The Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center hosted a panel discussion last Friday about transformative justice, its implementation in higher education and the ways it can benefit the Brandeis community. PARC invited Brown University alumnus Camilla Pelsinger, Brown senior Izzy Acevado and social justice organizer Dara Bayer to speak about their experiences implementing the first formal transformative justice program in a U.S. institution of higher education. 

As the event description states, transformative justice “is used as an alternative for our current retributive and punitive systems of punishment.” This is accomplished through community accountability to heal conflicts and end cycles of violence. Bayer emphasized that it was important to honor the roots of transformative justice in Indigenous and other marginalized communities. She explained that transformation justice at Brown has three main areas. The first is a transformative justice practitioner program: an intentional community of student cohorts created by Bayer, Pelsinger and Brown alumnus Xochi Cartland with the purpose of cultivating skill sets to become a transformative justice practitioner, a process which Bayer said requires deep self-reflection. Second is community accountability processes to address instances of violence. While these processes have centered around sexual violence, of which transformative justice is built upon through a network of existing programs at Brown, they can be used to address any instance of violence. Last is broader political education and capacity building around communities responding to harm with community organizations on and off campus. 

Pelsinger discussed the process of starting this program at Brown. She explained that through her work in sexual violence prevention education, she noticed the prevalence of violence and harm in the community and how it was rarely addressed to its fullest extent. Speaking with people who had experienced harm, Pelsinger said she was struck by how few people wanted to go through Title IX, much less the carceral system. Instead, many people expressed the desire for “the person who harmed [them] to know the impact of what they had done, and to never harm anyone else again,” she said. Pelsinger explained that a big source of guilt for people harmed by a member of the university community is when, walking on the same campus, they see the person who had harmed them and worry about what this person might be doing to other people because they didn’t speak up. 

“I didn’t feel like I had the resources to support people in my life and in my communities who wanted this sort of accountability that existed far outside of any of the legal punitive systems,” Pelsinger said. Through her capacity as a student government vice president at Brown, she formed focus groups to ask about typical responses to harmful encounters. She found that typically nothing happens. “If things get bad enough, maybe someone will report something — but usually nothing really comes of that,” she said. 

Pelsinger explained that around this time, she became aware of the concept of transformative justice from Mariame Kaba, an activist advocating against the prison industrial complex. Convinced of the benefits of transformative justice at Brown, Pelsinger met with administrators who would potentially have the resources to apply this concept. She found that the available resources to deal with violence on campus had no background to address harm to undergraduate students, were only involved with prevention work rather than response or were only created to support survivors, not hold the people who caused harm accountable for their actions. Seeing a clear gap in available resources, Pelsinger wrote a proposal for a transformative justice program and worked with student leaders on campus for several months to get the program running by the 2019-2020 school year. 

“I feel really grateful that we got so lucky,” Pelsinger said, regarding the approval process. As vice president of the student government, she had an established relationship with the Brown administration, so her year-long research process was enough to convince the administration to approve her proposal. Within nine months, she received funding from the Brown administration for a two-year pilot program starting in 2019 and one professional staff position which Bayer obtained the same year. The pilot program ended with the 2020-2021 school year and its official establishment on the Brown campus was confirmed.

The first cohort of transformative justice was in person in 2019, Pelsinger said. Prospective transformative justice practitioners met two or three times a week for a couple of hours to bond as a community. The program began with simple discussions about preferences for receiving feedback. Then, students learned about the different aspects of crisis response, including how to form restorative questions to help people impacted by harm process their experiences. Students also pursued participatory action research individually, exploring questions about structural violence in their community throughout the year.

Acevado talked about her own experiences with the program, which she joined in 2020. “I got to see [transformative justice] move through communities [within Brown] rather than through the institution itself,” Acevado said. She learned about transformative justice through other student organizations, so she was able to see how it fit into the frameworks of issues she was already passionate about. In addition, she said that “having that structure where it was really something that came from the students made it feel like something safer and ... more genuine than … the way the institution itself was working.” 

Acevado explained that transformative justice gave her concrete practices for accountability and for justice, both within her own life and on a broad community scale. Due to the necessities imposed by the pandemic, her cohort met on Zoom for three hours every week. “It should have been really really exhausting, but I think a lot of us came out of the sessions feeling healed and feeling seen and acknowledged in ways that we really hadn't in the institution,” Acevado said. 

After the apprenticeship progress, the new transformative facilitators then begin to respond to instances of violence in the university community. Bayer explained that when it comes to transformative justice, “there's not a one size fits all approach” to resolve conflicts. This is because community accountability processes are survivor centered, so the process is directed by the needs and goals of the people who were harmed. The one constraint is “making sure that we’re not creating more harm in the process of doing this,” Bayer said. 

A typical process for people impacted by harm is the construction of a support pod made up of people close to the person. The group participates in a brainstorm session about how best to address the person’s direct needs and safety. This may take the form of spaces where the person who caused harm will not go or club meetings that the person will not attend. Through this process, the survivor does not need to directly interact with the person who caused them harm. 

Sonia Jurado, the Title IX coordinator at Brandeis, asked the panelists how they got around the perceptions of transformative justice as requiring intense emotional energy. Pelsinger explained that there were many different kinds of involvement in transformative justice. Survivors would tell her, “I want there to be an accountability process, and I want to spend no time on it … I don’t even want to be involved.” Students can record impact statements and choose to stay out of the process entirely. They can also request separate transformative justice facilitators for the different people involved in the conflict. If the person who caused harm wishes to apologize, the student can choose whether or not they wish to hear the apology. 

“We don’t call someone an offender or a perpetrator because we don’t want to boil a person down to ... one of the worst things they’ve ever done,” Pelsinger said. “We’ve all caused harm on different scales and degrees.” Acevedo remarked that she was struck by “how my own vulnerability and my own ability to be honest with myself about other people invited them to do the same.” 

Pelsinger observed that a common misconception about transformative justice is that it is an easy way out. She argued that punitive systems are “very passive” because the people who caused harm do not have to truly face the harm that their actions have caused. By contrast, with transformative justice, “[you are] facing probably one of the worst things you’ve ever done with a couple of friends you see as closest to you,” Pelsinger said. She remarked that even for small things, it's hard not to get defensive and fall into shame spirals. 

At the end of the session, people moved into breakout rooms to discuss how transformative justice could be implemented at Brandeis.