Visions of Transformative Justice: Reimagining Community Care and Accountability on Campus

Disclaimer: The author is a member of Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention’s Executive Board. Her views do not represent those of the organization.

“What would it look like to respond to harm in a way that doesn’t create more trauma, more pain, more harm?”

I sit on the Tufts Women’s Center’s “Exploring Transformative Justice” event, reflecting on this question posed by community organizer Mis Mingus. She isn’t in the room with is, but rather on screen while the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s video ‘What is Transformative Justice?” plays. I jot down notes in my journal, wondering what would it mean to respond to harm in a different way? And what would this mean for Tufts?

Harm between students is a reality that shapes the broader Tufts community. Its effects ripple out, affecting students’ feelings of safety, support, and relationships with each other. Institutional and student responses to harm similarly shape campus culture. With this in mind, conversations about transformative and restorative justice practices offer some alternatives to current just systems on campus.

Lilian Mengesha, Professor of Performance Studies and Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, explained that restorative justice is “about restoring folks back into the communities that they come from” when harm happens. One way this can happen is by creating space for open dialogue between all affected in conflict, generally through a facilitator, while centering the harmed person.

Transformative justice, on the other hand, can encompass restorative practices, but also seeks to change the very conditions that led to harm happening in the first place without generating further violence. This happens particularly through community support and accountability. Both are alternatives to the standard of punitive justice embedded in American society.

Suppose someone steals someone else’s purse. A traditional punitive approach would result in some form of punishment for the “thief”—such as jail time or a fine. A restorative justice approach might facilitate the purse being returned and an apology being given. However, transformative justice goes further and looks at why the harm happened in the first place. If the person stealing the purse has no money and no food, then those conditions will still persist even after they return the purse. Writer and activist adrienne maree brown offered this explanation of transformative justice in a video by the Barnard Center for Research on Women. In the video, brown explained, “If the original conditions were unjust, then returning to those original conditions is not actually justice.”

The framework of punishment in response to harm operates most visibly in the US criminal legal system. Sociology Professor Daanika Gordon said, “It’s a punitive and alienating and punishing system that creates stigma and shame, rather than reintegrating people back into the communities that they’ve harmed and giving them the opportunity to repair the damage.”

Punishment practices of the criminal legal system permeate college campuses as well. Julian Ward is a volunteer facilitator with The Ahimsa Collective, an organization dedicated to community healing through restorative justice practices. He said, “The logic of the criminal legal system gets reproduced in the university which can make it difficult to actually pursue healing, justice, and accountability.” Under the current system, people are encouraged to lie or not say anything at all when they’ve caused harm; there is no motivation to take accountability, according to Ward. Punishment practices of the criminal legal system permeate college campuses as well. Julian Ward is a volunteer facilitator with The Ahimsa Collective, an organization dedicated to community healing through restorative justice practices. He said, “The logic of the criminal legal system gets reproduced in the university which can make it difficult to actually pursue healing, justice, and accountability.” Under the current system, people are encouraged to lie or not say anything at all when they’ve caused harm; there is no motivation to take accountability, according to Ward.

Part of the flawed nature of Tufts’ resources is that there are students who have faced unjust consequences, even if they were the ones harmed. Last semester, the Observer published an anonymous article detailing a student’s experience not being believed by medical staff and administrators after being drugged at a party. Instead, she was required to attend a series of meetings through the Amnesty Through Responsible Action policy for her “own use of alcohol or drugs.” This process did not center her needs, healing, or address the root issue of a student drugging another student on campus.

Another institutional resource that students have reported as ineffective is the Office of Equal Opportunity, which harmed students are often directed toward. 

Last fall, an anonymous junior was allegedly the victim of hate speech by another student during a class on the basis of her disability. However, in her efforts to file a formal complaint with the OEO, she described the conversations as “pretty much just a series of gaslighting me about how it wasn’t actually that bad.” The investigation is still open, but four months have passed without the administration taking any visible action. The junior said, “There was no effort provided by the OEO to promote any kind of true, in my opinion, growth and accountability.” Other students reached out to her as well, sharing their similar experiences of the OEO not adequately meeting their needs or helping hold people who harmed them accountable. “The system is not put in place to protect students. It’s put in place to protect the institution,” she said.  

Due to precedent and privacy concerns for the involved individuals, the OEO could not speak to specific cases. In an emailed statement, Tufts Executive Director of Media Relations Patrick Collins said, “​​[Restorative justice] can be very powerful in the right context and when all parties are interested in participating, but it is not appropriate in all situations. Because those who are party to a complaint sometimes are understandably unwilling to participate in that sort of meeting, and because a collaborative approach is inappropriate when certain types of harm occur, opportunities to resolve complaints using a formal restorative justice process can be limited.”

Collins did not comment or address transformative justice practices beyond restorative justice, such as community care and deconstructing damaging systems that allow for harm to occur.

While not the only type of harm, sexual violence is a very common form of harm on college campuses. Despite the university often not actually implementing punishment, the long process of reporting the incident, confronting their perpetrator, and having to discuss the harm with the OEO can be retraumatizing or deeply upsetting for some survivors. This mirrors the harm many survivors face when seeking “justice” through the criminal legal system’s processes.

Even in the face of flawed campus justice systems, academics and activists alike are envisioning how a different future of justice could look at universities and beyond.

