We need to make proactive accountability regular praxis in organizing and beyond
The more privilege you hold, the more important proactive accountability is.
by Leslie Mac
The news has been especially awash in harmful behavior repositioned as “conversation starting” and “lessons learned” as of late. From Alyssa Milano to Esquire, this cycle of “bad behavior, non-apology, conversation starting” seems to be everywhere. As someone who speaks to and teaches white people how to be better allies, I spend a lot of time on the subject of accountability. I also spend a lot of time thinking about my own accountability in the various spaces I inhabit as a Black Woman and as a organizer.
I have read a lot of articles, social media posts, and book chapters about what I call reactive accountability. Reactive accountability is possible when someone has a relationship with a community (whether digital or physical) in which members of that community are empowered and able to call someone in (and/or out, as needed) when they mess up. This kind of accountability is important and should most definitely be cultivated. We cannot grow as people without being surrounded by those who can call us on our shit.
Much less has been written about proactive accountability. In this other model, the work of relationship building and accountability is brought into your decision making processes on the front end, from the very beginning. While no one is perfect, nor is anyone expected to be, making this small shift in your thinking, planning, and decisions can make all the difference.
Proactive accountability is especially important for those of us who hold privilege(s) within marginalized communities. As a light-skinned, cis, het, able-bodied, financially stable Black Woman with a sizable social reach, it can be very easy to slip into a decision-making process that centers myself—after all, I am marginalized. But that slip becomes a cliff very quickly and it is easy to find ourselves having harmed the very people we claim to work on behalf of, with only ourselves to blame.
It is always easier to illustrate organizing concepts via examples. This week, I had to employ proactive accountability after I received an inquiry via my personal website, an invitation to deliver a keynote address at the annual awards gala for a white-led organization. They, of course, wanted to know my availability, my rates, a proposal, etc. This is my job, so I have those things ready to go at a moment’s notice and could have sent them that information right away. It’s the “professional” thing to do. But responding to this inquiry without engaging in proactive accountability would have been wrong. It is only via my aforementioned privileges that this opportunity was offered to me in the first place. Even having a personal website for this opportunity to be sent through is a significant privilege. Therefore it is incumbent on me to do more than the “professional” thing, but rather to do the right thing.
I have spent time cultivating relationships and supporting the work of amazing Black Women & non-men organizers around the country. Rarely do I encounter a city or a community that I have had zero interactions with. In this case, the organization offering me a keynote speaking opportunity works in a community I have done direct work with in the last few years, and so my first step was clear: Reach out to the Black Women organizers in the community this organization serves to inquire about their work and their treatment of Black organizers.
This is where I start when offers/requests come in. This is critical practice for me as someone who does national organizing. It cannot not be an afterthought, it must be the first thought. I usually do this via email, in which I am specific and transparent about why I am asking the following questions about a particular organization and the individual(s) who contacted me:
- Have you worked with them?
- What is their reputation in the community?
- Is their work directly impacting our people in positive ways?
- Do you think the organization would benefit from hearing me speak?
If the response is negative—if the organization or individual is terrible, doesn’t support local Black Organizers, and are all talk and no action—I do not take the gig and I make sure to tell them why. I let them know that bringing in a Black Woman to speak at their event while they harm the Black people in their own community is peak white supremacy. If local Black organizers ask to be connected for follow-up, I do so. If not, I leave it at that.
If the response is positive—if the organization or individual is not a terrible scourge to the Black community and my contact thinks it would good for them to hear from me—I schedule a follow-up conversation to discuss how my appearance would best support the work of local Black organizers.
My next step: Follow up with the organization to get more information and to specifically ask if they are open to me sharing the stage with a local Black Woman organizer. Depending on their response, I either invite a local organizer to join me at the event and share the time I was given with them or I spend a good amount of time crafting an address that will push those in the room to act in support of the critical work being done by Black Women and other non-men in their own community.
Finally, it is important to pay those whose expertise you seek out. I always send some funds to the organizers who take the time to share their experiences and opinions with me and, of course, I always work to ensure that anyone joining me on stage is paid by the organization as well. Through this method of proactive accountability, I have been able to bring organizers into spaces with me and, when things have worked out well, helped to create connections that have generated fruitful collaborations and resource access for other Black folks.
The more privilege you hold, the more important proactive accountability is. The power you hold means your mistakes are able to harm the people around you in significant ways. Before you make decisions you know will affect others, how much time to do take to consider how to front-load your process with the paid counsel of those most affected? When accountability is solely an afterthought or something you engage with once harm is already done, it fosters the current model where every harm inflicted is positioned as someone’s “lesson learned” and nothing more.
If we are to create a better world, this cyclical practice of harming marginalized people and citing it as a necessary or opportune source of knowledge in reactive accountability conversations will never get us there. I invite everyone reading this to take stock and spend time grappling with how you can incorporate proactive accountability into your processes, work, and lives. This is how we can help to build a better world, by thinking carefully about our actions and listening to those we seek to support, being proactive in the ways they need us to whenever we have the opportunity to do so.
Leslie Mac is a Brooklyn-born Black Woman who founded the Ferguson Response Network to connect nationwide efforts supporting the Movement for Black Lives. She is the Co-Creator of the recently shuttered Safety Pin Box, a subscription service for white people striving to be allies in the fight for Black Liberation, and a Founding Lead Organizer with Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. For more information visit her website.