Harm and Healing Within Communities
thoughts on collective work to build collective safety
|Syar S. Alia||Jun 11, 2020||6||5|
Hi all, I’m doing something a little different this month with what felt like it could be a needed offering. I’ll be releasing another newsletter this weekend that’s tarot-focused, cards that have helped me consider collective work and this moment.
Content note: I will be discussing sexual violence and harassment, and responses to both. I will not be writing or sharing specific cases or examples. I speak not as a sexual violence survivor, but as a commited ally to survivors. This essay is very long, although it is NOT meant to be comprehensive. It may help to read it in phases / sections over time! Thank you for reading any part of it, I hope it can be useful and/or affirming.
There’s an ongoing conversation happening this past week in Malaysian discourse spaces about sexual violence. It’s a new round of an old conversation. Survivors are sharing their experiences, many people are upset, and there are points being thrown around about consent and morality and punishment and culpability. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we handle harm in our circles and communities, how the binary thinking of guilty party / victim doesn't actually center the needs of survivors and worryingly disregards how holding harm doers accountable is crucial and necessary community work that keeps us ALL safe. I know for some the current discourse has been traumatising, aggravating, enraging, overwhelming, numbing. I’ve seen the different shades of responses and I am thinking hard about what to share that can be of use to people, and can bring in grassroots, community-based and community led care into the mix.
First I want to share my observations on common responses to harm, where it comes from, what’s missing. Then I’ll share resources that have helped deepen my thinking around these topics. Finally, I’ll share my own practices in facing harm and navigating healing with others.
This conversation is happening in a particularly volatile and fertile time of many other discussions — locally and internationally — on harms done to Black bodies, harms done to migrant workers and refugees, harms done by institutions like the state and the police, how they do not live up to (misplaced) expectations of "protecting" anybody because that’s not actually their job. But this is not the first time Malaysian spaces have been filled with stories of sexual violence, and it won’t likely be the last. I see now as a moment to once again consider how we can think of ourselves as collectively responsible for mitigating and facing harm in our communities, to really dig deeper into our feelings, to take actions, and commit to having more tools for the next conversation, to contribute actively to reducing harm. What are the things we can think about and reflect on to do that?
Harm is a nebulous and subjective thing that can mean a lot of different things to people. I acknowledge that harm involves things other than sexual violence, although that is the starting point and the primary frame for this essay. Harm covers a lot of things "crimes" DON'T cover, things that involve a lot more grey area and nuance and complexity. This perspective of harm has opened up my understanding of justice, accountability, and what we can all actually do and ask for that will address our pains in ways that hopefully help them heal and strengthens our connections and care.
Here are examples of harm I was thinking of (some of which I’ve had some experience with) as I wrote this essay:
Sexual harassment (where it covers various behaviours and language and there is still no law in Malaysia);
Sexual assault allegations against someone in your circle (often devolves into A said/B said, survivor might not want to involve law enforcement, law enforcement might not even be helpful, nobody knows what to do re: the harm doer or how to deal with the impact on group dynamics)
Someone in your circle / network makes a racist / sexist / homophobic / transphobic / fatphobic / ableist / classist / fascist / anti-Semitic / Islamophobic / [insert atrocious thing here!!] statement or action
Violations of trust within intimate relationships
Emotional abuse like gaslighting or manipulation that can be harder to “prove” or have evidence of
Defamation lawsuits or threats to silence allegations of sexual harassment or violence (how to support the survivors, how to address harm when you feel muzzled, many don’t have legal knowledge to feel they can stand up to the threats or even properly understand them)
Maintaining and sustaining long-term relationships with someone in an ongoing abusive relationship or survivors of violence and/or abuse
Someone close to you / in your circle is experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation, and there’s a risk of them self-harming. Considerations would be preventing the harm without further traumatising or alienating them, when and where and how to involve other parties such as health or mental care professionals, as well as what this might trigger within your circle and how to be there for each other
There are more examples (sadly) — very likely what I write in this essay and the things I share on how I navigate harm won’t fit or can’t be stretched to fit those examples, because this is a big web of interconnected issues and pain points and there are many conversations that have happened and are happening in all corners and parts of the web! This essay is one small puzzle piece
We are all capable of inflicting harm, just as we are all vulnerable to being harmed, often to and by people close to us, or who we respect. It’s this closeness to harm and the discomfort that closeness brings that I see triggering a lot of overwhelming emotions. When someone inflicts harm, a common response to harm doers is: conflate the action with the entirety of who they are, banish and ostracise them, "cancel" them, "cancel" people who are connected to them, distance ourselves as much as possible — “I’m not like them. I would never do what they did.” It seems easy and we like easy, easy feels safe. Block them, ostracise, put them away for their mistake, they won’t be able to harm anyone again, brush your hands off, done justice.
