A few weeks ago, during my weekly visit to the Farmers’ Market in Berkeley, I noticed that it was the third week in a row of not seeing one of my favorite vendors. Concerned about their well being, I inquired about their whereabouts, only to discover that they were in the process of being kicked out. The reason is that they were alleged to be reselling produce, a practice that is inconsistent with the agreements that the vendors make when joining the market.
When I brought up the idea of a restorative response to the situation, I found a level of commitment to a punitive response that saddened me deeply. To begin with, I am not confident that the person I spoke with had a clear understanding of the difference between the two.
It seemed, instead, that she viewed a restorative process almost as a way to decide together what the punitive measure would be rather than what I understand it to be: a radically different approach that aims to grapple with what happened by bringing together all who are directly related to the actions that took place, creating sufficient understanding between all of them, and encouraging all to take sufficient responsibility for their actions and responses. From there, they can together come up with an action plan that supports the entire community in restoring what was lost through the action and its aftermath.
The woman also told me another piece of information that I found disturbing. She said I was the only person to approach her from the perspective I was holding, and that most community members were expressing an entirely different sensibility. Based on what I understood from her, others were mostly preoccupied with how the Ecology Center, the organization that runs the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, didn’t monitor the situation sufficiently and allowed this to happen, and how all the farmers can be made accountable.
You may wonder why I found this so challenging, because you are, yourself, concerned with food safety and wishing for people to be able to count on their food sources. If that’s the case, I want to first assure you that I am, too. What is of concern to me is that when we use the word “accountability” it almost invariably connotes punitive measures.
I simply don’t trust that we can walk towards a future that works for everyone while continuing to use punitive measures in response to people who don’t keep agreements.
Why Agreements Aren’t Kept
As life would have it, within days of that incident I was sitting with a community group grappling with how to respond to a prevalence of unkept agreements in their midst. As the conversation proceeded, it soon became evident that not keeping agreements is almost a norm in this group.
Rather than seeing it as a personal failing of many people (almost all present acknowledged not keeping agreements they make to some noticeable degree), the question that I wanted to pursue was what a community as a whole does that allows so many people to not keep their agreements. More generally, the principle I uphold in exploring how to bring about a high degree of follow-through is the simple understanding that when people don’t keep agreements there are always reasons.
First and foremost, when people don’t keep agreements I am drawn to inquire whether they truly entered the agreements in the first place. We all know the phenomenon, maybe have even participated in it numerous times, of someone saying “yes” to an agreement purely because they don’t experience the freedom to say “no.”
This can be because of power differences, because of perceived or real peer pressure, because of an internalized “should,” or for any other reason. What’s important to remember is that anything less than a wholehearted willingness results in less follow-through.
We tend to hold people accountable to what they said “yes” to in the first place without creating the conditions that would allow them to be real about that “yes.”
This is one of the reasons I have such a deep belief in the power of collaborative arrangements. As someone who manages a team, for example, I want to know the “no” as soon as possible. There are many reasons why making room for “no” is critical (see my New York Times recent article about some aspects of this). In the context of a focus on accountability, I want to hear the “no” so that I can have the information necessary to make alternate arrangements for getting things done. In many situations, people have no access to saying “no” in any way other than through future action that can have serious consequences.
In the context of the community meeting I facilitated, I learned about one more way that a group can sustain the continued lack of follow-through. When the level of overall passion and care for service is as high as it is in this community, there will almost always be someone (alas, usually the same someones in such groups) who will step in and do the necessary action.
When the commitment is high, others almost always stretch (at times beyond capacity) to cover the gaps that are created when agreements are not kept, even if they didn’t sign up for it in the first place. Others can then continue to not keep agreements because the consequences are invisible to them. What I mean by consequences is the clear, direct effect, not human-made consequences: if we don’t water, seeds won’t germinate. If someone else waters, we don’t see the consequences and we don’t learn from our mistakes.
The surprising overall lesson I shared with the community group was that one way to enhance accountability is making sure that no one agrees to something they are not truly willing to do. This, in and of itself, is likely to drastically reduce the incidence of unkept agreements. It might mean that some things don’t get done at all, and that would not be different from how it is now; the only difference is that such knowledge will be conscious and clear.
If no one signs up to do something, the entire group knows the resources necessary to do the work are not there. If someone signs up out of guilt, or fear of judgment, then there is an illusion that something will get done. That illusion, when it explodes, is more costly for a group than knowing ahead of time that something won’t get done.
Within this context I also find it enormously valuable to recognize that, for many of us, the level of care we have is orders of magnitude bigger than the amount of energy and other resources available to us. So many of us take on, individually and collectively, more than is possible. Saying “yes” more than is within our human and organizational limits often ends up being more demoralizing than helpful, because ultimately we only do what we can. Instead, I know for myself that I want to get better and better at being laser-sharp about what I say “yes” to – so that I pick the things most aligned with my mission and resources, and so that the likelihood of my not following through is smaller.
