The Beginnings of Accountability
Content Warning: Sexual Violence
In October 2020, Free Write began a long-overdue process to account for our choices to work with an employee who caused sexual harm, the toxic organizational culture created by those choices, and the subsequent harm caused to close colleagues and partners. The beginning steps of the process have culminated in this public statement of accountability and will be followed by concrete steps to address and repair harm.
We intentionally included a lot of detail in this statement. We feel that this is a risk not only worth taking, but one that is actually necessary for this process to be successful, transparent, and transformative. We name specific harms so that we can understand what occurred within our organization. Being specific also offers us the opportunity to make real apologies to those harmed. adrienne maree brown writes, “Transformation can’t happen in low-risk spaces.”
This work is forcing us to confront our complicity and actions and may do the same for the reader. We are stumbling into this process knowing that it won’t be perfect or tidy in any way, but it will be done out of love and the sincere desire to change. On the advice of our legal counsel, we are not naming the employee at this time. Any person named in this statement has given consent to be named.
At the end of this statement, the process facilitator, McKensie Mack, shares more about their practice and our approach. We invite survivors of the harm named here and similar harms, Free Write partners, and other community stakeholders to join us in this community accountability process.
Since 2000, Free Write Arts & Literacy has built creative communities with criminalized youth, utilizing the arts as tools to dismantle systems of violence and contexts of criminalization. We know that ending systems of violence demands intersectionality and personal accountability. Intersectionality demands that we center women and femmes, especially Black and POC women and femmes, and all survivors of gender-based violence. We offer this account of the harm caused by the choices made by Free Write leadership, specifically Ryan Keesling and others not to be named at this time, between 2014 and the present. In this statement, we will neither justify nor rationalize our actions. This account is not made to elicit understanding or forgiveness. Rather, we offer it as an evolving, working document where Free Write takes responsibility for the choices we made that perpetuated gender-based violence onto close colleagues, partners, and the community at large.
We are undertaking this accountability process now because of a few specific incidents in 2020 that revealed serious, long-standing flaws in our thinking and organizational culture. We now see and feel the impacts of our inaction on our close colleagues and community of practitioners. We finally see and feel the need to take accountability and attempt to repair the harm we have caused. A few of these recent incidents involving staff and community partners are shared later in this statement. More will likely be added as this statement evolves and our understanding of harm deepens.
In the Spring of 2014, we learned that a Free Write employee caused sexual and psychological harm to a colleague at another organization where he was also employed. At the time, Free Write leadership looked at how the situation was unfolding publicly, consulted with colleagues at the partner organization where the incident had occurred, weighed our experiences with the employee since he began working with us in 2012, and assessed the risks of keeping him employed at Free Write. At that time, we failed to pause our relationship with this employee, to design any kind of internal accountability process within Free Write, or to listen hard to young people close to the situation as they called for members of our community to distance themselves from the employee. The employee remained at Free Write. It was at this moment that Free Write began to absorb the harm caused by the employee into our organizational culture and perpetuate it.
In 2016, Free Write leadership promoted the employee to a position of leadership where he remained until early December of 2020 when his employment was terminated. For six years, we chose not to stand in solidarity with survivors of harm and instead protected this employee. We told ourselves that the internal work we were doing to design policy and structures to account for the harm was “transformative” when really it was insufficient and cowardly, with no public accountability offered to the community. Thus, we are complicit in harm caused to talented, trusted Free Write staff members and community partners, some of whom unwittingly found themselves in proximity to the employee while simply doing their jobs with Free Write, while others who strongly advocated for accountability were ignored or placated.
Naming the Harm
This is an account of how Free Write caused harm in the community. There are impacts that we know about and will offer below, and there is still harm rippling throughout the community. For everyone – named, anonymous, yet to be or unable to be named – impacted by the dangerous culture we cultivated, we name the harm below. These specific accounts give us the opportunity to look deeply at our mistakes, the nature of the harm we caused, and pathways toward repair. They allow us to be specific about the impacts our decisions had on close colleagues we love and trust, who lost faith and cut ties with us in order to protect themselves from further harm. This is just the beginning of our work to name, apologize for, and repair harm.
On multiple occasions, Free Write ignored the calls of trusted colleagues calling for us to acknowledge and repair this harm between 2014 and now. Our inaction forced members of our community to remove themselves or decline Free Write access to collaborations that would have created opportunities for our criminalized students. The fact that we were standing by the employee while offering absolutely no public accountability for the harms he caused, the organization’s stance on those harms, or details of any work we were doing to move toward accountability, put everyone affiliated with us at risk. We were signaling to our partners that they must do the work to reconcile collaborating with us while ignoring the fact that we were protecting the employee. We are so sorry to the colleagues and community partners who were pushed out of their positions or chose to turn down opportunities at the expense of their financial stability and career path within the field of arts education. In each situation detailed below, Free Write’s betrayal of our colleagues cannot go understated. Please again note that where names are used, that person gave their consent to be named.
