What do we do when we find our boundaries violated? How do we respond when someone makes a transphobic or racist comment? What can we do when we think we have done or said something to harm another? All of these situations, and many more, are calls for accountability. 

We desperately need accountability. We need healthy ways to account or answer for our actions (or inactions). Without accountability, past and present harms go unchecked, resentments build, and relationships are damaged. With accountability, we can work on repairing harm, make and keep commitments, and honor our relationships with ourselves and each other.

What’s in the way? As much as we need accountability, we humans often avoid it. What’s stopping us? We may fear accountability if we’ve experienced it as blame, shame, or punishment. We may also fear that having accountability conversations will cause hard feelings, or lead to rejection or backlash. These fears come from a system and culture in which punishment and violence are used to control people and uphold inequality. 

Even when we’re working to create a more just and equitable world, we may be stuck in patterns we’ve learned over generations that are based in blame, shame, and punishment. In my early activist years, our accountability practices were infused with judgment and shame. I knew we needed another way, but didn’t know what that was. I’m incredibly inspired and grateful to have access to approaches to accountability that are grounded in love.

What’s possible when we practice accountability with love? For both adrienne maree brown and Mia Mingus, accountability has a critical role in social transformation. Their writing beautifully expresses the potential of accountability to go beyond fixing a problem to creating a world that works for all of us. In Murmurations: Love looks like Accountability, adrienne maree brown links the practice of accountability on a small scale to our collective survival. She writes that “Being accountable is how we can come to truly love ourselves, and give and receive love from others. Being accountable in our most intimate relationships creates the pattern of societal accountability.” Check out eight individual and collective accountability practices she calls for here

In Dreaming Accountability, Mia Mingus asks, “What if we understood our accountability, not as some small insignificant act, but as an intentional drop in an ever-growing river of healing, care, and repair that had the potential to nourish, comfort and build back trust on a large scale, carving new paths of hope and faith through mountains of fear and unacknowledged pain for generations?” 

Where do we start? For both Mia Mingus and adrienne maree brown, our relationships to ourselves are at the core of how we practice accountability. Mia Mingus states that “our abusive relationship with ourselves lays the groundwork for an abusive world.” She suggests self-accountability as one starting place for practice, which includes acknowledging the ways we don’t show up for ourselves, beat ourselves up, disregard our own boundaries, and otherwise mistreat ourselves. The first practice adrienne maree brown suggests is “Be responsible for your internal state and the internal impact you may have on others.” This includes being aware of, and responsible for, our wants, needs, and feelings. Doing so will enable us to build interdependence in our relationships, rather than causing harm. 

How do we “hold” someone accountable?  Tafadzwa Bete Sasa shares the idea that Accountability is a love language through the example of an accountability conversation that had a huge impact on her life. The feedback she received came from love and concern when she was doing poorly in her studies. She expected to be punished, but was instead supported to reflect and change her behavior. Tafadzwa Bete Sasa shares three key skills that can be applied in many situations: 1) ask what happened, 2) hold nonjudgmental space, and 3) ask “what’s the plan?” Tafadzwa Bete Sasa’s perspective helped me clarify my own thoughts about “holding” someone accountable. In her story, the accountability conversation was a gift from someone who cared about her, believed in her, and wasn’t afraid to “name the elephant”. There was no judgment, shame, blame, or coercion. She was “held” so that she could be accountable to her own goals. 

The call for “calling in” – Over the past decade, the idea of calling in as an alternative to calling out has been embraced by many, though there are different ideas of what these concepts mean. In this keynote address, Loretta J. Ross asserts that the investment in callout culture, where people are publicly criticized and shamed, destroys our ability to build a movement. For her, calling in is a way of holding people accountable for the harm that they do to each other out of love. It’s not letting people off the hook for their oppressive behavior. Calling in is treating people as allies, rather than enemies and responding to oppression without oppression. 

I believe that calling out has a place and shouldn’t be completely discarded, particularly when dealing with oppressive power structures. I also agree that we need more calling in. We call each other in when we recognize that we are all human and have harmful ideas and behaviors to unlearn. I like to think of calling in as an invitation, without shame, blame, or coercion. When we call people in, we’re letting them know about the impact of their actions and inviting them to align their actions with their values and commitments. 

Does anger have a place in accountability with love? Anger and love aren’t mutually exclusive. When calling in, we don’t need to suppress feelings of anger or disappointment. Some of the most impactful feedback I’ve given has been when I’m speaking my truth and allowing my emotions to come through. I’ve also been on the receiving end of very effective feedback with strong emotions. It didn’t feel comfortable, but it pushed me to reflect, learn, and grow. 

Expressing feelings is often considered inappropriate, particularly in the workplace. Dr. Valerie A. Batts, in The Role of Feelings in the Workplace, describes feelings as useful messengers that tell us what we need. Uncomfortable feelings like anger, sadness, and fear arise when boundaries are crossed, we’ve experienced a loss, or we perceive a threat to our safety. Expressing our feelings and needs, and making requests, is a way of responding to situations without shame or blame. Requests can be very useful when we set a boundary of what we don’t want, and also ask for something that will meet our needs. 

How do we practice being accountable when we have caused harm? Mia Mingus invites us to imagine: “What if accountability wasn’t scary?” She suggests an alternative to punitive approaches that make us want to run away. Instead, she offers the idea that accounting when we’ve done something harmful is an opportunity to practice liberation and love. Mingus also offers this four-part approach for giving a genuine apology, which includes self-reflection, apology, repair, and changed behavior. 

Acknowledging what works – What if, in addition to practicing accountability when things don’t work, we also acknowledged and celebrated what works? What if we acknowledged the contributions we make and the needs we meet? What if we celebrated the commitments we keep to each other and the ways we have each other’s backs? What if we affirmed what makes it possible for our relationships to work and our work to move forward? What if we acknowledge risks people take, even when we don’t get the results we want? Creating a culture of acknowledgment isn’t just a way to make the hard conversations easier, I believe it’s a core part of accountability. Accounting only for what isn’t working can feed a scarcity mindset. Accounting for what is working, and what makes this possible, cultivates gratitude, trust, and a sense of belonging. 

Practice, not perfection – Practicing accountability with love is something we’re all capable of if we’re intentional and keep at it. If you’re part of a team, you can work together to shift away from old norms and create new ones. For example, after completing a project or event, make it a habit to reflect on what worked, what could work better and lessons learned. If you’re not part of a team, look for a buddy to practice and/or check in with. Remember, we’re practicing and need the freedom to take risks and make mistakes. If we let go of the need to be perfect, we can embrace our shared humanity. Rather than shaming each other, we can normalize mistakes, cultivate curiosity, and give ourselves and each other grace as we learn together. 

Questions for reflection

  • What thoughts and feelings come to mind when you think of the word accountability?
  • What is your relationship to accountability? Do you avoid it? Embrace it? 
  • How are you accountable to yourself?
  • What are some accountability practices that work well, or might work well for you?
  • If you were to move towards more accountability with love, where would you start?
  • What are some opportunities for accountability conversations in your life?

Many thanks! Infinite gratitude to adrienne maree brown, Mia MingusTafadzwa Bete Sas, Loretta J. Ross, and Dr. Valerie A. Batts for sharing their wisdom with the world. Thanks also to Danny Moreno for editorial assistance on this piece.

Image created by me (Laurin Mayeno).