These responses are rooted in a punitive and carceral way of thinking trained into us by the violences of the systems we live in. What I mean by that is we take it for granted that punishment fixes harm, that structures like jails and courts actually fix any of our human problems, that larger systems know better than we do about how to handle the intricacies of our human lives and relationships. Some of us have had the privilege of putting our faith in larger systems: the government, legal system, police, courts, NGOs. We may think, well it's their job to handle “crimes” so let's pass the harm doers and the survivors to them.
The thing is, a lot of times things don't work out this way. As long as victim-blaming exists, as long as we question survivors and deny their stories, subject them to traumatising questioning and investigative processes, drag their reputations through mud when they come forward, as long as police brutality is endorsed, as long as we allow homophobia / transphobia / fatphobia / ableism / xenophobia / [insert atrocious thing here!!] to dictate who we support and who we don’t care about — this sentence could go on forever and I still wouldn’t be done. As my friend Sam said to me after reading my draft: “The law is ill-equipped to handle issues where there are many grey areas” like intimacy, like consent, like relationships.
Systems thrive on control, order and domination, and often they seek to implement it at the cost of real transformative justice and healing. What is healed when we put someone in jail for 5, 10, 25, 50 years or more? If our current legal system works, why after years and years of court cases that drag and go nowhere, of cases shuttered that never even make it to court, of so many human lives taken, of capital punishment, of continuously building and putting people in prisons, do we still have to deal with so much harm and trauma?
What we see more of is that harm done is often unacknowledged, harm doers are not held accountable or given resources to really face their actions and the consequences of their actions. Nor are they given resources to help them heal their own traumas and excise their harmful response in future exchanges and situations. And culturally many harm doers are taught there is no NEED for them to seek these resources, that accountability is weakness. Survivors often endure trauma for a long time or are even re-traumatised in various ways, they often endure in silence and isolation, they also do not get resources to heal, we do not get to the roots of the harm and so it keeps happening. All of us remain unsafe.
And lot of the (very valid) anger that comes up when new stories of sexual violence emerge comes from this infuriating continuing lack of justice and healing. New perpetrators are sometimes seen as a compounded version of every perpetrator before them who dodged accountability, part of a collective of harm doers. The anger curdles into this bloodthirst, a carceral and punitive rage. Meanwhile, the survivors keep stacking up. Where does that anger really go and what does it push forward? When harm isn't acknowledged, then it isn't addressed. These stories all eventually fade and are forgotten by many of us and the survivors get forgotten too; from those who never report to those who go all the way to court (and I say all the way because currently that’s the sad single peak of justice for those willing to enter into existing legal systems to try and obtain it).
So WHERE TO GO NOW? I've been in a few situations in my life where I was called in to directly support sexual harassment and sexual violence survivors (to participate in mediation processes, or in discussion circles to help them triangulate responses, to contact others on their behalf to ask for advice, to help communicate demands for accountability and solidarity, etc) and each time I’ve felt some measure of overwhelmed, deeply inadequated and super uncomfortable. I’ve also felt resentment at times, like — why do I have to deal with this, I wish I didn’t have to deal with this. I’m humbled by the diversity of my own feelings and can now be grateful to have been called in as I was, and given the chance to learn a lot from those experiences, to be more informed of my duty and responsibility to the people I care about, the people I am in community with. It’s from those experiences that I am sharing all this here today.
