Nothing tastes as good as feminist accountability feels

Last week, I had to apologise to someone I had played a part in harming. I’m part of a collective of women, and one of the people we support had felt unheard and undervalued by us. We thought hard about this apology, how to frame it, how to demonstrate what we felt true accountability might look like. The reaction we got back from this person was beyond gratifying. She told us she felt heard, appreciated and seen by us. Her response was kind, loving and gracious — and made me feel humble, empowered and incredibly rewarded by the whole experience. She told us she felt cared for by the collective.

We don’t often hear positive narratives of accountability. Oftentimes, it is something to be feared; associated with negative experiences and emotions. It is tucked away in many non-profit organisations’ value statements. It has less of a star billing than some of the other principles in non-profit values constellations. It’s the dowdy second cousin to headliners like ‘integrity’, ‘courage’ or ‘excellence’. It is mostly forgotten about and dusted off when something goes wrong.

And we seem to be surrounded by examples of its failures. During the past twelve months, we’ve seen multiple examples of non-profit employees taking to social media or to disclose issues to the press to shine a spotlight on the ways in which they have felt their organisations have failed to demonstrate accountability when it came to allegations of bullying, racism, sexism and ableism. What are some of the common patterns in the way that the non-profit sector responds to these issues and attempts to demonstrate accountability?

1) DARVO responses are everywhere

Jennifer J. Freyd coined the term DARVO to describe the behaviours perpetrators of wrongdoing commonly display when they are held accountable. Initially, Freyd developed this framework to describe the actions of sexual abusers. However, institutional as well as interpersonal manifestations of DARVO are everywhere we look. Here’s how DARVO responses are showing up:

  • Denial or Defensiveness — Commonly demonstrated through reactions like: ‘I don’t recognise any of the behaviours of bullying/racism. Our organisation is led by committed, talented people who hold themselves to the highest values.’ Sometimes, where there isn’t denial, there is minimisation. One large non-profit, accused of doing nothing over the years to tackle racism, issued a public statement, saying: ‘Like any other organisation, we aren’t immune from racism’.
  • Attack — Refer to statements like: ‘The accuser was not performing in their job and did not raise the complaints through official channels as they should have done.’
  • Reverse Victim and Offender — Also known as siphoning sympathy and attention away from those who have been harmed. Exhibits A, B and C: ‘Our organisation does amazing work for children around the world. Our work and fundraising efforts are being disrupted by these complaints, which are a distraction from our core mission.’ Or ‘I have dedicated my life and soul to this organisation, and it is extremely hurtful to be attacked in this way.’ Or a recent one I came across: ‘He says I was racist, but as a white man I feel I have been the victim of racism perpetrated by him.’

2) Thinking apologies are the end of the matter

Often institutions will assume that an apology, perhaps with a list of actions attached to it, should be the end of the matter. Employees are urged to ‘look to the future’ and ‘focus on moving forward’. But many who have been hurt remain in stasis — why? Because harm has been caused, no meaningful reparation has been made, people continue to feel unheard, and therefore healing cannot take place. In looking through some of the recent organisational responses to racism in the international development sector, this demand to ‘move on’ feels commonplace. Institutional statements on racism are often imbued with a ‘recovery narrative’, suggesting that the organisation has moved on, and is already in a different place. But those who have been harmed don’t see themselves reflected in these statements; if those who have been harmed are not in ‘a different place’, what does it say about the extent to which they belong in their organisations? Past tenses are often used to list all the actions that have been taken to address an issue — but the past tense is particularly jarring for those who have been affected — to them, these issues are alive and kicking.

3) Performative accountability

With the ready availability of social media, performative accountability is accessible to all of us. We risk becoming more focused upon ‘showing how much we care about accountability’ than we are on doing the hard work of accountability itself. Take the case of the Vice Chair of Manchester University, who falsely claimed she’d reached out to show concern to a victim of racial profiling at the university when in fact no such thing had happened. Or that of a north American human rights organisation which issued a list of everything they’d done on anti-racism in the past year, only to have a collective of anonymous employees issue a riposte, contesting that the organisation had done only a fraction of what it had claimed to on social media.

