The following blog was originally delivered orally by Michael Durham as part of the framing remarks for the 2023 Funders Institute in Washington, DC, which embraced the theme “accountability and trust” to inform its sessions. It has been edited slightly for this format.
Semantic Satiation: this is the sensation when words lose their meaning after repetition. Since we decided to lean into accountability, and its sibling trust, as our theme for this year’s Funders Institute, I hear “accountability” all the time, almost ad nauseum. But I suggested this theme, in part, because I think we as a movement are collectively experiencing semantic satiation with accountability and trust. I don’t think we know what we mean anymore, if we ever agreed on a definition to begin with.
While not completely unique, this year’s Funders Institute situates us in a moment where institutions threaten profound harm to the work for housing justice. What had been considered best practice irrespective of changes in federal administrations is now under assault from across the partisan spectrum, from neighborhoods to Congress. Physical and ideological violence perpetrated against people without homes nears all-time highs. Moreover, after much public commitment to racial justice from philanthropy and corporations prompted by the 2020 uprisings, many have not only failed to live up to those aspirations but have begun to move backwards, a violent motion unto itself.
Today we hope to point to an understanding of accountability rooted in Funders Together’s values of Love and Disruption, a phrase from our mission statement. The point is not to define terms in ways that suggest finality and rigidity. Rather, a shared understanding should help us organize. And if we lack a shared understanding of accountability in the face of these threats, we risk shirking responsibilities, letting those with power -- including ourselves as people in positions of immense privilege -- face no consequences. Ultimately, people experiencing housing deprivation pay the price.
Love and Disruption >> Solidarity and Accountability
In my role as Director of Networks, I often invoke “Love and Disruption” in the context of funder collaborations. The words exist as a dyad, in my interpretation, in which one needs the other. Love is not really love if toxic norms in the context of that relationship go undisrupted. Inversely, disruption is less effective without a commitment to love, assuming positive intent and trusting that no one is truly a monster, there are no “bad people.” In a recent presentation, I connected Love and Disruption to Solidarity and Accountability, suggesting they are interrelated values I hope funder networks pursue. In that talk, I was affirmed in my emphasis of accountability, but perhaps for the wrong reason. The one who spoke up said he was grateful to elevate accountability because his foundation’s recent move to “trust-based philanthropy” left him feeling like grantees were no longer accountable to their grantors. Was he correct? It depends, right? Who are these grantees? Who has the power over grantmaking decisions? Is the Foundation not also accountable to its grant partners?
Wisdom from Transformative Justice
In reflection on this anecdote and our broader context, I lean on the wisdom of transformative-justice practitioners, who are also abolitionists (though we’ll have to take that up some other time). Anything wise in what follows comes from activist/writers like Mariame Kaba, Mia Mingus, and Anne Russo, in addition to adrienne maree brown, who defines transformative justice as “justice practices that go all the way to the root of the problem and generate solutions and healing there, such that the conditions that create injustice are transformed.” Kaba adds that “TJ is a framework and vision for preventing, intervening in and transforming harm…through nonpunitive accountability.” Accountability, then, is central to a vision of transformative justice, a world where we have prevented harms like housing deprivation because we have taken responsibility to care for one another.
“Within the world of transformative justice,” Mia Mingus writes , “accountability is the ecosystem in which apologizing lives. Accountability is simultaneously complex and simple, concrete and ever changing… It operates within relationship and though there are key common threads, accountability will look different depending on many variables such as the kind, severity, and length of harm, violence and abuse; the nature of the relationship(s). We need to move away from ‘holding people accountable and instead work to support people to proactively take accountability for themselves. It is not another person’s job to hold you accountable—that is your job. People can support you to be accountable, but no one but you can do the hard work of taking accountability for yourself… Proactively taking accountability for our actions is an important way we can build trust with the people in our lives… It is a practice of interdependence, a way to care for those we love and our selves, and shows that we have done our own internal work to take responsibility for our actions.”