Because our community — the people we know, live alongside, can name, can reach out to directly, who we share some measure of trust with, whose wellbeing is connected to ours — they and we are an important (in some cases, the most important) line of defense and response against all types of violence and harm. And so we need to strengthen our capacity to show up for our community, and practice it any chance we get. If this moment is showing us anything, it’s that our lives depend on it.
Resources on accountability and harm from people who know better than me
I’ve found these resources really expansive in teaching me about how harm happens, how it multiplies, how to centre survivors and how we can think about accountability versus punishment when it comes to harm and violence. I note that nearly all these resources are US-focused and US-based. I am new to this and am still working through the most readily accessible resources (which is often America due to the space they take up). If you have non-US centric resources, I’d love to hear about them. I also think translation of existing resources is greatly needed, for those who have the capacity!
The Barnard Centre for Research on Women has a great video series on transformative and restorative justice. I especially recommend How to Support Harm Doers in Being Accountable, Centering Survivors Needs Part 1 & Part 2 and the 4 short videos in this series on Building Accountable Communities
Also from BCRW, What is Transformative Justice? contains amazing articulations from multiple voices on how we can shift our understanding of what justice and collective accountability can look like. Then this on the relationship between transformative justice and disability justice
Great short primer on accountability on IG by Brianna Chandler!
Mia Mingus is someone I’ve learned a lot from — about transformative justice and also disability justice and access. Through her I found out about the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective and also about “pods” aka “the kind of relationship between people who would turn to each other for support around violent, harmful and abusive experiences, whether as survivors, bystanders or people who have harmed.” Read more about pods and how to map your own pod here. BATJC also has a whole page of recommended readings that I am really excited to dig into
Mia again! Created a curriculum for Transformative Justice that has both a reading list (US centric) and a full guide with exercises on how to explore TJ with others
Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, holds some beautiful concepts and articulations about facilitation and holding space. It’s such an underrated skill!!
My friend R shared this resource with me, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Partner Abuse in Activist Communities Zine. It’s no longer a surprise to me when a seemingly “progressive” or “feminist” person is outed as a sexual harasser or abuser. We hear it time and time again — abusers and rapists are more likely to be people you already know and trust. How do we navigate sharing space and community with them? How do we support survivors in doing that?
R also shared this: Creating A Transformative Justice Informed Sexual Harassment Protocol
Another zine that’s been making the rounds — Building a Police Free Future: Frequently Asked Questions by MPD 150. Learning about police abolition is part of learning about transformative justice
Really interesting discussion on Twitter between Lola Olufemi and Jessica Horn re: using abolition as a lens to look at the failings of the anti-rape movement
WCC Penang has a few publications that are available online for sexual crimes survivors, from a legal justice angle
I know this can be a LOT of reading and watching things and that’s overwhelming, especially when this is probably one in a long list of other resource lists people are sharing right now. Vanessa Newman shared a great post on how to deal with information overwhelm and outlines steps that keeps you accountable to your own learning without overloading yourself
My own practice of navigating harm with others (a work in progress)
I practice the points below (not sequentially, not in any kind of chronological order, not all at once) to the best of my ability, I don’t always get it right and it’s by no means foolproof or complete. There is always more to learn and do. I share in the hopes that it may help others looking for ways to develop their own practices or articulations when it comes to navigating harm and preventing further trauma for survivors. As I mentioned above, I am speaking from the perspective of an ally to survivors. I do not believe the burden should ever be on survivors to take on the brunt of the work to raise awareness / educate / advocate and I think they have every right to decide not to engage with harm doers.
