Damends: When An Apology is Not Enough

When I was fresh out of my Master’s program in Dance Movement Therapy, I had this grand vision of changing the system from within by working in a maximum security prison as a Dance Movement Therapist. But like most dreams, my vision was modified after familial responsibilities took precedence. I got my start working with pre-verbal children with difficult behaviors and eventually segued to at risk youth living temporarily in group homes. The youth were convicted of violent, and nonviolent, crimes and were court mandated to participate in therapy as part of their rehabilitation. In the beginning of treatment, I was met with resistance which was to be expected when one is forced into therapy. But as my clients realized I was different than the other therapists using a combination of Art Therapy, Movement Therapy, breath work, yoga and meditation, they began to confide in me and open themselves up to different ways of thinking, being and expressing themselves.

After a few years of bumping heads with administrators, I came to realize that it was the system that needed rehabilitating and the task was way outside of my jurisdiction. This became evident when I was ratted out by a youth in one of my anger management groups in a group home for incarcerated youth. Apparently, the administration was giving him “incentives” for breaking confidentiality and telling the higher ups the nature of my group’s discussions. He told them all the ways in which I was breaking the rules; I allowed the youth to leave their tee shirts untucked, use curse words and full body movement including the use of their hands to express themselves. In working with volatile youth, I understood the need for parameters. The wrong movement, or gesture, could be interpreted as hostile by rival gang members igniting altercations. My argument was: how was I going to address their trauma and heal their anger, if they weren’t allowed to fully express their emotions? I had to break the rules in order to do my job. Fortunately, we never had any incidents during any of my anger management groups, only profound healing experiences. But after one too many reprimands, I was asked to leave the agency for our differences in philosophy. I realized then that the system had no intention of healing anyone but was set up to perpetuate cycles of abuse and incarceration. I had to find other subversive ways of serving my community. Subsequently, I developed my own quiet way through teaching Kundalini Yoga and Meditation and Capoeira Angola, an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art.

All too often the communities we seek out to heal from our own abusive families exacerbate our trauma by repeating abusive patterns or causing new traumas all together. This was the case with me and the Capoeira community. My frustrations in seeking accountability surrounding abuse me and my family had experienced sparked my interest in alternative forms of conflict resolution. As my cubs explored alternative ways of healing themselves, one of them came across Transformative Justice and abolitionist theory and provided me with reading materials in the form of articles and books. Some literature really opened my eyes to what was possible as far as noncarceral ways of dealing with conflict and harm reduction. After my abolitionist awakening, I became committed to mitigating harm by supporting those seeking accountability through Transformative Justice processes.

Because of my healing work in the community and I was considered an elder by the younger healers, I was sought out for guidance in regards to accountability processes as situations arose in the QTPOC community in NYC. By no means am I a Transformative Justice warrior or knowledgeable in Abolitionist or Anarchist Theory, but let spirit guide the healing process as I always had. I figured my experience as a family therapist, a mother navigating conflict within my own family and what I learned from my Sheik in Bahia who mediated between myself and my husband to lead the way.

The first accountability process I was asked to be involved in fell apart before it even began. It spun out of control online and became virtually impossible to reel back in once virtual arguments ensued, insults were hurled and jobs lost. The unfortunate part of the whole thing was that the abuser skipped town before they were held accountable leaving the complicit party responsible to deal with the fallout of abuse accusations. Although I was open to holding healing space individually and/or collectively for all parties involved, one by one, the victims removed themselves from the process before accountability was given a chance. After that, I was left feeling doubtful that accountability processes were possible.

What I learned from that process;

LESSON ONE: Each individual has their own healing timeline. Everyone is responsible for their own healing process which ideally should ideally be in tandem with each other or collectively as a group. Although you can’t force the speed in which people heal, everyone involved should be committed to staying onboard until the completion of the process. And all parties involved have to believe, to their core, in abolition and nonpunitive ways of dealing with conflict.

LESSON TWO: If it is really about abolition and harm reduction: most subversive work is done underground. For accountability to take place, it should be done discreetly and eventually become public knowledge. Most people use online public call outs as opportunities to unleash their own unprocessed trauma. Having someone with the capacity and wherewith all to hold healing space equitably for all parties involved is vital. Discussions should be conducted vis a vis with mediation, parameters and guidelines.

