“Why do I have no say in this decision?” one of the members asked, her voice trembling with anger and hurt. My heart dropped, and I thought to myself, “That’s the right question.” We were a membership-led organization; she should have had a role in the decision. A member of the organization had recently experienced harm from another member and no longer wanted to share space with this person. Organizational leadership had decided that the person who caused harm should leave the organization. The person who had caused harm named that they didn’t realize they were crossing the other member’s boundaries. Based on this, my organization had decided to ask her to pause her involvement. As a campaign organizer, this wasn’t my decision. The leadership of the organization made the decision by weighing concerns of liability and responsibility over process. 

Later, I would come to understand that we had more options and more responsibilities to our membership, to our politics and values, to the person who had experienced harm, and to the person who had caused harm. But we didn’t have fully formulated processes to address harm and violence within our organization because we didn’t think harm and violence could happen within our organization. They were something we fought against — outside of us, not inside.  

Yet all of us were raised within a culture that encourages oppression, domination, harm, violence, and abuse. These tendencies are already inside our organizations. As we build community safety projects —whether they be Defund campaigns, community care collectives, or violence intervention projects — it’s time that we commit to creating practices to address abuse, conflict, violence, and harm within movement spaces.       

In 2005, I started organizing within Black and Latinx communities to address racist, homophobic, and transphobic violence outside of prisons and policing. At the time, I was an inspired student of transformative justice and community accountability, curious to see how those practices — which mostly focused on interpersonal violence between known parties — could work when applied to violence that happened between strangers. Over five years, I worked with volunteers and community members to train hundreds of people on how to intervene in violence on the street, within stores, and within families without relying on the police. We recruited local organizations and businesses to pledge to address all forms of violence — including homophobic and transphobic violence — outside of police and trained them on how to implement this commitment. We provided direct support to survivors of violence, as well as their families.   

This work transformed my life. As a Black queer survivor of violence, the process of building safety strategies together, with other queer and trans survivors — many of whom were actively and continuously navigating harm, violence, harassment — was inspiring, empowering, and, ultimately, healing. We got to come to the aid of people in some of their most difficult moments. Each time I intervened in an incident of violence, or did outreach with a community member, each time I said to a mother whose child was murdered, “We’ve got your back,” I felt safer in the world. And we collectively created the systems we needed after having experienced so many systems that failed us. 

Despite these liberatory aims, the systems we created contained a deep flaw. We forged agreements within the membership on how we treated each other and how we built accountability to ourselves and the work. Yet we didn’t have systems to address harm, violence, and abuse within the membership. We had an organizational practice to hire a mediator when staff had conflict. But that wasn’t enough. It was through this work that I learned firsthand that survivors could be harm doers and that not having internal systems for harm, violence, and abuse undermined our community work.  

My experience isn’t unique; in fact, it’s quite common. All too often, organizers aren’t equipped or supported to engage in generative conflict, principled struggle, and accountability strategies to transform harm and violence within our movement spaces. And even abolitionist organizers can view addressing interpersonal conflict, violence, and harm within their organizing projects and campaigns as separate skills from their organizing work. In fact, transforming harm and engaging in generative conflict are as critical to movement building as planning actions, doing political education, and conducting outreach.

In my current work as a facilitator and strategist, I get the opportunity to work with so many Black organizers building abolitionist, community safety, and transformative justice campaigns and projects. I get to be someone that I never had, someone who has made a ton of mistakes and also built lasting community safety projects. And I get to offer support to organizers as they design the structures of their projects.   

Abolitionist organizing is far more present and prominent than it was when I started organizing, which means that both the impact and potential scale of internal harm has increased. Our organizations are bigger, the expectations are deeper, and we have more to lose if our projects fall apart due to internal conflict, violence, or harm. The complexities of organizing around community safety call us into deeper, more humane, and more intentional ways of constructing our spaces – in order to be in political alignment with our organizing goals.  

There are so many ways that organizations and groups can build supportive structures into their memberships.  


  • Safety Teams and Committees: Some organizations have created committees designed specifically to address conflict, harm, and abuse. These committees can be all volunteer or a mix of members and paid staff but should be dedicated bodies designed to set expectations around conflict, harm, and violence. These committees and teams also serve as internal spaces for skill building around harm and violence. When conflicts cannot be navigated, members of these committees can hold their own processes or support external mediators and process holders. Some organizations also create safety and security teams that encompass how to navigate external safety and security threats, harm, conflict, and abuse cohesively. These structures recognize that external security and safety concerns, including state violence, government surveillance, or threats from opponents, such as white supremacist organizations, can also interact with internal conflict, harm, abuse, and violence. For example, a disgruntled member who experienced unattended conflict could start threatening other members. The members of these teams and committees work to build skills in violence intervention, restorative processes, security structures, and safety planning.


  • Building Conflict Transformation into Ongoing Leadership Development: Some groups incorporate skills around addressing conflict, violence, and harm into their regular leadership development trainings. These trainings happen as regularly as other political education trainings. Members can be trained as mediators, can learn to support restorative circles, or gain skills in addressing sexual violence within the membership. These trainings also support the members and organizers to see addressing harm and abuse as a part of movement-building work – not as something separate.


  • Clarifying Expectations: There are groups that build clear definitions of harm, conflict, and violence into their membership orientation processes. Within these orientations, attendees learn about the organization’s security and safety protocols, the structures to address conflict, violence, and harm, and expectations of how people inside the organization treat each other. It’s helpful to educate people in how to treat each other to avoid them not knowing or understanding the expectations, or manipulating accountability processes by claiming ignorance. Having set definitions, agreements, and accountability structures makes it easier to clearly define harm when harm has happened and to move through processes to address harm.


Believing in an abolitionist future does not make us immune to the violent conditions that we are raised within. Even my most impactful projects have navigated earth-shattering conflicts or instances of harm, harassment, and abuse. Some relationships were never repaired, even though we tried. Sometimes I didn’t intervene in dynamics soon enough, or I took the wrong advice and didn’t listen to my own gut. At other points, I tried to fix things myself without asking for help, or I supported interventions that weren’t transformative. Like so many organizers, I lacked adequate support, didn’t know who I could safely be vulnerable with, or was too tired and stretched thin to do better. I know I am not the only organizer who’s struggled with the question, how do we create healthier communities with so few examples from our lives? 

If we look at the histories of oppressed people organizing against state violence, we will also encounter instances of harm, violence, oppression, conflict, and interpersonal abuse within movement spaces. Many movement organizations fell apart and added to the trauma of organizers, activists, and the community without adequately addressing harm, conflict, and violence. These stories offer strategic guidance to our movements. We must prioritize hard conversations before instances of broken trust, violence, and harm cause irreparable damage to our relationships, grow into security issues for our movement, or become fodder for the right. We must challenge any messages or sentiments that say, it’s not my responsibility to attempt to move through conflict, violence, or harm. It’s time to shed defensive and avoidant postures that allow us to believe that conflict resolution, community accountability, and transformative justice are specialized skill sets, as opposed to the foundations for healthy organizing. And it’s time that we admit that the work to create safety in our organizations is the same work to create safety in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities. If they say that people are as sick as their secrets, then movements are as sick as the dynamics of harm, conflict, and abuse that live within them. These times call on us to practice transforming harm, violence, and conflict with each other with deep attentiveness so that they don’t end our relationships or destroy our visions.


​Read the entire issue.


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