I am also a non-disabled person with class, access and majority ethnicity privilege; I try to maintain awareness of and act from that position. I acknowledge that some of the work below can be too much to ask of those without my privileges, and am speaking to those who DO have the capacity to take on the work, as part of investing in collective care. I am ESPECIALLY, ABOVE ALL, WITH MY WHOLE CHEST, directing this list and essay to cishet men although I will not hold my breath for y’all.
When I first learn about harm occurring (first steps)
I always start with validating the experience of the survivor, believing and acknowledging that they have experienced harm, that harm has happened and impacted them
I practice consent and confidentiality around sharing stories of and from survivors (ESPECIALLY if they were shared with me privately), taking the time to consider whether what and how I’m sharing and who I’m sharing things with endangers them, risks violating their privacy, or risks adding on to their trauma. Public expressions of support for survivors of sexual violence, abuse, harassment, rape at a time when there are hostile sentiments towards them can be an act of solidarity and resistance against victim-blaming or shaming narratives, but they need to be done with the survivors’ wellbeing and safety in mind. Think about what RTing / reposting / tagging means for survivors when it comes to stories of sexual violence. Check out the point here about modeling digital consent (resource courtesy of my friend Deborah)
I allow myself to take time to process, respond, and/or acknowledge how the layers my personal relationships to harm doer, survivor, or both might affect my response. I find someone I trust outside of the situation (a friend, my therapist, etc) to unpack these responses if needed
I audit my capacity so I can figure out what I’m able to offer to the survivor and/or perpetrator (listening, logistics, research, monitoring, mediation, advocacy, resource creation, financial help, etc) and what boundaries I have to draw around my time and energy
If we share a baseline of established trust / good will, I may ask the survivor what they need or what I can provide to support them in this moment (no strings attached and letting them know there’s no pressure for them to respond or take up my offers), and I invest effort in making and holding non-judgemental and safe spaces for them (to grieve, to express, to be distracted, to be held, to vent, to freak out, to make plans, etc). If we have an ongoing relationship (of any kind), I make a note to try and periodically check in so that support doesn’t taper off once the impact of them sharing their story fades with time
I remind myself that how the survivor processes may not be what I expect or would personally do. Embrace that all ways of responding to trauma are valid, and mitigate any ways that may cause more harm to the survivor or physical injury to the perpetrator. I sit with my discomfort and direct my energy from judging anybody to understanding my own feelings
I refrain from speaking on behalf of the survivor without clear and honest communication with them. I remind myself to keep practicing saying “That’s not something I can talk about publicly” “Out of respect for the survivor / concern for the survivor’s safety and wellbeing, I won’t comment” “I don’t have enough details to make a comment right now”
I remind myself that survivors may also take issue with my response to their stories / situations / the harm doers for a variety of reasons too numerous to list here. The focus then is really listening to what they’re telling me, where I’ve caused harm, how accountability looks like for me. I do my best to sit with any feelings of defensiveness on my own or in trusted spaces away from survivors, with the goal of unpacking it and moving through it. I admit to my mistakes, reaffirm and recommit myself to my intent to centre survivors, prevent further harm, and contribute to healing where I can
If I can afford it, I send money to trusted organisations in my community that actively work on fighting domestic or sexual violence, centering survivor’s needs, and advocating for legal and cultural reform and awareness about these issues.