For approximately a year and a half, Gordon and Mengesha have been leading a research and teaching project called “Building Transformative Justice at Tufts,” which has focused on methods of repair, harm reduction, and justice—particularly for historically oppressed and marginalized groups. The project has included research on transformative justice, as well as interviews with organizations and resources at Tufts—including the Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion centers—and other universities. Another piece of the “Building Transformative Justice at Tufts” project is the course taught by Gordon and Mengesha: “Theories and Practices of Justice.” This new class aims to take an academic approach to exposing more students to transformative justice values.

Paula Gil-Ordoñez Gomez (A’21) worked as a research assistant to Gordon and Mengesha on this project during her senior year and post-graduation. She echoed the sentiment that Tufts’ resources do not adequately meet students’ needs. “[Tufts’ resources] are not sufficient because they are all modeled after punitive measures. And I think that is really tough because I think a lot of people are no longer interested in that sort of accountability,” Gil-Ordoñez Gomez said.

The anonymous junior who filed a complaint with the OEO spoke on the relationship between consequences and accountability. She explained that seeking consequences for the other student wasn’t about revenge or punishment. Instead, it was about accountability and making sure he would not be able to harm other people, since she felt that he was harboring deep biases against disabled people. However, he remained in the class despite the junior’s feelings of unsafety, and the incident has not been recorded on his permanent record. The anonymous student said, “I think personal growth is definitely possible. But I think some people are unwilling to truly engage with that to better themselves.”

Gil-Ordoñez Gomez suggested one form of institutionalized transformative justice could be a center where students would be able to report harm and receive direct support. However, both she and Gordon agreed formal institutionalization of such processes may not be possible. “I think that that would require more infrastructure,” Gordon said. “And we have to think about how we might build that up, and how we could operate that in a way that is cognizant of where these practices come from and that doesn’t appropriate them at the university level.”

Transformative justice practices originate in Black and Indigenous communities. These communities have been repairing harm and creating community accountability outside of the state for a long time, largely due to the state’s historical oppression and systemic violence against marginalized groups. Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white Americans. The criminal legal system has grave consequences for Black and brown communities, who are most often on the receiving end of unjust targeting and state violence. An example of transformative justice operating in other contexts includes personal and direct redistribution of food, resources, and wealth to those without access. Transformative justice functions as an umbrella term, encompassing a range of community practices divorced from the state.

Senior Katherine Wang, an intern at the Tufts Women’s Center, also raised doubts as to whether it is possible for the administration to align with transformative justice. She said, “I feel like if we intentionally involve administrators it’ll kind of get co-opted or turn out to not be what we want it to actually look like.” According to Wang, transformative justice at the university level needs to be student-led. 

Furthermore, in a statement via email, LGBT Center Assistant Director joel gutierrez said, “I believe that only students can truly understand what students need. No matter how much staff, faculty, or administrators try to address student needs, it can’t be done without the active participation and leadership of students, particularly those who hold multiple marginalized identities.”

There are examples within the Tufts community of students and professors building and utilizing these practices in their own smaller communities while working to push the administration in a more progressive direction when applicable.

One way transformative justice tales form in student communities is through the work of Tufts Action for Sexual Assault Prevention—which is student-run and separate from institutional resources. Senior and current ASAP President Curry Brinson said in a written statement to the Observer, “Punitive justice can often not offer survivors, perpetrators, or their support systems the proper justice they are entitled to. Instead, transformative justice allows ASAP to devote our sexual violence prevention and support work to provide education and care for those involved, rather than harsh punishment and retraumatization.”

ASAP’s education and care focused work includes educational events and guest speakers, biweekly survivor spaces for peer support, and workshops on topics such as consent, bystander intervention, and responding to disclosures. None of these efforts are focused on punishment or view punishment as an effective means of preventing sexual violence on campus. According to ASAP, transformative justice recognizes that there is not a singular solution that works for all survivors, as different individuals want different outcomes and support.

The DSDI centers also serve as an example of where community accountability and care practices have the potential to—and in some cases do—flourish. According to Wang, the resources provided by the Women’s Center and other DSDI centers are part of community care, including their events, kitchens, menstrual supplies, food, and the presence of the physical spaces for gathering.

Wang has a particular interest in bringing transformative justice to student community spaces. Last semester, she hosted a discussion and journaling event at the Women’s Center—the first in a series of transformative justice events aimed at educating, inspiring discussions, and making the topic accessible. Her hope is the series will encourage tangible action.  “A lot of the time, conversation stops after we talk about the issue and after we talk about what could be done,” she said. “We don’t really put that into practice, I think, or learn about tangible examples where it’s been done, and so I think that’s really important to feel invested in it and to feel personally connected to it.”

Wang explained the ways students already incorporated these values into their everyday lives, with care-work in how they check in on and help their friends. A core aspect of transformative justice is community care. The anonymous junior cited the support and validation from her peers as the driving force in her feeling confident in what happened and comfortable enough to approach the OEO.

“Students face all kinds of barriers within the university, and they rely on one another to resist these barriers and transform the landscape of Tufts,” guitierrez said. To Gil-Ordoñez Gomez, at the end of the day, reimagining justice means becoming in tune with our sense of humanity. She said, “I think we are too creative [as] humans to think that the best way to deal with harm is to treat people with further harm. I really think we are far more creative than that. I think we are far more empathetic.”