When we take our accountability seriously, Advocacy Can Begin

Ten months ago, I left a position advocating for survivors of sexual violence, in a department that I crafted, doing work that I love.

Since leaving, I’ve been asked two questions most frequently.

Why’d you leave?

And,

What are you doing now?

It occurred to me this month to answer those questions directly, in my one hundredth blog post.

First, by sharing my last communication from that day.

I share this communication to remind myself where my attention was that day, and to share that here transparently.

September 30, 2018

Farewell Email as the Director of Training & Community Engagement

My dearest community,

There’s an expression, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” and I struggle with it. One, because it’s often wielded as a micro aggression, and two, because sometimes good isn’t good enough. Sometimes it’s just a way of negating collective responsibility or unfolding consequences.

This year continues to test my personal motivation for the actions I take, and my alignment and misalignment with the rationales and storylines that we come up with. I won’t apologize for wanting more. More check ins for consent. More information about what to expect. More opportunities to share and receive feedback. More chances to rotate and develop leadership. More honesty about power dynamics and barriers to consent structurally. More specificity in how we describe problems and consequently problem solving. I want the world…healed, consensual, and capable of change.

Gaslighting be damned because rage moves things forward, and when they can’t be moved, they can be exposed. Exposed for accountability and clarity of intentions to take root.

Shifts happen consciously and unconsciously all the time, but conscious shifts don’t happen on their own. Moving the goalposts changes the goal, and that can be considered wondrous and ethical because it means we want to be more. More than we have any reason to believe, because we want to grow.

I sit down at my desk one final time, and I think about what these six years have included. I give thanks to many, many people.

To my extraordinary mentors.

To the womyn of color partners and leaders who’ve helped shape me.

To the advocates who’ve trusted me to train them.

To the educators who’ve supported my creative endeavors.

To the organizers who bring visibility and agitation to community dialogues.

To the students and families who’ve made connections to my work relevant and shared in raising the visibility of consent.

To the survivors who’ve blessed me with their presence, again and again, calling me to listen well, to drop assumptions, to let go of entitlement and instincts to fix or mute what they’re feeling. To be open to being wrong.

To my thought partners, the people who’ve wiped my tears, to meetings spent laying on the floor or walking off manic energy, to role play, to screaming, to babies, to genius, to angst, to truth telling, to analysis, to art, to shaking, to messing up, to nights spent designing curriculum in my dreams, to laughing because you’re too tired to redirect with words, to learning to trust and act on my gut. To acknowledging harm. To accountability for harm. To healing from harm. To caring what happens to people. To knowing most of consent is about learning to care for others, to unambiguously showing that care by including your body’s needs.

I wish for us a world where our humanity is protected in every sense of the word, and consent practiced in every sense of the world. I remain hopelessly devoted to that creative task, and I take this moment to center myself to start again. Full of feeling, full of memories, full of convictions, full of traumas, full of creative highs and painful, impactful lows.

I say goodbye, and I prepare to grow again. Prepare to heal again. Prepare to listen well and check in frequently. To use my creativity. To use my words when I have them and share them when I feel led. To respect my body and your body, not one more than the other.

I transition full and empty and with a goal of perfection. Perfection that acknowledges our best practices and values are the ones we’re still aspiring to learn to embody fully.

Holding onto so much, and letting go of more.

When I facilitated the 60-hour training course for advocates, the first and last discussions were always the same one — what does accountability mean within advocacy?

It should be obvious to answer this question, even routine, but instead it’s rare.

It is rare to grapple with how we’ve interpreted accountability in our roles, and rarer to be a part of a culture that is equipped to support your accountability.

As I realized that, it became a priority to be explicit as a trainer. To be explicit as a facilitator. To be explicit as a supervisor. To be explicit as an advocate, especially one influencing the instruction that advocates and educators received on what accountability meant within their roles.

It’s not that there aren’t policies in place, or boundaries drawn, it’s just that those set a low bar.

Too low in my opinion.

At this point this should sound familiar, because this is the cultural conversation we’re having.

We are asking — even by not asking — what are we doing? Why are we doing it? What’s our part?

We are reacting to a paradigm that has left those answers up to individuals, and realizing that those answers aren’t what we expected.

Our paradigms examine outcomes, but they don’t critique process.

Our paradigms acknowledge shortcoming, but they don’t influence inner lives.

Our paradigms incite agitation, but they don’t sustain change.

Our paradigms leave us, again, to practice discretion.

This should be the part as you’re reading where you’re suspicious — because in 2019 we need to read discretion as bias.

Within advocacy, we spend a lot of time telling people not to have biases, and not enough time fostering structures that set boundaries in behavior.

We imagine that the same do-gooders who want to support their communities can’t be capable of the same routine harms that survivors experience, and that their motivation is unimportant.

We even imagine that we know their motivation without having to ask.

And yet, as we are seeing in several areas all at once, guessing is problematic.

Guessing favors interpretation, and that word again: discretion.

Scrupulousness in the work place is often labeled as insubordinate, triggering a threat response in leadership that can lead them to shut down, or shut you out.

When I would bring up something that invited discretion — read as harm — I would receive one particular stock response.

“Amanda, you want the world.”

This response was intended to paint me as idealistic, and in other moments exacting, encouraging me to submit to whatever compromise was being sought, abandoning my rationale for not compromising in order to distance myself from negative characterizations.

Like all manipulation tactics, the goal is to encourage doubt in your thinking, and promotes a belief that getting some of a good thing is better than saying no.

There is little respect for the word “no” at work.

