Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement

Edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. AK Press, 2020. 260 pages. $18/paperback; $17.99/eBook.

Beyond Survival is a collection of essays about the transformative justice (TJ) movement, written by people learning how to practice as they go, and this book offers an opportunity for many practitioners to learn from one another. TJ is defined as a community-based process—not involving the state—for violence intervention that is survival centered and healing focused. Accountability is key.

At first, I found the book hard to relate to. It is by and about people who have had experiences I fortunately have not had. But their intelligence, strength, and humanity shine through on every page. Soon I found myself cheering for their successes and moved by their humility as these TJ workers sought to help victims of violence find peace.

The work that the authors do mostly involves domestic and/or sexual violence. Most of the writers and the survivors they write about are women. Both survivors and abusers are mostly people of color, poor, gay, trans, and/or disabled. The writers—often survivors as well—are developing alternatives to calling the police. Many of them speak of being treated without respect, even encountering violence from police officers. Often people find that when they involve the state, they lose control of what happens. Officers and social workers move in and follow guidelines over which the victims have no control, and abusers often go to jail.

The primary goal of the state system is to assess guilt rather than to solve problems; the goal of TJ is to help survivors recognize their agency and take back control of their lives. This may or may not involve healing the relationship with the abuser.

Whether the TJ process includes abusers depends in part on whether they are willing to be involved; above all, it depends upon whether survivors want their abusers to take part. If abusers are involved, success means they have truly heard the survivor and taken responsibility for their actions. They need to identify the harm they have done and give evidence that they understand why they did it. Those who harm others almost always have been victims themselves. There is a reason for the abuse, such as grief, fear of abandonment, or need to control others; it is important that they recognize that their pain is never an excuse for hurting someone else.

One drawback of the state’s judgment and punishment approach is that it allows us to see abusers as bad people and others as good. To recognize the trauma abusers have experienced suggests that when people are harmed they might in turn do evil to others. This is a painful recognition that we would prefer to avoid, but we need to see how we are all human, all vulnerable.

I was familiar with restorative justice (RJ) but not with TJ. How are they different? Some essays suggest that RJ is more skill-oriented and TJ more people-oriented, recognizing that every situation is unique. Others submit that RJ has a connection with the state while TJ avoids any government involvement. An online search found one writer who thought that RJ tries to restore the way things were before they went wrong while TJ looks ahead and tries to transform people to a better place. I learned that the definitions of both are fluid, which makes distinguishing them difficult.

Who might find this book helpful? Surely, those would benefit who are trying to understand how policing often falls short and how other processes involving the community can be more successful. It also might be helpful to Friends meetings that have had sexual offenders attending worship. Such meetings have struggled with whether to allow these people to attend at all and, if they do, how to protect children. It also would expand the thinking of people who have themselves dealt with domestic and/or sexual violence, as victims or as abusers. And yes, we know there are Quaker families having these experiences.

I found this book to be a disturbing and amazing reminder that all people must be taken seriously in all their complexity. There is that of God in all of us.

Patience A. Schenck is a member of Annapolis (Md.) Meeting and lives at Friends House in Sandy Spring, Md. She volunteers with Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform (MAJR).

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