Portrait of black woman with glasses with wings spreading out behind her

Transformative Justice

transformative justice—justice practices that go all the way to the root of the problem and generate solutions and healing there, such that the conditions that create injustice are transformed.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Transformative Justice:

  1. Acknowledges the reality of state harm.
  2. Looks for alternative ways to address/interrupt harm, which do not rely on the state.
  3. Relies on organic, creative strategies that are community created and sustained.
  4. Transforms the root causes of violence, not only the individual experience.
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Safety, Healing, and Agency For All

  1. Safety, Healing, and Individual Agency for Survivors.
  2. Accountability and a transformation for people who harm.
  3. Community action, healing, and/or group/org accountability.
  4. Transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence.
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

One core practice of resilience is transformative justice, transforming the conditions that make injustice possible. Resilience is perhaps our most beautiful, miraculous trait.

One place to turn to with a transformative justice lens is our shared vision. When we imagine the world we want to shift towards, are we dreaming of being the winners of the future? Or are we dreaming of a world where winning is no longer necessary because there are no enemies?

Domination or peace? I argue that peace is the most strategic option for our long-term survival. Not an uninformed or compromising peace—a peace that is built on truth, accountability, and equity.

Finding the places of healing and transformation, moving towards a world beyond enemies, is work that has to be done for our survival. Which means transformative justice—justice that transforms the root causes of injustice—is necessary at every scale, but I am particularly focused on how it becomes the common orientation and practice of movements for social change, for peace, for liberation.

I tie transformative justice into emergent strategy because it feels like a non-negotiable aspect of our future, and because the natural world has guidance for us here.

Transformative justice, in the context of emergent strategy, asks us to consider how to transform toxic energy, hurt, legitimate pain, and conflict into solutions. To get under the wrong, find a way to coexist, be energy moving towards life, together.

While we often put our attention on the state and demand transformative and restorative justice, it is important that individuals begin practicing in our personal, familial, and communal lives—we can reach the people we need to reach, and measure our work by the way the relationships feel. It is hard work, but it is accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any scale.

Eventually, transformative practices that begin small will demand new societal structures. I suspect we can’t back into this, demanding that our government provide a form of justice that even we in our movements do not know how to practice in real time. So let’s grow our expertise in this.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

How can we pivot toward practicing transformative justice? How do we shift from individual, interpersonal, and inter-organizational anger toward viable, generative, sustainable systemic change?

In my facilitation and mediation work, I’ve seen three questions that can help us grow.

Why? Listen with “Why?” as a framework.

People mess up. We lie, exaggerate, betray, hurt, and abandon each other. When we hear that something bad has happened, it makes sense to feel anger, pain, confusion, and sadness. But to move immediately to punishment means that we stay on the surface of what has happened.

To transform the conditions of the “wrongdoing,” we have to ask ourselves and each other “Why?” Even—especially—when we are scared of the answer.

It’s easy to decide a person or group is shady, evil, psychopathic. The hard truth (hard because there’s no quick fix) is that long-term injustice creates most evil behavior. The percentage of psychopaths in the world is just not high enough to justify the ease with which we attempt to label that condition to others.

In my mediations, “Why?” is often the game-changing, possibility-opening question. That’s because the answers rehumanize those we feel are perpetrating against us. “Why?” often leads us to grief, abuse, trauma, often undiagnosed mental illnesses like depression or bipolar disorder, difference, socialization, childhood, scarcity, loneliness. Also, “Why?” makes it impossible to ignore that we might be capable of a similar transgression in similar circumstances. We don’t want to see that.

Demonizing is more efficient than relinquishing our world views, which is why we have slavery, holocausts, lynchings, and witch trials in our short human history. “Why?” can be an evolutionary question. 2. Ask yourself/selves: What can I/we learn from this?

Ask yourself/selves: What can I/we learn from this?

I love the pop star Rihanna, not just because she smokes blunts in ball gowns, but because one of her earliest tattoos says, “Never a failure, always a lesson.”

If the only thing I can learn from a situation is that some humans do bad things, it’s a waste of my precious time—I already know that.

What I want to know is: What can this teach me/us about how to improve our humanity?

What can we learn? In every situation there are lessons that lead to transformation.

How can my real-time actions contribute to transforming this situation (versus making it worse)?

This question feels particularly important in the age of social media, where we can make our pain viral before we’ve even had a chance to feel it. Often we are well down a path of public shaming and punishment before we have any facts about what’s happening. That’s true of mainstream takedowns, and it’s true of interpersonal grievances.

We air our dirt not to each other, but with each other, with hashtags or in specific but nameless rants, to the public, and to those who feed on our weakness and divisions.

We make it less likely to find room for mediation and transformation.

We make less of ourselves.

Again, there are times when that kind of calling out is the only option—particularly in relation to those of great privilege who are not within our reach.

But if you have each other’s phone numbers, or are within two degrees of social-media connection, and particularly if you are in the small, small percentage of humans trying to change the world—you actually have access to transformative justice in real time. Get mediation support, think of the community, move toward justice.

Real time is slower than social-media time, where everything feels urgent. Real time often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility.

Real-time transformation requires stating your needs and setting functional boundaries.

Transformative justice requires us, at minimum, to ask ourselves questions like these before we jump, teeth bared, for the jugular.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

I want us to do better. I want to feel like we are responsible for each other’s transformation. Not the transformation from vibrant flawed humans to bits of ash, but rather the transformation from broken people and communities to whole ones. I believe transformative justice could yield deeper trust, resilience, and interdependence. All these mass and intimate punishments keep us small and fragile. And right now our movements and the people within them need to be massive and complex and strong.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

We need community to hold us in our dignity and to support transformative justice.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Further reading,