Our fear of funders, fear of discreditation, need for employment, and desire to harmonize work together to invoke past trauma responses that enter into everyday professional conversations, and seek to “kill the messenger” — anything to avoid sitting with the message.

An interview aired on Amherst Media on the broadcast of Going Deeper that included an interview with Loretta Ross, an important Foremother of the DC Rape Crisis Center, and an important Black Feminist thought leader.

In that interview I learned an important part of our agency’s origin story that in seven years I’d never learned.

I stumbled upon this excerpt while preparing to talk about accountability with advocates.

In the context of sharing the work of Sister Song, Loretta shares the following reflection on appropriate whiteness. I relistened to the first of the two clips to hear this piece of history, one that I had missed initially.

“One of the really revolutionary things that happened at the DC Rape Crisis Center is that a group of perhaps four or five white women got together and decided that what was happening to women was absolutely outrageous, so they wanted to start a hotline that women could call to get help. But they also made a really prophetic decision, and that was when they finally did secure funds to run the hotline, they committed that they would only hire women from the community, and so that meant that the first four directors of the DC Rape Crisis Center were all African American women like me coming from the community, and I was the third Executive Director, Nkenge (Touré) had been the second, and another woman named Michelle Hudson had been the first who went on to found My Sister’s Place. By them making the decision that they would hire Black women from the community to staff the center, they created this hotbed of Black Feminism that was just incredibly rich. I actually think books should be written about those women. One of them lives in the North Hampton area, her name is Deb Freeman.”

I needed to hear this and grapple with why it wasn’t something known to me.

Why had this example of accountability never been amplified?

Why in this time where white women are frequently unaccountable to communities and survivors of color are we not telling these stories?

How could the impact of the harm caused by white supremacy, and the trust broken, the story of gentrification, the relevance of survivors serving as advocates, be felt as a betrayal to this foundation if we didn’t include this starting point?

I had been hired after the fifth Executive Director had left rather painfully. The Director who both had the position for the longest time, 25 years, and also is the sole white woman to do so.

As I saw a thread line that deeply affected my experience on staff, I became focused on four questions, that ultimately helped me know it was time to leave my leadership position.

1) What language and examples are we using to describe our accountability as white advocates and white survivors?

2) How are we characterizing survivors and advocates?

3) How are we differentiating between advocacy and activism?

4) What are we explicitly choosing to say and not to say?

I felt in my body a witness of survivors seeing my choices in advocacy, consuming gaslighting that I was also consuming.

I felt myself needing clarity of information, and space to enter into these nuances.

I was reminded of the best lesson I learned about accountability in my advocacy early on in my tenure, from a mentor who continues to form me and hold me accountable to this foundation.

She used the metaphor of owning an office supplies shop.

In her store, she sold everything someone could need. Pencils. Pens. Clipboards. Highlighters. Binders. Sticky notes. Pencil Sharpeners.

There was an abundance of resources available.

And still, I was operating from a place of giving up the supplies I was using, and apologizing for my skills, rather than making use of the overflowing resources.

I was operating from less than my capability because I didn’t think I had the right to use my skillset.

I was taking away other people’s opportunity to have their capacity increase, and in the process I was trying to be accountable instead of them, taking on what was not mine.

She taught me the relationship between what we have capacity for, and how we are held accountable, without suggesting that we have the luxury of being less accountable or defining it vaguely.

She taught me that there is no transferability between our accountability and someone else’s, there’s only precision. And, there can be precision when resources are put in place.

There’s an exactness to knowing what you represent, what impacts you are having, what commitments you’ve made. There’s meant to be visibility and known, stated variables, and the presence of those things help mitigate all of the unknown variables that will come up in the work.

As I reflect now it is clear to me that we are turning to books, podcasts, tv shows and movies to try to have the conversations we aren’t productively having within social media, working and personal relationships, and journalism.

We are overwhelmed because what we are facing is overwhelming.

We are anxious because there are reasons to be.

We are stuck because the gaslighting is chronic.

We disengage when the rules of engagement aren’t established. We disengage when subconsciously we know that harm happens amidst our role confusion.

We seek discretion when the structures in place are no more accountable or unaccountable than we are, and we don’t want to be judged on our affiliations.

What survivors have always known is that when we come forward our stories no longer belong to only us. They become a weapon at the disposal of the general public, and we become complicit in what they are used to say and justify.

What white survivors have failed to internalize is how our sexual violence histories are used as a primary tool within a stratum of racialized violence, transmitted through ideology.

What white advocates have failed to articulate is that our survivorship represents that ongoing story of global harm and marginalization.

Which is why we have to pay attention to any and every example of our accountability, and allow that to increase our own motivation to be a source of accountability.

Structurally.

Relationally.

Individually.

Through our personal healing work.

We have to refuse to use our skillsets and narratives unconsciously, and we have to disaffiliate from entities that ask us to operate unconsciously.

We have to reckon with how we are privileged, and say in public,

“This isn’t my vision for safety. What we’ve accomplished isn’t enough, not even close. I want more. I want the world. And so should you.”

I left because my accountability demanded that I needed to.

I left because the patterns I observe are bigger than any one manifestation.

I left because I am learning how to use my skillset in a way that doesn’t generate harm.

I left because survivors are watching me, and advocates are learning from me, and the public is just beginning to pay attention.

In this season, accountability is my explicit driving value, and I am uncompromising in my pursuit of a more imaginative, just, and consensual lens of advocacy.

In this season, accountability is something advocacy needs to take seriously.

When we do, the process itself, and not just outcomes, will look and feel different.

We will be different, and because we are, change in the work will be possible too.

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.