The Beginnings of Accountability
Content Warning: Sexual Violence
Published December 21, 2020
Edited February 26, 2021 to name the abuser after a public statement from a survivor of his abuse was released
In October 2020, Free Write began a long-overdue process to account for our choices to work with an employee — Roger Bonair-Agard who was a known abuser — 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.
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. Where the names of survivors of harm are used, their consent was given to do so.
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 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 teaching artist, Roger Bonair-Agard Free Write, 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 Roger, to design any kind of internal accountability process within Free Write, or to listen hard to people close to the situation as they called for members of our community to distance themselves from the employee. Roger remained at Free Write. It was at this moment that Free Write began to absorb the harm caused by Roger into our organizational culture and perpetuate it.
In 2016, Free Write leadership promoted Roger 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 an abuser. 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. This caused further 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 call out 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 the harm we are responsible for.
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.
Chelsea Ross began working with Free Write in 2009. Upon learning of Roger’s 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 Roger’s history and our subsequent 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.
In late August 2020, we learned about a poem on Roger’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 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, Roger was put on administrative leave and then terminated.
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 update this statement frequently here. 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 without hesitation.
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 our plan of action in the first quarter of 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.
Accountability: Why Now?
Published February 17, 2021
Edited February 26, 2021 to remove some details that were exacerbating harm in the community.
When Free Write shared our Community Accountability statement at the end of 2020, we also sent it directly to all of our funders, board members, systems partners, and newsletter subscribers. Our community read, processed, and reached out to have conversations with us about the events leading up to the statement and the nature of the harm Free Write caused. In those conversations, a question nearly everyone asked was “Why are you doing this now?” It’s a question that deserves particular attention, especially when asked alongside another question posed by our process facilitator McKensie Mack, “Why not before?” Why had we maintained a relationship with someone we know caused harm? Why had we not taken accountability sooner? We are following up here with answers to these questions.
Why Not Then?
In April 2014, Free Write leadership learned of allegations of harm caused by Roger Bonair-Agard within another youth-serving organization where he was employed. In light of this information, we assessed the safety of our students as they interacted with Roger in our classroom inside the CCJDC. Free Write considered Roger’s experience working successfully with incarcerated people important, as it was a rare and critical experience. As we considered the safety of our students, our thinking was that the classroom is supervised by county staff at all times during workshops with small groups of male students and would therefore be safe. We had watched Roger build solid creative communities with his incarcerated students. We spoke with Roger about it directly and he expressed that he was not even sure who was making the “allegations” which, in hindsight, was a red flag for the way he would repeatedly deflect from being accountable for the harm he caused. We chose to keep Roger on as a teaching artist until we knew more about the situation and received direction from the survivor about what accountability should look like.
In 2016 and into 2017, Free Write staff began to map personal and organizational strategies for addressing the harm caused by a member of our staff. We began to devise internal strategies to address harm caused by Roger in 2014 as well as any future instances of harm that may be caused by any Free Write staff member. These strategies also were a way for Free Write to begin to show to community partners, some of whom refused to work with us or required that Roger not be a part of our collaboration, that we were working towards some sort of accountability and repairing of harm. As our understanding of community accountability practices was deepening and our approach to abolition through liberatory education was becoming more clear, we began to craft internal policies that sought to offer space for individuals to take accountability when necessary while, as an organization, addressing and repairing any harm caused. We looked to our pedagogy, the relationships we had built with our incarcerated students over fifteen years, and the artistic spirit that underlies all of our work. We began a document of principles and policy entitled “Transformative Justice: Addressing Harm Through an Abolitionist Framework.” The document cited our commitment to dismantling rape and prison culture with an understanding that both arise from heteropatriarchal capitalist greed. We wrote about how to address and repair harm, build and maintain space for accountability, and how no individual is disposable. We revisited these thoughts as a staff a couple of times, with the last edit to the document timestamped in late 2017.