4) Critiquing tactics used by complainants

Last month, a group of employees and members roasted the board of an non-profit umbrella body on social media, telling their stories about sexual harassment. The empath in me really feels for those who issue these public declarations — as Maya Angelou put it, ‘There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.’ Not everyone saw it the same way. Some influential sector leaders in the UK were aghast, pointing out that due process should have been followed, that social media was an inappropriate platform, that ‘if only we could have civil discourse and mutual respect….’; that the board did a good job in a tough operating climate. When employees go nuclear on social media, it’s a clear indicator that something is deeply wrong with their organisation’s internal accountability mechanisms. In this case, several people had tried to raise the issues repeatedly via formal internal channels, only to be left dissatisfied. It’s a telling lesson about who due process actually works for, and about the unequal power dynamics embedded into the way these processes are designed, which leave those who have been affected with little voice or influence.

Step 1: Centre a discourse and practice of love and care

A feminist approach to accountability has a positive framing. It is driven by our desire for love, connection and care with others. (And yes, discourses and practices of love belong in social justice organisations — many of us do this work out of passion and care. Why wouldn’t we bring the language of love into the frame?) For example, we hold someone we are line managing to account when they aren’t performing at their job out of our care and concern for their development and wellbeing, not because we want to shame or blame them. We create climates where it is low risk for junior staff to give us critical feedback out of a desire to create an environment of safety and care for everyone in our organisations. Centring love within accountability work may mean we try ‘call in’ when we can — meaning we ask for accountability in private, from a space of care and a desire to connect and make mutual meaning. But it also accepts that there are times when calling in is a dead end and calling out may be essential to bring about the type of loving change we need to see.

Step 2: No purity in a deeply damaged world

One of things that makes accountability so hard is that we approach it from the wrong starting point. We assume innocence and purity where there is none. We see ourselves as existing outside of systems of oppression. We lean into our identities as ‘good people’. Since the UK cut its international aid budget, I’ve heard many leaders say, ‘This is not who we are as a country…’ I heard similar narratives from American politicians following the January 6 storming of the US Capitol. These moves to innocence are a way of avoiding accountability. In a deeply damaged, globalised, interconnected world, we are all complicit in much that is harmful because we live within oppressive systems that cause harm every day. If we approached accountability from the assumption that we’re all flawed, that it’s inevitable we will cause harm and disappointment at times, perhaps accountability would feel much less painful. What if this is who we are? And we proceed from there?

Step 3: Proactive accountability as an internal resource

We often think about accountability reactively — something that happens when something goes wrong. A feminist approach to accountability requires us to practice it proactively; to embed it into the everyday. It is like a muscle, an internal resource that we must build, and we can do this through regular critical reflection. The scholar Ann Russo refers to accountability as ‘An internal resource for recognising and redressing harms we have caused to ourselves and others.’ If we can build this internal muscle for the small things, accountability for some of the bigger issues we may face as leaders will become far easier.

Step 4: Collective and community accountability

Drawing upon transformative justice approaches, a feminist approach to accountability includes a focus on the collective. As individuals, we may not be directly responsible for causing the harm — perhaps we didn’t say that racist comment or participate in bullying, but how have we been complicit by minimising, ignoring or deprioritising acting on the harm? It requires us to ask ourselves what were the organisational conditions or wider systems we have been complicit in that allowed the harm to take place. We so rarely see collective accountability statements from non-profits — sometimes one person is scapegoated, while collectives such as boards do not often appear to address their own collective role in what has gone wrong, and in extreme cases appear to cling to power despite losing legitimacy in the eyes of staff. We need more narratives and examples of ways in which we are collectively complicit and must therefore be held collectively accountable.

Step 5: Power analysis

This wouldn’t be a feminist approach to accountability if I didn’t mention power. We must understand how unequal power relations and systems of power contributed to causing the harm in the first place. We must analyse accountability mechanisms and processes with a power lens — seeking to ensure not just the safety of those who have been harmed, but also their self-determination over the process of accountability to the greatest extent possible. For example, I recently interviewed a wide range of people who had issued formal complaints about racism in their non-profits. None were asked how they wanted the investigation process to proceed; none were able to request how often they would be updated, or what role they wanted to play in the next steps. Already undermined, those going through these processes continued to have their agency stripped away from them. Where’s the love in that?

This is just part of the framing for accountability we use at We Are Feminist Leaders, where we support individuals and organisations to embed feminist leadership approaches into their work. If you’re interested, and want to find out more, visit www.wearefeministleaders.com. Join us — the rewards to a proactive, positive approach to accountability are bountiful.

Leila Billing is a freelance gender consultant and Co-Founder alongside Natalie Brook of We Are Feminist Leaders. Follow her on Twitter @leilabilling

Leila Billing is a freelance gender consultant