Free Write Accountability Update #4
In this update, Free Write 1) acknowledges and apologizes for further harm caused by the public statement published on February 17, 2021, 2) announces the dissolution of Free Write Arts & Literacy, 3) offers details on this phase of the accountability process as it wraps up, and 4) offers details on the next phase of the accountability process.
One: Free Write Acknowledges and Apologizes for Further Harm Caused by Public Statements
On February 17, 2021, Free Write published an update to our Accountability Statement entitled Accountability: Why Now? It was a question that was important for this process, but the way we went about it resulted in deepening the very harm which we are seeking to repair. Some crucial mistakes were made in the language and timing of the statement.
In an effort to offer transparency concerning what Free Write knew about the harm caused by former employee Roger Bonair-Agard, we publicly discussed a process which was supposed to be confidential. Additionally, we learned after publishing the statement that our understanding was inaccurate and/or untrue. We spoke of this harm as if it were conceptual or abstract, not real and concrete. In doing so, our statement compounded the very harm we are seeking to repair. We are profoundly sorry and apologize to those impacted.
The Communication Breakdown
Why is Free Write just now cutting ties with a known rapist and taking accountability for the harm the organization caused by protecting him for nearly seven years? This question was posed frequently after the release of the public accountability statement on December 21, 2020. Why now? Why not before? Before this time, Free Write leadership chose to believe Roger, not the community members who were close to the harm he caused. In mid-February, a stronger sense of urgency to provide an answer to this question emerged. In attempting to answer publicly, we rushed. The arbitrary urgency imposed by Free Write leadership, specifically Ryan Keesling, caused communication to break down within the accountability team.
In a process that was years overdue anyway, this urgency was particularly short-sighted. It compounded Free Write’s harm and caused irreparable damage to survivors of Roger’s abuse and the community as a whole. Free Write apologizes both for the lateness of this offering of accountability and for rushing the release of our February 17th statement, resulting in additional layers of harm.
Since the onset of this accountability process, the accountability team has been strategizing on how to map Roger’s harm for the purpose of organizing a larger community project to address the full scope of his harm across multiple organizations and individuals. This effort was undermined by the premature release and content of the February 17th public statement, which caused deep fissures in the community and rendered impossible this wider community effort toward healing.
Had consensus among the full accountability team been reached about the content of the public statement before it was published, it is likely that the harmful nature of the content would have been removed and a more survivor-centered account of Why Now? would have been published. The accountability team has since discussed how the concept of urgency is grounded in white supremecist patriarchy, as white people have the privilege to relieve themselves of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, at the full expense of everyone else, rather than reflect and respond intentionally in ways that reduce harm instead of compounding it.
Two: Dissolution of Free Write Arts & Literacy
On March 17, 2021, the board of directors of Free Write voted to dissolve the organization effective March 31, 2021. On March 31, articles of dissolution were filed with the Illinois Secretary of State. Free Write’s assets, institutional knowledge, and longstanding relationships are being passed on to our young program staff so that they may continue to build creative spaces with incarcerated and criminalized youth in the Chicago region.
Dissolution is not the end of Free Write’s accountability. Ending Free Write Arts & Literacy as an organization makes space for accountability to proceed more intentionally. The accountability team is led by the McKensie Mack Group (MMG). Previous Executive Director Ryan Keesling supports the process as a volunteer, facilitating the ongoing reparations process from Free Write.
Three: A Brief Timeline of Free Write’s Steps Toward Accountability So Far
Note: Much of the work named below is ongoing. Dates indicate when particular steps were initiated.
- October 2020
- McKensie Mack Group (MMG) engaged as accountability process facilitator
- Roger Bonair-Agard placed on administrative leave
- Accountability process begins. This included crucial first steps such as
- Acknowledging the calls by Free Write staff and community members that a process begin
- Identifying and mapping the harm done
- Handling the requests of those harmed
- Mapping a communication strategy including social media guidelines
- Mapping community resources that may be called upon to support the process
- Beginning to learn by doing
- Investing resources into the process
- Navigating potential challenges to the process such as the idea of intentional vs. unintentional gatekeeping of information and being transparent while also not compounding harm
- Engaging the support of Transformative Justice educators to help guide us in politics and principle, with the full acknowledgement that each accountability process is different, that it is a learning process, and that mistakes get made.
- December 2020
- Roger Bonair-Agard fired
- First public accountability statement published
- Upon release of the first public statement, beginning to mind the complexities being experienced by all stakeholders such as program alumni, staff, contractors, board, funders, community partners. This includes listening and responding to feedback as well as connecting with community partners who have experience navigating similar circumstances.
- February 2021
- Published public accountability updates #2 & #3
- Mediated the return of artwork, tax documents, and other intellectual property to teaching artists and contractors
- March 2021
- Beginning to settle debts for time and labor spent by Free Write colleagues for the work they did to create protections and stop harm
- Free Write Arts & Literacy dissolves
- Ryan Keesling’s role as executive director ends and his roles as a volunteer accountability partner begins
- Allocated resources for the next phase of accountability which will yield training materials, language for organizational policy, and other structures to be made available to organizations confronting and attempting to repair harm that they have caused. These resources will focus on:
- creating structures to address issues of sexual harassment;
- identifying, disrupting, and stopping harm; and
- accepting and offering conditions for accountability not just individually, but interpersonally, ideologically, and institutionally.
- April 2021
- Working intentionally and patiently on this accountability update.
Four: Next Steps In Reparations and Accountability
With the dissolution of Free Write comes the deepening of the accountability team’s commitment to repairing the harm that Free Write caused. The dissolution of the organization makes space for an additional mode of reparations to the community in the form of knowledge and resources for better addressing harm. This next phase of the accountability process begins in June and will be led by the McKensie Mack Group (MMG). This phase will focus on creating structures to address issues of sexual harassment; identifying, disrupting, and stopping harm; and accepting and offering conditions for accountability not just individually, but interpersonally, ideologically, and institutionally.
The desired outcomes of this next phase of accountability are:
- Creating the necessary organizational norms (e.g., policy, staff training, and accountability practices) to support the organization that will carry forth necessary work for systems-involved young people.
- With a particular focus on Free Write’s failures, mistakes, and limitations, the accountability team will integrate what has been learned throughout this process and share it as open-source organizational resources.
The McKensie Mack Group and the other members of the accountability team would like to acknowledge the work of our mentors and colleagues such as Shira Hassan, Mia Mingus, and Mariame Kaba; their work provides the language and the framework for this process. We want to honor their legacies and evolving work by sharing ours.