If you don’t know which organisations are working on those issues around you, its always a great time and not too late to learn. It also never hurts to invest time in more reading about harm, accountability, sexual violence, transformative justice, healing etc and actively working on these issues on your own (for me that’s often therapy, conversations with trusted friends and writing). Taking accountability for your own capacity to harm others is important work too
For me facing harm with the harm doer has looked like
I acknowledge that impact matters more than intent and make sure that I don’t lose sight of the fact that another person has / other people have experienced harm because of the harm doer, who I may be in relationship with, and that my responsibility to both the harm doer as my friend and the survivor is to engage with the harm doer in an accountability process (if I feel capable and safe doing so). Holding friends accountable is an act of care and investment in their wellbeing — this can help guide you on what to say (see below)
If I’m friends with the harm doer or they are someone I trust or look up to, I have to recognise that I may have been hurt by their actions as well and I need to make space for my own feelings first, so I can make space to face this with them. I release putting time pressure on myself to provide public or private responses. I also allow myself the choice to step away from any responsibility to “fix” things with / for the harm doer if I feel I cannot take that on
I validate my instincts if I feel like I have all the information I need and if I feel the best course of action for me is to directly end the friendship, without directly addressing the harm doer I am in relationship with
As soon as possible (and again — if I feel safe enough to do so), I try to address them directly to open space for response and dialogue. I might reach out to other mutual friends to discuss taking this action as a group. My experience with this has primarily been in a situation where the harm was a non-sexual violation, but I do think I would use the same scripts in a situation with sexual violations. Sample wording:
Here are the details of what I've heard. There are allegations of you causing harm. It greatly concerns me. As your friend, I am asking for your honest side of the story
I care about you, which is why I want to be here with you in an accountability process but that does not mean I will excuse the harm you did or just “forget it”
This doesn’t have to mean you are a bad unforgivable person, but harm has still been done, and now there’s space to address that instead of burying or ignoring it. Addressing it and taking responsibility is a commitment I need to see from you as my friend
Are you okay — what do you think contributed to your actions? What support can we give you to address those root causes? Are you worried this might happen again? I have concerns about this happening again
Trying my best to make a mutually safe and non-judgemental space for their response and noting what it looks like: Silence? Evasion? Anger? Defensiveness? Remorse? Helplessness? [Insert other response here]? From here (or after follow up questions) I ask myself, how does this response make me feel, is it lacking anything, what in it gives me hope, does it worry me, does it address directly the concerns / requests brought up by the survivor?
If my friend says no to the last question, or their response scares me or it doesn’t dispel my concern, then I ask myself if I can continue being friends with them, if I feel safe enough to stay friends with them, and if staying in relationship with them can help them adjust their response, hold themselves accountable, and/or learn more. I ask myself if this will take more conversations, if I have the capacity for that, if I am willing to commit to longer term engagement
If I decide on longer term engagement and continuing the friendship, I work on sharing relevant resources with the harm doer for their further education, including other people they could speak to about these issues as well as providing other support based on discussions with the harm doer and others in our community. I try to be honest with my friend about what my expectations are, what commitment I need to see from them as part of rebuilding trust and accountability, what my boundaries are around communications, time, energy, disclosure, shared spaces and interests, etc. I might set a timeline or milestones for myself (or shared with them)
Sometimes all this still leads to the ending of a friendship. Throughout my participation in the accountability process I have to remind myself and accept that this is a possibility, and one that needs to happen if I cannot see a healthy way forward. If it occurs, I take the appropriate measures to ensure my safety and security, and give myself time to grieve, again in trusted spaces where I can unpack and work on my own healing
Things I try to work on consistently
Knowing my own triggers so I know when to step back or ask for help. If this work is done with and alongside community as it should be, then everyone working together on community healing and safety can trust that other people can step in when anyone needs to step back. A trigger I have is handling suicidal ideation, for example, and I handle it by learning more on my own about the topic and how to hold space for it, and asking for help from others who feel more capable holding space for it so I can direct people to them instead
Working on dealing with conflict in my inter-personal relationships swiftly, and always centering honesty, transparency and kindness. If I have been harmed or hurt, I practice advocating for myself, clearly articulating my feelings, what they’ve done, and what I need from them to heal and/or move forward. If I have harmed or hurt someone, I acknowledge the harm, I take time to listen and let them speak, I make space for my feelings of shame, guilt, self-loathing (and I make that space with a trusted person that’s not the person I harmed), I ask them what they need from me, I commit to providing that to the best of my ability, and I commit to working on behaviours that lead to the harm or hurt. This is real life, real time practice for accountability and harm, and it can absolutely apply to things you think are “small” slights. When we know how to deal with the smaller stuff, it trains us for the bigger stuff! The tools I use for this work vary widely: therapy, writing, tarot, consistent self-reflection, reading, facilitation work
Practicing self-forgiveness, acceptance and sitting with my discomfort. Myself and my strong network of support remind me that I am enough and I try my best; I trust them to call me out (and this allows me to just focus on doing the best I can) and to hold my jagged bits. Sitting with your own trauma helps you see and sit with other people’s trauma. It’s not comfortable work, and it won’t guarantee comfort. But it helps you practice being more tender, vulnerable, and accepting of discomfort. I also acknowledge that so many of us have to do this work alone, or can’t do it because we don’t get the help we need — what can I share that may help someone else get more on this front?
