at Home partnered with South End Press to expand the zine into a book. Contributors call the work they do by different names, though the majority operate within the framework of “community accountability” or “transformative justice.”

I read the zine version of The Revolution Starts at Home at a time when I felt silenced and alienated by activist communities that denied the ways in which the personal was political and that regularly perpetuated masculinist modes of organizing. I was struck by the zine’s unapologetic response to the false division between “individual-level work” like counseling and “systemic work.” The zine embraced the emotional as a crucial space from which to conceptualize transformative justice, and the same holds true for the trauma-centred and emotion-driven book, which centres the voices of women and trans people of colour, indigenous people, survivors of violence, people with disabilities, and queers. I began to read the book, however, at a time when I was struggling to be more accountable to people in my life, especially those I had hurt. Reading the stories and strategies advanced in The Revolution Starts at Home helped me to feel more grounded in my ability to build these skills and situate my internal process within a broader movement in which people engage in the tricky work of accountability.

Creating an anthology that encompassed the emotionally and politically complex issue of community accountability was no doubt a tall order; indeed, upon closing this book, I found myself with more questions than I’d had when I first cracked it open. What I can say with certainty is that it’s 325 pages of something important. With careful idealism, The Revolution Starts at Home looks both forward and backward. Its chapters evoke a humble recognition of the transformative justice organizing that has taken place in many communities “for as long as we hold collective memory;” they provide an emotionally raw glance into experiences of violence in activist communities, and communicate a critical yearning for more from community accountability – for better tools, more thought, more care, and more options.

Because community accountability demands not only that we address intimate violence differently but that we completely re-conceptualize it, I think that the book’s introduction could have benefited from a more concrete explanation of transformative justice’s basic principles. Nevertheless, some common values, principles, and themes emerge from the various chapters despite their occasionally conflicting viewpoints. In what follows, I tease out these common themes and synthesize some of the basic assumptions underlying “community accountability.”

Transformative justice centres the voices and experiences of racialized and indigenous women. Although community accountability is frequently appropriated by white anarchist communities, it is, in fact, a move-ment and practice led and shaped by women whose communities have never been able to rely on the law to keep them safe.

Transformative justice is about community transformation, not retribution. While it can be cathartic to treat people who cause harm as “monsters” who need to be “punished,” proponents of transformative justice argue that we should develop skills to compassionately support perpetrators. The goal is to help perpetrators take responsibility for their actions without enabling or minimizing their abusive behaviour, and also learn to transform the social conditions that supported the abuse in the first place.

Transformative justice attempts to bring intimate violence out of the private sphere and to the forefront of our social justice struggles. Practicing community accountability should therefore be an integral part of our activism and not just an addendum.

Transformative justice adds complexity to the categories of “perpetrator” and “survivor” that have been made mutually exclusive by the mainstream domestic violence movement. In her contribution “The Secret Joy of Accountability,” Shannon Perez-Darby draws on her own experiences of hurting other people in the course of surviving violence and asks us to “build our capacity for complexity.” Practically speaking, this means troubling our tendency to believe that every choice a survivor makes is “noble and necessary” (105).

Transformative justice strategies are tailor-made for each situation and community. They are based on the needs and desires of the survivor and on the resources available to the community. The tendency to be paternalistic and feel like we “know what’s best” is deeply ingrained; thus, the ability to let go and trust that those who have experienced harm understand their own needs best is important in any community accountability process.

In transformative justice, accountability is both a skill and a process. In her chapter “Think. Re-Think,” Connie Burk says that, despite common misperceptions, “accountability is not something that happens to bad people. Accountability is a human skill. It is a skill that each of us must commit to developing as an internal resource for recognizing and redressing the harms we have caused to ourselves and others” (267).

Transformative justice is love. More than anything, community accountability is about giving a shit. In a society where people who’ve experienced abuse or sexual assault are overwhelmingly confronted with blame, stigma, and invalidation, transformative justice is about rallying together as a community and showing through action that ending intimate violence matters.

While each of these themes seems clear on its own, they become quite complicated (and often contradictory) when interpreted together. Despite all the knowledge and wisdom in The Revolution Starts at Home, I worry that people I’ve spoken with about transformative justice – and others like them who feel jaded about community accountability – will read it and be disappointed; indeed, if you think this book is a magic bullet that will solve all your questions and confusion about community accountability, you will be disappointed. One book cannot do everything, be everything, ask everything, and solve everything – and the collection’s editors never claimed they could. I challenge readers not to be discouraged by the overwhelming complexity of the work being done, but to embrace the task of intellectually and emotionally navigating contradictory premises in the name of finding solutions that work.

Indeed, acknowledging the confusion inherent in community accountability but doing it anyway might just be one of our most important challenges as activists. Critics of transformative justice often say that it’s “a good idea, but unrealistic.” This refrain should be familiar to those engaged in anti-capitalist struggle or prison abolition. The fact that we don’t have perfect strategies with which to enact our visions does not mean that the visions themselves should be thrown out. Similarly, the fact that The Revolution Starts at Home contains just as many stories about the failure of transformative justice as it does about its successes shows that, sometimes, the best way to learn how to do something right is to see it done wrong. There is still so much to learn and imagine when it comes to transformative justice, and to be honest, I think the contributors and editors are just as confused about the subject as I am. That’s okay; uncertainty is part of the process. In “Think. Re-Think,” Connie Burk says it well: “At least we join most groups of people throughout time in being frankly mystified at how to get folks to do right, and in being equally confused about how to do right while trying to get folks to do right” (272). Ultimately, The Revolution Starts at Home acts as a catalyst for future work by elaborating a critical praxis that’s only just beginning to be written about. The book makes space for others to push these conversations further, refine them, and introduce new perspectives.

So yes, community accountability is confusing. I can understand the resignation that accompanies the feeling that there’s just no way to get it right; but I can’t help feeling that giving up on transformative justice means giving up on our ability to be good to each other without relying on the state. What’s more, community accountability does not have to look any one way. There are still so many directions that need to be considered when exploring its theory and practice. One such direction could be to explore the implications of our current focus on intimate violence in urban activist communities. By focusing on violence among urban activists, are we neglecting the desperate need for strategies that can also support, for example, the only transgender kid in a small town, or people without access to forums for discussion about systemic oppression? Have we thought through the role that activist cliques play in community members’ ability to access support? How does a widely disliked activist ask for support in healing when the sustainability of community accountability presupposes that the survivor is sympathetic and tolerable over a long period of time? And what about those who don’t identify as activists? What would it mean to practice transformative justice beyond activist communities? Is this even desirable?

The Revolution Starts at Home is important for raising these kinds of questions, for disrupting normative understandings of violence, and for providing a catalyst for creative work yet to come. We are all positioned differently in this world, have different relationships with the legal system, and experience violence in different ways, but this anthology will benefit anybody who cares about ending both systemic and interpersonal violence. If transformative justice is now becoming a widespread movement rather than a localized phenomenon (and I believe it is), my best bet is that this book will go down in history as one of the movement’s most important precipitants.