content warning: sexual violence
This week, the Features editors invited Camila Pelsinger B’20, Transformative Justice Student Coordinator, to author a piece on transformative justice on college campuses. As a student and activist, Pelsinger worked to help bring the nation’s first university Transformative Justice program and Transformative Justice practitioner Dara Bayer to Brown University this year.
Two years ago, a friend asked me to confront someone in their community who had perpetrated violence and continued to display what they described as predatory behavior. Unsure of how to address the harm without prompting defensiveness or anger, they asked me to work with the individual to help them understand the impact of their actions and change their behavior. Over the next two years, I would be approached by many others who sought similar interventions. Some of these requests came from survivors themselves, others came from close friends of individuals who caused harm, others from people who observed harmful behavior from afar. Unequipped to undertake these tasks, I searched for a resource on my college campus that could help. There were none.
In my experiences in sexual violence prevention work, what has surprised me more than the sheer number of instances of sexual violence has been the silence, shame, and guilt that surrounds it. The power of the #MeToo movement was that it started to address that silence. However, the movement relied on the emotional labor of survivors to educate the world on how they had been harmed. Likewise, institutional systems for dealing with interpersonal violence rely on survivors to come forward and commit to reliving their experience in order to convince the world they should be believed.
College campuses have incredibly high rates of sexual assault. Between one in four and one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, while the National Institute of Justice estimates around one in seven men. One in four trans and gender-non-conforming students experience sexual assault according to a 2015 study. However, research from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center suggests as few as 10% of incidents of sexual assault on college campuses are reported. It is strikingly clear that the existing avenues for accountability are neither accessible nor desirable for survivors of sexual violence. The Title IX process can re-traumatize those who have experienced violence and forces people to prove they are telling the truth, often while facing the victim-blaming embedded in our society and institutions. Moreover, the legal representatives of perpetrators of violence rely on these sexist tropes to discount survivors’ credibility and defend their clients.
One of the most common desires of those who have experienced gender-based violence is for the person who harmed them to understand the impact of their actions and never harm anyone else. But on college campuses, there are only two ways to deal with violence when it occurs: file a complaint and undergo an investigation and trial, or remain silent about the experience with no way to ensure that the individual who caused harm will not continue to violate other people. The unrivaled insularity on college campuses make the latter option a harrowing and often dangerous default that forces survivors to share classrooms, dining halls, extra-curriculars, and even social groups with the individuals who harmed them. For many survivors, this means sacrificing participation in activities that risk these stressful run-ins, forcing them out of collegiate activities, whether social, academic, or extracurricular.
For some, healing from an experience of sexual violence requires ensuring that the individual will never violate anyone else again. For others, a road to healing involves directly confronting the person who harmed them about their experience or knowing they won’t ever have to see them at a social event. For others still, only the knowledge that the person who caused them harm will no longer remain on campus gives them a sense of safety.
The barriers preventing survivors from seeking institutional accountability veil the harm happening in all communities. With no other mechanisms for accountability, many survivors are left feeling guilty, as if choosing not to report makes them responsible for failing to stop violent behavior and leaving others vulnerable to harm. As Dr. Julie Shackford-Bradley describes in her article for the Daily Californian on sexual violence on college campuses, “the fact is that most cases don’t get reported or sufficiently addressed through formal reporting structures, limiting people’s options for taking accountability or making amends. The stress of unresolved harm and conflict that results can fracture communities, further exacerbating trauma.” The existing resources on college campuses are failing. In order to begin protecting the safety and needs of those who have experienced violence and seek true accountability and change from those who have caused harm, college campuses are in dire need of a new framework.
We often think of perpetrators of violence as hooded men waiting behind bushes to snatch young women, most often white, thin, and rich, from dark alleys. We have been taught that they are evil and we are good. What happens when those who perpetrate violence live within our own circles? What happens when the list of those who have caused harm is filled with our friends, family members, teachers, mentors?
The #MeToo movement has shown that violence happens in all communities and spaces, obscured by
cultural norms that have long normalized violations of consent. Dialogues about gender-based violence are difficult precisely because they force us to examine the ways that our consent has been violated in the past, or perhaps how we have violated the consent and autonomy of others.
Many sexual violence prevention programs on college campuses empower communities to dismantle the behaviors and cultural norms that normalize and allow for harm. These frameworks acknowledge that the power to prevent violence lies in communities and networks of support. We have yet to mobilize these same networks to address the harm that has already occurred within our spaces, to take the plight of #MeToo and transform listening and believing into action.
Brown University recently became the first and only college campus to pilot a Transformative Justice program after hiring Dara Bayer B’08 to serve as the Transformative Justice Program Coordinator.