Deepening my empathy. I do this by learning about people whose lives are very different from mine, listening to them, reading things, accummulating more lenses through which I can see the world, staying open and staying humble (a difficult thing for a know-it-all!!)
I am and have been friends with people who are in ongoing abusive relationships. I used to ask all the time — of them and other friends — why don’t they just leave? And then I educated myself on cycles of abuse, roots of violence, relationships based on trauma, and the insensitivity of my judgement. These friendships have been opportunities for me to actively practice longterm care and empathy. This could look like: formulating a safety plan with my friend and other trusted friends, in cases of emergency; providing safe spaces to decompress or escape; remembering that my friend is more than their abusive relationship and encouraging their other likes and our shared interests; remembering also that my friend is strong, and has the capacity to care for themselves and others and inviting them to do that for me sometimes, when they can, is a sign of trust and love; encouraging them to seek support in therapy or other support services, helping them access these things safely
The previous point also applies to my friendships with survivors of violence and abuse, who have taught me how to more compassionately navigate triggers and trauma. This could look like: looking up information about possible triggers in the media we consume together; always asking for consent when it comes to touch or sharing personal space; asking to have an honest conversation about triggers but not pressuring them to share if they’re unable or unwilling; working hard not to other them out of a misguided attempt to be sensitive to their trauma; reading up on my own about experiences similar to theirs
Practicing and learning how to hold space for people to experience difficult things. This could be my friend going through a hard breakup, a job rejection, a family tragedy. For me this has looked like: better listening and not just waiting for my turn to speak, silencing impulses to “fix” and offer advice, cultivating patience and deeper empathy instead of giving in to judgement (and at the very least keeping silent on any judgemental responses). I’ve experienced time and again the power of just being present with someone I love while they go through something hard — to hold their hand as they cry and breathe through it with them, to listen quietly as they get something off their chest and being comfortable with silence so maybe they can be too
And to allow myself to walk away from the space I hold and make with people without feeling like I have to bring their problems “home” with me to keep working on them. To trust that I deserve to think about myself, take up space in my own life, and that I am in continuing dialogue and relationship with this work and the people that I am in community with. To trust that I can and will keep showing up and trying again, for the long haul.
If you made it all the way through this, thank you for reading. I so sincerely hope you found something you can take with you into your own life and forward on your own journey navigating and deepening your relationship with these issues. If you have any thoughts, corrections, concerns, additional resources to share or if you think it would be useful to have this essay in another format (Zine PDF? Translating sections to BM? Audio recording? Video???) please feel free to comment or reply to this newsletter! I’d love to chat. I am happy and grateful to be in community with the readers of this newsletter — this space and the sharing keeps me accountable. Thank you also to Sam and Nadia for reading through this draft and providing feedback.
Last words: You can now book a tarot reading with me! 50% of proceeds will be donated to initiatives helping migrant workers, refugees and trans people in Malaysia. You can also send me questions for free short tarot readings at this open form here. If would like to support me and my work, here’s my tip jar.