What to Do when Agreements Are still Not Kept?
No matter how well we set things up, no matter how much care we put into how we make agreements with people in the first place, no matter how much room there is for people to say “no” upfront, because keeping agreements involves choice, there will always be situations in which people don’t keep their agreements, even if they fully intended to.
This is where my anguish about the situation at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market comes in. In the absence of a consciously chosen restorative path to attending to broken agreements, or to any other conflict, what ends up happening instead is that we inherit the punitive models that we have been socialized into.
We do this even if we are committed to creating a new future that works for all, because new ways of being must be institutionalized, not just longed for. This is one core insight I learned from my friend and colleague Dominic Barter, who has been implementing restorative justice systems in Brazil for more than a decade (read about his work here).
I shared this insight with the community I was with, inviting them to take seriously the situation, and to create a system of accountability that would move them along the direction of more honesty, more care, and more capacity to make things work.
As the conversation deepened and the extent of the pain in the community became known, I invited them to consider using broken agreements as learning opportunities. A broken agreement is an invaluable source of information, and can be mined as a way to build trust. For the particular community I was working with, which is a small group of people who see each other many times a week, and who have mechanisms in place already for meeting with each other, I suggested they follow a simple process.
The inspiration for this idea came to me from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and international leader in the engaged Buddhism movement. In one of his books he writes: “I will do everything in my power to address every conflict, however small.” I never fail to be moved by the depth of this commitment, this aspect of Right Speech.
Similarly, no unkept agreement is too small to be investigated. During their weekly meetings, one person could volunteer to offer an agreement they hadn’t kept, and proceed, with support from the group, to investigate that agreement to full resolution. I offered them three simple prompts to guide the discussion:
What has kept you from keeping the agreement? This is where a big part of the learning can happen systemically: was there a half-hearted “yes” to begin with, or did circumstances change? Was there support the person was expecting that didn’t materialize? Is there an over-estimation of the availability or resources? Whatever the reason is, there can be learning both for the person and for the community as a whole.
What is the impact on others? This is where encountering the consequences can be of essential importance. Often enough we hide consequences from each other out of our own discomfort, or our care for the person who didn’t do what they agreed to do. This is a time to act with care and with full integrity. There is no way of protecting each other from the pain of seeing the effect of our actions, pain which is an irreducible part of any system of accountability. In punitive systems, often the actual consequence is distorted into an arbitrary and human-made, often ritualized, response. The confusion between natural and created consequences interferes with learning both through confusion and through fear.
What can be put in place to increase the likelihood of agreements being kept in the future? Both for the person who volunteered their own unkept agreement, and for the community as a whole, the spontaneous resumption of trust that tends to occur when mutual understanding is established may not be sufficient, and an explicit, conscious attention to learning for the future is a vital addition to the process of digesting an unkept agreement.
This piece is being written before the outcome of our shared exploration is known. I hope to have updates in the future that will inform other pieces I write.
Accountability within Movements for Social Transformation
Beyond a small and intimate community, if we want to have a restorative system of accountability, a much more explicit and elaborate set of processes and procedures would be necessary. Whether we use Dominic Barter’s Restorative Circles, or any other similar method, no amount of naming our values or establishing agreements is ever enough in the absence of clarity about how we respond when agreements are broken. Just because we have a vision of a different world doesn’t mean we have freed ourselves enough from the existing norms to be able to do it differently.
I keep thinking about the vendor who’s no longer part of the market. I was told that they had an opportunity to appeal the decision, and that they didn’t choose to do that. Their spot is now filled by another vendor.
No learning occurred – not for them, not for the other vendors, and not for the community as a whole. By pure chance, I told the story to someone who happens to know them. It turns out, as is sadly often the case, that some complicated personal circumstances of loss and struggle, a particular stressor in their lives, are the likely cause of why they chose a desperate measure such as reselling merchandise.
I don’t have a specific solution to the difficult situation in the market, nor do I believe it would be my job, or any one person’s job, to find such a solution.
The whole thrust of community-based, empowered restorative systems is that they enable those who are affected by an action to come together, understand what happened and why, understand the effects and the circumstances surrounding the events, take responsibility for all their choices, and find the creativity necessary to generate solutions that attend to all that’s discovered along the way.
Within such a system, understanding the personal circumstances that led to an action that may have harmed others doesn’t “justify” the action. It only makes it humanly understandable, thereby removing the obstacles to a shared solution. My heart breaks as I realize that the punitive systems we continue to utilize even as we aim to create transformation are going to keep making it difficult for us to move towards a world that works for all.
Creating that world will call on us to shift from applying rules and to attending to human needs. I am all for accountability, provided it’s done with love and full care for everyone’s dignity.