Like any effective social justice-based movement, Transformative Justice does not try to exist in isolation from reality. It lives between complex crossroads of identity, between black and brown folks, queerness, socio-economic disadvantage, mental health and trauma histories, and experiences of physical, psycho-social, and intellectual disability. Transformative Justice seeks to contribute to a reduction of harm, more sustainable and people-centered approaches to healing and pathways for socio-emotional repair in our communities.
Transformative Justice asks us to pause and ask a timely question:
How might the world look different if a human, accused of a breaking a law, is seen differently by the police, the justice system and society at large?
While peaceful co-existence may perhaps constitute the future aim of the movement, Transformative Justice movements function in the present, and they must. At a time when globally, we are seeing young BIPOC folks bearing the biggest brunt of disproportionate sentencing and representation in the prison sector. This movement works from a place of knowing what is needed in the now to create just societies: honesty, accountability, self-care, and trauma-informed community-led practices.
To gain a different perspective, we can turn to voices like Kimonti Carter, a young black American man who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1997, without parole, at age 18 after involvement in a drive-by shooting. Carter has since started TEACH (Taking Education and Creating History) from inside, a program that helps fellow inmates earn college credits through courses taught by other inmates. Carter has become a spokesperson from prison, not towards promoting a lack of accountability for crime, but underscoring that locking away young people, particularly young black folks, and “throwing away the key” is not the answer to creating more just and thriving communities.
Truth becomes a key transformative piece here. A community that can help uphold truth and accountability in a loving way is an essential component of transformative justice. There is, of course, a need to unify in the truth that in a person breaking a law or committing a crime, elements of their actions may be wrong, or may be putting themselves, or others, in harm’s way, or explicitly causing destruction.
However, we need to learn to accept as a society, there are always many truths. We must be brave and willing to confront those other truths too. So, if we want to work from this place, we need to be honest as a community in confronting the truth regarding police brutality, structural and institutional violence, and racism, and we must be honest in recognizing the disproportionate BIPOC imprisonment and severe sentencing inequities that continue to occur in Western colonial societies.
When asked what a world fortified by a transformative model might look like, Kimonti Carter responded poignantly: “a system where the people in control of punishments are making decisions and responding to events as if their own family made the mistake.”
Transformative Justice models call for a different dialogue around justice which may involve some difficult conversations, harnessing deeper compassion, fresh perspectives, and actively integrated acknowledgment of violent colonial histories, intergenerational trauma and learning new ways to help each other hold grief.
We can already find examples of these strategies in action in our local community. We might come across them in a community youth drop-in setting which prioritizes communication around emotional resilience, skill building around safety intervention plans with a harm minimisation approach around drug use. We might see these practices at play in organizations that offer alternative approaches to calling the police in mental health based crisis scenarios- meaning the responding crisis team is more likely to be trauma-informed and de-escalate situations without violence, or further traumatisation.
Where can you already see the pathways toward Transformative Justice at work in your community?
“If I love you, I have to show you things that sometimes you do not see.”
These are the words of James Arthur Baldwin, a Black American writer and activist. So often, many of us do not see the humanity in folks that are different from ourselves. The link between incarceration rates and marginalized identities is not a strange coincidence. It is a social mirror, for the ways our society has not effectively adapted to support people who have different needs than what may be considered the social ‘norm’ in the places we exist.
It demonstrates to us where we need stronger community structures and new ways of holding each accountable, while also learning how to hold protective forcefields for healing, around each other in our grief. We all carry different hues of grief. Grief that is not integrated and held, can become dangerous.
Activism as messy.
If you are doing any kind of activism right, it is going to get messy. Truly messy. Activism can mean different things to different people, and this can change in meaning throughout your life depending on which spaces and intersections you are being activated to work from. Activism is not a performance, it is choosing to give a fuck about other people’s experiences of the world. It is choosing to engage with other perspectives that won’t always be easy to find.
It is learning to listen to voices from people who have lived through experiences you have not had, and believing them. It is being more curious about a person or a community’s whole journey of becoming. It is knowing your own needs and boundaries and limitations. It is having the humility, to call in help. It is achieved by anchoring into your own body, and using that as your guide for where your energy is most needed in the community.
Loving acts of self.
So you want to do more activism? Get yourself a blank piece of paper and write in the centre: How can I balance looking after myself, so I can sustain my care for the world?
Self-care needs to be a top priority in the life of a person who cares about others in this way. Western societies in particular, do not place much value in care based work. Shame or guilt can arise when we think to turn our energy inward and come back to ourselves after engaging in compassion and care-based work like activism.
The world needs you rested.
The world needs your nervous system calm and regulated.
Activism is slow, gradual and intentional work.
There is room here.
Unfelt grief. Repressed grief. Misdirected grief. There is room here for it, in this movement.
Another powerful element of this justice model is the way in which it works to create places for grief that don’t hurt other people. Be that in nature, in therapeutic spaces, in safe and non-judgemental community action. Transformative Justice wants to help us understand how to hold our grief, in equal measure, with a sense of responsibility and vulnerability. It pulls shame away from our grief, and focuses on how we create community safety, how we build skills to address potential future harm and violence, and how we form healthy, boundaried community inter-dependence.
“Transformative accountability means that when we apologise, there is a congruence between our words, emotions, and actions.”
– Nathan Shara, Social Justice Therapist
Understanding these concepts is a complex process that I encourage you take time with. If it has activated you, you could start by seeking out books or stories around transformative justice strategies, models, and movements local to you.
In your daily life, notice where you turn away from difficult truths and practice actively pausing, listening, and re-framing perspective. Consider the effect of police intervention on a person’s life and self-educate on other possible routes for navigating or de-escalating complex situations where possible. Learn to ask for help. Practice forming small community teams to support each other.
Believe in people’s capacity for transformation.
As a society, what would it look like to be open to imagining more creative and innovative interventions that allow for accountability, safety, and healing for all involved?