Loving Accountability as an Antidote
In their article, The Liberatory World We Want to Create: Loving Accountability and the Limitations of Cancel Culture, Aja Couchois Duncan and Kad Smith (who are Indigenous and Black, respectively) don’t avoid the concept of holding others accountable as Mingus does, but rather situate the discussion in the context of nurturing loving relationships that are integral to the world we envision. Whereas “cancel culture” connotes a removal from society as consequence for harmful action, which severs relationship, loving accountability, they argue, employs the love ethic bell hooks espoused in all ways we seek to repair harm. “Our mutuality flourishes when our love ethic is strong,” they write. “And our love ethic is nourished by the practice of loving accountability. Loving accountability means we are learning together, and that we are risking vulnerability in service of creating authentic connection and a better future. If we refuse to take risks, and if we attack others to protect ourselves, we are avoiding being held accountable to the collective. And without collective accountability, we cannot work together to create a meaningful, equitable, just society.”
I don’t think Funders Together members nor philanthropy itself much engage in cancel culture, to which Duncan and Smith write in opposition. But we can benefit from the wisdom in their description of loving accountability that the purpose of taking responsibility for wrongdoing and repairing that harm is to nurture our mutuality. Sustaining relationships, not severing them, is critical to what Amanda refers to in the preamble to our strategic framework as stitching a new garment of the world we want to enjoy.
Loving Accountability for Philanthropy
But all of this talk of love and care takes place primarily in the context of repairing interpersonal and community harm, at least in the context of transformative justice. I wonder what lessons we can extract for the institutional and philanthropic contexts. Maybe institutionalized loving accountability can mean taking responsibility both to prevent and to repair harm in relationship to grantees, governments, peers, and other stakeholders. That might mean leveraging our influence to disrupt the systems that cause so much harm in the first place, such as those that deny people housing security, creating the conditions in which our philanthropic investment is unnecessary. It might mean admitting that our own institutions are complicit, that the wealth of philanthropy is a monument to stolen land and labor, and we should therefore work across time and space in search of healing.
Accountability and Reparations
I cannot talk about accountability on an institutional level without talking about reparations. See again our definition of Housing Justice: “Funders Together advocates for corrective action, such as reparations, to address the cumulative disparities and transform systems of accountability to ensure housing for all.” That means, at minimum, Funders Together members should ideologically affirm the federal government’s duty to pay reparations for slavery to Black people. You might also fund advocates who organize for federal reparations. But for the purposes of this conversation, let us explore what it would mean for philanthropy to embrace a “culture of repair,” to be “agents of repair.” These terms derive from Liberation Ventures’ Aria Florant, whose framework for racial repair constitutes a four-part, ongoing cycle, including: Reckoning, Acknowledgement, Accountability, and Redress. In this model, accountability means “ownership and willingness to take responsibility for harm” and “commitment to non-repetition” of that harm.
“Accountability invites us to claim full ownership of the harm that has been excavated and named, take responsibility for it, and commit to changing our behavior to ensure non-recurrence. While Reckoning and Acknowledgment look backward into the past, Accountability shifts our focus to the present and asks us to commit to being a force for change in the future.”
So, in summary, what can we discern about “loving accountability” from the vision of transformative-justice and reparations advocates? Perhaps these things are true:
- Accountability relies on trust, but that trust is as complex as interpersonal relationships.
- The primary goal of accountability is to prevent and respond to harm.
- It is about nurturing the kind of community in which we want to live, not removing anyone from it. It’s about healing the wounds of oppression and commitment not to perpetuate it.
- Accountability and trust are both two-way streets, but not even as linear as that suggests. Accountability and trust require consent.
- Accountability is hard; trust is risky. They require us to hold difficult truths and suppress retaliatory instincts.
- Our identities matter in accountable relationships. There is no colorblind accountability.
- Our positional power matters. Loving accountability seeks to subvert traditional power dynamics.
Our entry point into exploration of what this means for us starts with a deep dive with if, A Foundation for Radical Possibility, whose story of transformation offers us a vision of what it can mean for philanthropy to hold itself accountable to values of liberation and repair in its governance, culture, grantmaking, and role in their community. My hope is that our conversations provoke introspection but don’t remain in the philosophical ether. Rather, I hope we leave challenged to take responsibility for what is uniquely ours, and can have tools to show up for one another, driven by love and disruption.