When interpersonal harm or violence occurs on a college campus, it can feel like the only options are penal—which can create new harm—or that there is no accountability at all. With no accountability, there often is no healing, either. For a student like Alex, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, another option was desperately needed.
When Alex was a sophomore, she was sexually assaulted by another student on her dorm floor. She saw him every morning as she left for class and every evening when she brushed her teeth in the bathroom down the hall. She became intimately aware of the difficulty, even the trauma, of living in close community with the person who had harmed her.
For Camila Pelsinger, one of Brown University’s first transformative justice student coordinators, this story was all too common. Now a senior, Pelsinger was in her first year when she started working on sexual violence prevention education on campus. From the beginning, she said, she could see that few survivors felt comfortable using the existing institutional systems of accountability, like Title IX and the criminal justice system. “Most survivors I worked with had no desire to report the incident and go through a hearing and investigation, knowing the defense would likely deny the incident had happened or, even worse, blame the survivor for what happened,” she said. And she remembered how she would watch survivors like Alex navigate this impossible choice over and over again. “If they didn’t want to use the legal system, survivors across campus were just forced to share spaces and communities with the very people who had assaulted them, with no opportunity to get any semblance of justice.”
This dilemma for survivors—between staying silent or relying on the criminal legal system or punitive campus processes, like Title IX—felt all the more salient on a campus where anti-prison and abolitionist values run deep in many organizing communities and campus spaces. Because of this, Pelsinger spearheaded an investigation into students’ experiences of harm on campus, seeking student testimony around how individuals utilize legal or institutional processes, like Title IX, and how communities seek accountability themselves.
After a year of advocacy, these findings turned into the opening of the university’s first transformative justice program and the creation of two-year pilot position, which recruited Dara Kwayera Imani Bayer, a Brown alumnus, transformative justice practitioner, and public school teacher in Boston, as the nation’s first formal transformative justice practitioner on a college campus.
Student activism in the last decade has worked to bring greater consciousness on campus of the ways that punitive systems entrench white supremacy, patriarchy and classism, and how complicit higher education is in mass incarceration. Students Against the Prison Industrial Complex, one iteration of abolitionist organizing on campus, successfully campaigned to make The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, the required first-year reading the year Pelsinger was admitted to Brown. In the years since, other campaigns emerged to organize against incarceration in a variety of ways, from a proposal for a Brown Incarceration Initiative that would provide credit-carrying classes to incarcerated students, to Railroad, a student group fighting for university hiring practices that disregard conviction history. A core tenant of this activism, and abolitionist work more generally, is the understanding that no human being is disposable. When someone commits harm, locking them up in prisons provides no growth, education, or help for that individual—and, most of all, it doesn’t center the survivor’s healing.
The experiences of students like Alex, gathered through extensive focus groups and campus conversations, showed Pelsinger and other student activists that this was needed for all kinds of harm, not just sexual assault. “In each focus group with student leaders, I asked how they addressed harm and violence when it occurred within their communities, and every single student had the same response: They didn’t.” This startling pattern encouraged her to push for something that could emerge as that resource: transformative justice on campus. She spent the following months meeting with administrative officials to share the findings from the focus groups, drawing up a position description, and advocating for a new transformative justice program.
Models and practices of transformative justice look different all over the world, but they all reject the state as the source of accountability and instead see community networks, relationships, and support systems as the alternative. Community accountability frameworks like transformative justice emerged from and are rooted in indigenous, black, queer, and other marginalized communities, who have historically been subjected to the violence of the state’s “justice.” Community accountability processes use facilitators to guide conversations among the person who was harmed, the person who caused harm, and the communities they share. It is, at its core, a penal abolitionist political framework that seeks to create mechanisms of accountability within communities themselves.
For survivors like Alex, this could look like a facilitator working with Alex, the student who assaulted her and some of their dorm peers, to guide conversation around questions about the impact this had on Alex, and how can their shared peers can best support her. How can their community come together to help Alex feel safe, while supporting her perpetrator in transforming his behavior? Were there existing conditions within the community that allowed the harm to happen, and how can they be changed? This could take many forms, too: with Alex in the room or not, letting a letter written by Alex to be read aloud by a proxy, inviting other networks of support each person has outside the dorm, but it must always be one thing—consensual. It would be, above all else, an option for Alex, a resource available to survivors like her if they choose.
On Brown’s campus, there were plenty of communities, well beyond just decarceration activists, who craved a resource like this.
“Transformative justice exists for communities to solve problems on their own terms, in ways that aren’t punitive,” Bayer said. “That’s where my work lives.” Upon arriving, one of the first things Bayer did was ensure that others were learning how to do this work: She brought on Pelsinger and Xochi Cartland as student coordinators and began recruiting for an intensive year-long program for student transformative justice practitioners. The idea of the cohort was simple: Bring students together from as many different spaces as possible in order to bring transformative justice back to all of those communities.
It also has a broader goal, too: to ensure that transformative justice doesn’t just live on campus. The ethic of transformative justice demands that its practices are not confined to elite spaces like Brown, especially in the context of the historic and present-day harm the school has created in the greater Providence community. Part of Bayer’s mission, she said, will be to build authentic partnerships with Providence community members in an effort to determine ways to collaboratively engage in transformative justice practices in spaces off campus, too. This emphasis is an effort to redistribute resources in ways that support self-determination of communities impacted by historic and current harm.
Now a semester into the training, the 12 students in the cohort spend their time hearing lecturers, reflecting, and holding “Circle,” a facilitation technique that fosters connection and voice. According to Bayer, that last part is key. “The best way to do this type of work is through practice. It’s not something you can just theorize about—you have to live it and do it. We have to really experience what that feels to create a space where people can be intentionally seen and heard and valued.”
For Kuno Haimbodi, one student in the cohort, this meant holding conversations with fellow black student organizers on campus. For Leah Shorb, it was working within her athletic teams. Each of the 12 students are working within their own communities—teams, groups, clubs, friends, communities they live with or organize with. They first determine the needs each community has, what kinds of harm occurs, and then move into conversation about how to address it.
Both Haimbodi and Shorb came to learn about transformative justice and the cohort through their prison abolition work. “People are so caught up in the fact that if someone makes a mistake, they need to face a specific consequence. If you’ve never even met the person, if you’re not the person who was harmed, why are you so convinced that this person needs to pay, needs to suffer, in order to have balance?” Haimbodi said. “People see justice as wanting people to face retaliation. When I think about meaningful changes to the carceral state, I know there are other ways.”
All of the students in the cohort share the belief that there must be another option available to students that centers the needs of the person harmed without relying on the legal system. According to the students involved, as the first campus to do this in the country, imagining the implications of this program is both exciting and overwhelming. “As a prison abolitionist, I’m always practicing radical imagination by asking, what could this really become?” Shorb paused for a moment to think. “When I think about the future of this program, I would love for the cohort to be trained to train other people, so that these skills are spread wider and wider. I want Circle processes to reach all communities as a resource that they can call on when they need it, and for it to just grow and grow. I can see that happening. I really can. And I’m hopeful.”
The work is just beginning, but Bayer and this first cohort are committed to longevity. “I hope to just be that drop in the water, causing a ripple. That image of a ripple is how I think about what this work looks like,” Bayer said, drawing bigger and bigger circles on her palm, to mimic ripples. “It’s these small interventions. When I can support individuals in engaging with their communities and healing from harm, and then they can do the same in their own relationships…. it’s a ripple effect. That’s powerful.”