Chelsea Ross began working with Free Write in 2009. Upon learning of the abuse in 2014 and up until now, Chelsea repeatedly asked for, then fought for Free Write to take accountability and provide transparency, only to be ignored repeatedly, given incomplete information, and otherwise distanced from the truth. Chelsea cited losing professional and personal relationships with former staff and other community members who have distanced themselves from Free Write. We apologize to Chelsea for ignoring her, and for devaluing her safety and the safety of all women and femmes entering Free Write spaces.
While bringing on new staff, volunteers, teaching artists, board members, and other partners, Free Write did not provide sufficient information about the harm caused by the employee and our lack of organizational response to it. Without knowing this history, they were prevented from making an informed choice about working with and representing Free Write. We apologize for this deep betrayal of trust given to us by our colleagues as they learned about the employee’s history and problematic organizational culture after joining Free Write. More of our close colleagues will learn about these things upon reading this statement, resulting in even more pain, confusion, and feelings of betrayal. We are so sorry to you, as well.
As we ask ourselves, finally, why now are we taking accountability? One specific piece of new information can help to answer that question. In late August of this year, we learned about a poem on the employee’s blog, published in April 2010, that details a rape he committed, seemingly as a right of passage to manhood, and that hints at others committed over decades. The poem was accessible online for over 10 years. That this poem was available publicly and easy to find, yet no public statement of accountability by us or by the employee was anywhere to be found is inexcusable and emblematic of the dangerous culture we began cultivating in 2014. This poem was a daily cause of harm and a slap in the face to the survivor of the assault depicted, to all survivors of sexual violence, and to all women and femmes. We are deeply sorry that we had not done the work to uncover this history of abuse. For the public record, we are sharing this poem HERE. (TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault). Immediately after learning about the poem, we put the employee on leave. His employment was terminated in December 2020.
This is our first step toward naming and accounting for the harms Free Write’s toxic organizational culture has caused. We deeply apologize for our behavior and are working as a staff alongside accountability partners to exorcise and transform it. This document has been shared via social media and is being sent to close partners and other stakeholders. We will use the Accountability Statement page on our website to update this statement frequently. We are taking action as individuals and as an organization to ensure that this kind of harm will never happen again. And, should harm ever again occur, we will know what to do.
For us, this public acknowledgment is just the beginning of our work to hold ourselves starkly accountable for the harm we have caused. As practitioners of community accountability and believers in as well as architects of transformative and restorative justice practices, we will follow up this statement with what our a plan of action in 2021.
Responses, feedback, questions, or other communication regarding this statement can be made to email@example.com. We will do our best to respond in a timely manner and update this statement to show our learning and be transparent about the successes and challenges of this community accountability process.
More about the process from the facilitator
My name is McKensie Mack and I’m a facilitator, educator, and healing justice activist with 12+ years of experience working with survivors of sexual violence. survivors of sexual violence. I’m a Black, queer, nonbinary person from the Southside of Chicago and my pronouns are They/Them/Theirs. You’re receiving this communication from me because I am working with the Free Write community to develop an accountability team to support a survivor-centered accountability process for the Free Write community. As a facilitator in this process, I have asked members of the Free Write community to participate. Here’s what participation in this process will mean:
It’s difficult to determine how long a community accountability process will take. At a minimum, I ask you for 10 hours of your time as a member of this accountability team. This will mean developing an understanding of what survivors of the organization’s harm want and need, naming those harms with those in the organization, and developing a plan for recognizing and acknowledging the harm that’s been done while working with Free Write leaders to develop actionable steps for creating new structures that disrupt and stop interpersonal violence.
As a facilitator of this process, I’ll be inviting survivors to speak with me about their lived experiences with the organization’s relationship with the employee who the organization protected after this person’s perpetuation of violence was explicitly named.
Why community accountability?
According to a 2007 definition of transformative justice by Generation Five, transformative justice seeks to provide people who experience violence with immediate safety and long-term healing and reparations while holding people who commit violence accountable in and by their communities. Transformative justice neither perpetuates harm nor relies on prisons or policing to create healing for survivors of violence. As someone outside of the Free Write community, I recognize that this process is made transformative by the participation of members of the Free Write community who are dedicated to survivor safety, survivor healing, and agency.
What’s the purpose of this process?
In 2012, INCITE! defined Community Accountability as “a process in which a community — a group of friends, a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighborhood, etc., — works together to do the following things:
- Create and affirm values and practices that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability.
- Develop sustainable strategies to address community members’ abusive behavior, creating a process for them to account for their actions, and transform behavior.
- Commit to the ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to transform the political conditions that reinforce oppression and violence.
- Provide safety & support to community members who are violently targeted that respects their self-determination.”
As members of the accountability team, we would first begin with a 2-hour call to discuss the next steps including our roles as a team, getting clear on what we seek to address and how, how decision-making will be approached, and steps we’ll take to support Free Write in centering the safety and healing of survivors in its community accountability process.
If you have any additional questions or would like to speak with me directly before agreeing to participate in this process, please feel free to reach out to me anytime via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.