These steps were never made public. We sat on them and really did not refer to them again after they were written. We did copy and paste them into our employee handbook so that we could call it “policy” but we never activated them on any tangible level. To do so would have required us to hold ourselves publicly accountable, showing how and why it is OK for us to be working with Roger. It also would have required Roger to take public accountability, which we never demanded. We stopped short of real accountability and the toxicity of the organizational culture intensified over the next few years.
In 2020, beginning in the spring and culminating in October, a series of events led to ending Roger’s employment with Free Write and taking public accountability for our toxic organizational culture and the direct harm that our choices to protect Roger caused to staff members and the community at large.
Roger invited an individual with a long and well-documented history of sexual violence, Malcolm London, to work with Free Write as a teaching artist. When asked by Executive Director Ryan Keesling to please explain, in writing, why he thought it was OK to bring another known abuser into Free Write spaces, he did not respond with any critical thought as to how a working relationship with Malcolm might affect our students, staff, and community partners. He proceeded with hiring Malcolm without the knowledge or approval of Free Write leadership or the board. Though that relationship ended as soon as we became aware of it, the effects that choice may have had on our staff and community partners would have been devastating, particularly as we partnered with individuals and groups that survived the harm caused by this Malcolm. It was at this moment that we began to question Roger’s discretion, awareness, and understanding of his own accountability as an abuser. A guiding question as we take accountability now is this: How did the environment within Free Write become conducive to Roger thinking it was a safe space for anyone with a history of sexual violence? We did have many conversations on how no person is disposable and everyone is worthy of positive development because of/in spite of the harm they have experienced or caused. Those are core to how we interact with our criminalized students, all of whom have been harmed and many of whom have caused harm. How does that thinking extend to our staff? What boundaries should we have with adult staff that we would not have with adolescent students?
Free Write’s choice to maintain a relationship with Roger, a known abuser, elevating him to a position of leadership, while offering no public explanation of any work done toward accountability or repair created a toxic organizational culture for multiple Free Write staff members, including a teaching artist, a coordinator of the Sound & Vision program, and a long-time independent contractor. They resigned or refused to share space with Roger, citing the toxic organizational culture created by his presence. Additionally, a potential funder who is also a long-time community partner informed us that they were withholding financial support for Free Write programming because they saw that Roger was in a position of leadership with the organization, yet there was no public accountability statement from Free Write or from Roger. These instances are described in more detail in the Community Accountability statement.
Subsequently, we became aware of a poem on Roger’s blog, published in April 2010, that details a rape he committed, and hints at others committed over decades. This poem sat on Roger’s website throughout the incident of the harm he caused at the other organization in 2014 and his entire tenure with Free Write. The fact that the poem went unnoticed by Free Write for 10 years indicates the lack of attention given to accountability by Free Write leadership up until now. It also made Roger’s dangerous attitude toward sexual violence, survivors, and his own accountability undeniable. This poem opened Free Write’s eyes to the organization’s role in protecting an abuser as well as the need to step into accountability for our actions.
In October 2020, we finally began to understand that, for six and a half years, we had been making excuses for an abuser at the expense of our staff and community partners. We saw clearly how we had been perpetuating and institutionalizing the harm he had caused while skirting public accountability for that harm. We undertook the task of auditing and articulating our thinking, the essence of which is presented here in this document. We also began a relationship with our facilitator, McKensie Mack, and began to shape what accountability will look like for Free Write moving forward. Since the release of the initial public accountability statement at the end of 2020, we’ve updated our Community Accountability page with action we have taken and action we will soon take, engaged a group of accountability partners who will offer guidance toward full accountability, and committed to monthly updates on our website, social media, and mailing list.
Free Write Accountability Update
Published May 24, 2021
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.
1: 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 that 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 supremacist 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.
2: 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.
3: 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 begins
- 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 acknowledgment 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.
4: 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 Free Write founder Ryan Keesling 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.
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.