Trying Out Transformative Justice

Hey folks,

Sorry for the late post again — feeling pretty drained, with a lot of heavy stuff coming up this week.  But!  I am buoyed, so soulfully buoyed, by my mama, my partner, my peeps in organizing from the Bay to Seattle, friends near and far, the Oakland sunlight, the air, and troves of loving, radical praxis that I’m discovering, really trying on, for the first time.

The primary situation I’ve been directly engaging today is delicate and requires confidentiality.  So instead of talking about my own ish, I just want to point to a resource that’s been a true blessing for me: the transformative justice (TJ) work of Philly Stands Up! (PSU), a volunteer collective in West Philadelphia.

What is TJ? From their web site, here’s PSU’s explanation:

Transformative Justice has no one definition. It is a way of practicing alternative justice which acknowledges individual experiences and identities and works to actively resist the state’s criminal injustice system.

Transformative Justice recognizes that oppression is at the root of all forms of harm, abuse and assault.  As a practice it therefore aims to address and confront those oppressions on all levels and treats this concept as an integral part to accountability and healing. Generation FIVE does a great job of laying out the main goals, principles and questions of Transformative Justice. These are their words:

The goals of Transformative Justice are:

  • Safety, healing, and agency for survivors
  • Accountability and transformation for people who harm
  • Community action, healing, and accountability
  • Transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence – systems of oppression and exploitation, domination, and state violence

The principles of a Transformative Justice approach to addressing all forms of violence include:

  • Liberation
  • Shifting power
  • Accountability
  • Safety
  • Collective Action
  • Respect Cultural Difference/ Guard against Cultural Relativism
  • Sustainability

Transformative Justice invites us to ask:

  • How do we build our personal and collective capacity to respond to trauma and support accountability in a transformational way?
  • How do we shift power towards collective liberation?
  • How do we build effective and sustainable movements that are grounded in resilience and life-affirming power?

PSU, Generation FIVE, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and other like-minded TJ groups are helping to co-construct, through community, some of the most exciting, uplifting, and inspiring praxical contributions to “collective liberation” that I have seen in a long time.

“Liberation” is a big, important, but tough-to-pin-down word for this blog, and it may not mean the same thing in dhammic/Buddhist and radical political/power contexts.  Liberation from suffering in samsara requires different strategies and approaches (8-Fold Path as Buddha’s “program”? :) than liberation from capitalist imperialist heteropatriarchy.  And yet, to my mind, especially in the realm of sila (morality, or basically how to live a “good” and wholesome life), there is room for tremendous, tremendous overlap.

Thanks to a workshop and texts from PSU and AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance), this afternoon I sensed some possibilities for synthesis between these two paths.  A meticulous practice of compassion recommended by an erstwhile Indian prince over 2500 years ago, and a working model for confronting intimate violence — forged from the crucibles of so many struggles against racist heteropatriarchy, the State, and their interwoven, often co-morphous manifestations.

Buddhist suttas warn practitioners against heavy-handedness in concentration training (the focus should neither be too loose, nor too tight), and meditation teachers urge us over and over to be “firm yet gentle” with our chattering monkey minds, gradually teaching ourselves to rest our attention on the meditation object (in my tradition, that’s usually the breath).  Is this mere people-pleasing packaging? Some sort of dogmatic or (what is probably the same thing) careless Middle Way-ism?  No.  The firm-yet-gentle combo doesn’t just sound nice and “balanced” — it points to an actually hospitable environment for difficult intentional transformation.  Too gentle, and we get lazy, restless, defensive, or shut-down.  Too firm, and we become dogmatic, dulled, judgmental, tightly-wound, and generally prone to missing the whole “compassion” boat, or burning out altogether.

Similar principles, it seems to me, apply to TJ work.  If our goal is to foster transformation, we need to be firm yet gentle — not too loose, and not too tight.  This is a radical departure from the punitive model of justice on which the US legal system is based (and irregularly, prejudicially, oppressively applied).  It invites us, as the above definition says, to “respond” to trauma, not react.   Rather than “cracking down” on people who commit violent behaviors, we stop excusing, minimizing, and supporting those behaviors.  We work instead to “water the good seeds” (as Thich Nhat Hanh says of inclinations in the mind) of meaningful accountability (in other words, a process with real milestones, material structure, boundaries, consequences, goals, etc.) and support.

Is this all making sense?  So very new and tender shoots, these are.  I’m no urban gardener but I’m trying the best I can.

Check out the zine by Philly Stands Up!, “A Stand Up Start Up.”  Let me know what you think.

take care, friends,


Update: For a great list of oppression-denying and -compounding behaviors (“excusing, minimizing, and supporting”), I’ve added a link to a post by NellaLou on “Sex and the Sangha,” looking in part at the various types of responses to the recent exposure of some Zen teachers’ sexual misconduct with their students. It’s a really wonderful resource for naming the harmful and frustrating apologistic dynamics that often accompany the outing of intimate abuse, and NellaLou also points toward restorative justice as an alternative model. Thanks, NellaLou!

2 thoughts on “Trying Out Transformative Justice

  1. nathan April 21, 2011 / 9:57 am

    This is such cool stuff! It’s sounds so refreshingly balanced. I have been struggling to figure out ways to respond to the really commonplace punitive, reactive strategies I see being discussed on various social/political blogs. So many people seem to believe that because oppression is going on, it’s just fine to respond to that oppression with varieties of abusive behavior. Which to me, just creates more misery and division. So, I have been trying to actually examine what people are saying, and how they are acting in collective actions – to try and see how I might best express a “firm yet gentle” attitude that could be heard. I’d like to use the online discussions as a training center for myself, so that as I step back into more active involvement in some specific action-based work, I might be more effective, or at least feel like what I’m doing is aligned with my spiritual ethics. Because it’s going to take a lot of us getting involved in different ways – and spreading this kind of vision and way of acting – in order for something to shift.

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