Transformative Justice (TJ) is a penal abolitionist political framework and set of practices for responding to interpersonal and structural violence that relies on community relationships to protect the safety and needs of survivors, while building systems of support and accountability for those who have caused and enabled harm. This framework links individual justice and collective liberation as mutually supportive and fundamentally intertwined, creating structures for communities to address harm in innovative and generative ways that prevent future violence, rather than inflicting it.
TJ has emerged from political movements and marginalized communities, including indigenous, Black, queer and trans, low-income, undocumented, disabled, and sex worker communities, that have built networks of mutual support as a way to survive and transform state and interpersonal violence. In the US, Black women in particular have been at the forefront of developing Transformative Justice and community accountability frameworks for ending gender-based violence outside of a penal system that has long exacted violence on Black and brown communities.
Describing a situation in which this model could be used to address an instance of gender-based violence on a college campus, Dara Bayer told the Independent, “In response to a situation where someone was assaulted or harmed, a Transformative Justice process would invite the survivor and their network of friends and community members to come together and, depending on how much the survivor wants to be involved in the process, invite them to design a plan to address the harm. One component of TJ involves developing a plan of safety for someone who has experienced harm, while the second involves mapping the relationships of the person who has caused harm and working with them to stop ongoing violence, recognize the impact of their actions, and hopefully repair the harm in whatever way would be appropriate." However, as Bayer also notes, “that [process] could take months; that could take years. There is no clear one-size-fits-all way to do that work, but it is rooted in coming together in community with shared values and developing action plans that ensure safety.”
To make these TJ processes a reality, Bayer has begun developing an apprenticeship program to equip students embedded in different communities across campus with the skill sets and relational resources to run TJ processes. “These processes must be grounded in the communities where the harm has happened, which means that this work cannot be held by one person. By its very nature, TJ is a decentralized non-coercive framework that cannot be scaled up or enforced in a top-down manner,” Bayer said.
In 2000, the Color of Violence Conference brought together 1,200 people, most of whom were women of color, to discuss the role of sexual violence in longstanding institutions of US state violence, “demanding a more nuanced and expanded understanding of the category of ‘violence against women’ that integrated the violence of medical and reproductive control, criminality, poverty, colonization, imperialism, and war,” as Alisa Bierria, Mimi Kim, and Clasissa Rojas later described in their journal on community accountability. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the network of collectives that emerged from the conference, “opened a portal for critique, analysis, and new visions for change, while contributing energy and resources to building on-the-ground alternative responses to violence.” Many community-based organizations have emerged from these networks that use Transformative Justice and community accountability frameworks to address both interpersonal and structural violence, including Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA), Sista II Sisita, Creative Interventions, and others.
The Transformative Justice model presents us with an opportunity to heal the trauma of past violence, prevent violence from occurring in the future, and transform the toxic conditions that beget harm.
Transformative Justice processes are uniquely equipped to address harm in a way that prioritizes the needs of survivors and transfers the labor of holding perpetrators accountable for changing their behavior onto the community. Both the high incidence rate and communal nature of college campuses make them ideal spaces for Transformative Justice to shape culture and ensure accountability.
As institutions rooted in slavery and colonial violence, universities must begin to grapple with the ways that their spaces are sites of both interpersonal and institutional violence, structured around the very hierarchies that breed harm. As a community-based framework that operates outside of institutions, Transformative Justice on an elite college campus is both a paradox and an opportunity for community-based radical change. As Robin D. G. Kelley, a Professor of History at UCLA, writes in the Boston Review, “Universities will never be engines of social transformation. Such a task is the work of political education and activism.” Redistributing university resources to the work of Transformative Justice presents the opportunity to build community capacity for greater self-determination that will inevitably ripple far beyond the confines of college campuses.
The persistence of gender-based violence in the wake of the expansion of penal and carceral responses to harm suggest that existing responses to violence are failing. It has become apparent that isolating people from their communities does little to repair or prevent harm. The overwhelming prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses and the underused nature of Title IX processes make clear that existing punitive systems are insufficient. Both addressing the violence that has occurred within our communities and preventing future violence requires changing the culture of silence that has allowed for harm to persist without interruption. Colleges are insulated communities of shared space and overlapping social circles that make cultural change not only possible, but necessary. Dismantling a culture of violence that has persisted for so long requires an approach grounded in the notion that humans are constantly changing and evolving, replicating the systems and structures that are projected onto them. Transformative Justice revolutionizes the very ways in which we build community with each other in a manner that honors our humanity and keeps us accountable.
CAMILA PELSINGER B’20 encourages anyone interested in joining the Transformative Justice Practitioner Program to email [email protected]