The next accountability process I was asked to participate in, I was asked to facilitate from the onset. This one I had felt better about because I would be able to establish the parameters, mediate and hold healing space for all parties involved. I met initially with the group of survivors. Then I met with the harm doer and their support person. Then we all met regularly as a group online via Zoom over a seven month period. The group of victims compiled their public statement which was presented to the harm doer, and read by me, in a group meeting in which incidents and issues were explicitly made known, The survivors also provided a list of “asks” they were seeking from the harm doer. I came up with the word “damends” which was a combination of the words, demand and amends. To me demands felt too punitive while amends felt too passive. An apology alone left out the possibility for restitution from the survivors should an apology not be enough. Which in most cases of abuses, they are not. To me, damends are an opportunity for both parties (harm doer and survivor) meet somewhere in the middle, to compromise on what steps can be taken for restitution for the victims and redemption for the abuser/harm doer.

This accountability process took many hours of talking, processing, introspection. I requested that all parties actively involved use discretion to keep our process confidential until we were prepared to make the statements public. I also wanted our process to live in a sanctified space away from our day to day lives. If parties, outside of our process, were interested, they could seek out more information on neutral ground where everyone involved is seen and supported. After observation of other accountability processes, more often than not, people use these situations as opportunities to project their trauma onto the harm doer/abuser, or victim/survivor, rather than dig deep into the reasons why they are triggered in the first place. That is not what we are here for. I don’t want anyone to be a dumping ground for trauma that has not been processed and integrated. Rather, I wanted this group process to serve as an exercise in abolition and a collective effort in creating a world we would like to exist in. We only know what we experience.

I commend everyone involved in this process for their effort and patience. I know it hasn’t been easy but I hope that you see our process as moving one step toward a non-carceral world that treats everyone as human, and fallible, yet worthy and capable of redemption. I believe if anyone who regrets their hurtful actions and shows remorse, whether they were brought to one’s attention or came into awareness on their own, are worthy of forgiveness. Especially after one acknowledges the harm done, apologizes and does the work necessary to alter negative behaviors. In instances of serial and cyclical abuse, sometimes apologies are not enough. That is when damends are necessary as gestures of good faith. And what about the situations where there is no acknowledgement, no apology and no accountability? Sometimes the only justice one achieves is the creation of one’s own peace. Whatever peace means to that individual. I also believe in street justice but we will leave that discussion for another time.

What you will find at the bottom of the page is the collective statement of the group of survivors, the response to the statement by the harm doer and a spreadsheet with damends illustrating whether or not the harm doer has been able to complete the damends within a reasonable amount of time. For confidentiality purposes, the specifics of our meetings will not be shared only the culmination of the work and a little bit of what I learned along the way. To maintain the sanctity of the process, I requested that everything be posted here so that it can live somewhere outside of our daily lives, like a meditation. You can read through, formulate your own opinions, come to your own conclusions and move accordingly. Hopefully, without judgement: We all hurt and we all cause harm to varying degrees. May this process serve as an example of a positive outcome for an accountability process and a way one in which one can be executed. This process has restored my faith in the belief that another world is possible when individuals all desire the same thing and can walk gingerly together in faith.

What I learned from this process;

LESSON THREE: Everyone needs to meditate, individually and collectively. Even for those that are in therapy. And especially for those that are not. Not only does it increase self-awareness, it calms the body/mind so that one can be receptive to the healing process and also burns karma created by hurt and prevents future harm.

LESSON FOUR: There are no rules in a world that doesn’t exist. We create the rules as we go along based on our values. The accountability group is a micro-cosmos of the society in which we live. The utopia we create will radiate out into our relationships, our families and communities.

LESSON FIVE: An accountability process requires compassion, patience and flexibility. And clear calm communication and deep listening.

LESSON SIX: Ask survivors to be honest with themselves whether they seek accountability (forgiveness) or retribution (punishment). Is an apology enough? If not, what is it they seek and at what point will they be satisfied? This is something that may not be answered in an accountability process but in the process of one’s own healing. At some point the healing circle must be completed. There has to be a figurative end so that good intentions don’t turn into harm.

LESSON SEVEN: As a facilitator, you can’t satisfy everyone all the time. You can only try to be as equitable as possible with one’s spiritual practice as one’s moral compass.

LESSON EIGHT: Try to wrap it up within six months. Folx only have so much emotional space for the heavy work of accountability and finding some kind of resolution. Beyond that, the process will start unraveling.

During this challenging time on all fronts personal, global, and economic, please respect the privacy and healing space of all parties involved. All pertinent documents are below. And if you have further questions or concerns, you may email me at rhythmandbreath@gmail.com or find me through social media @luz_emma_canas.

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