Transformative justice as response to sexual and gendered violence

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Hirut Melaku is a doula and lactation consultant with a focus on reproductive justice. Rachel Zellers is a professor, a community worker, and an organizer. Both are members of the Third Eye Collective, a group of Black women based in Montreal. Scott Neigh interviews them about their work developing transformative justice approaches for responding to sexual and gendered violence.

When harm happens, what do you do? When someone you know is abused by a partner or sexually assaulted, what do you do? And when you find out that someone you know has harmed someone – has assaulted, has harassed, has abused – what do you do?

There are a whole set of dominant ways that we are expected to respond to these sorts of harm. Some of these are grounded in rape culture, and involve silence and avoidance and disbelief of those who have been harmed, especially women, as well as defence of those who have been violent, especially men, and a general normalization of harm.

Other kinds of dominant responses have to do with seeking action from formal organizations and institutions. There might be community organizations that work to respond to a particular kind of harm. There are medical clinics and hospitals that can respond to physical injury. And of course, when someone engages in some behaviour that breaks the law, we are expected to go to the police and to bring what has happened into the purview of the criminal legal system.

The Third Eye Collective is "dedicated to healing from and organizing against sexual, gender-based, intimate partner, and state and institutional violence, as well as incest." Their aim is to do so in a way that prioritizes Black women survivors, and that rejects many of the dominant approaches for responding to harm in favour of a transformative justice approach.

The group got its start in 2013 when Melaku approached Zellers and told her about her experience of being raped by a prominent man within Montreal's Black community, and asked for her support. This led to many more conversations among the women who went on to form the collective, both specifically about how best to support Melaku but also more generally about how they wanted to deal with gender-based and sexual violence.

A transformative justice approach attempts to address harm through working collectively in community. It means, for one thing, rejecting the scripts that would normalize and encourage silence about gendered and sexual violence. It means seeking healing, change, and accountability, while refusing to render people disposable. And it means recognizing that many of the institutions that we are taught to turn to when harm occurs actually cause a great deal of harm themselves, especially to Black people and communities. In other words, cops, courts, and other state institutions do great harm to Black people in North America, so transformative justice means seeking other ways to respond to harm, when possible. It can mean formal accountability proccesses within communities, which aim to hold the person who has caused harm accountable and to create space for genuine healing. It can mean a whole range of informal practices of care and support, of speaking out and walking with, of strategizing about safety plans and intervening in community and institutional spaces.

For Melaku and Zellers, among all of these other things, it has also meant working collectively with other Black women, working hard to be accountable to each other, and prioritizing the self-determination of those who have been harmed.

Transformative justice is not an easy path. It is not unusual for there to be resistance within communities to transformative justice efforts, including from erstwhile political allies. Though there have been growing spaces of experimentation and discussion focused on transformative justice across North America in the last two decades, and some brilliant theorizing primarily by Black women, Indigenous women, and women of colour, there is no readily available, easily applied formula. And it requires relentlessly facing head-on, naming, and dealing with kinds of harm that are tragically common and deeply woven through life, which is inevitably hard. Yet for the members of the Third Eye Collective, it is a necessary part of any genuinely liberatory politics, and they see within it a powerful potential to transform lives and communities.

Image: Adapted from a photo by Macbeatz from Pixabay.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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