Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons

By Mary Watkins. Yale University Press, 2019. 376 pages. $30/hardcover or eBook.

What, you might wonder, do Jane Addams and Hull-House, animal protection, the limits of professionalism and traditional psychological practice, justice for immigrants, and the enclosure of the commons have in common?

In this book, Mary Watkins demonstrates an extraordinary ability to weave seemingly disparate strands into a fresh and compelling new whole. Her main thesis—though I hesitate to try to simplify such nuanced and complex thinking—is that turning away from vertical relationships toward more horizontal ones is necessary for our spiritual well-being and for the health of our shared human and non-human communities on earth.

I found this thesis deeply resonant. It offers a conceptual framework within which I could reflect freshly on various aspects of my experience: an unease with professional counselor and client assumptions; a desire to engage with colonized communities outside of a mindset of privilege; a belief that trees are beings deserving of great respect.

The reader is invited into a rich exploration of the variety of contexts in which mutual accompaniment has taken place: the social settlement movement that began in the 1880s; radical hospitality, as seen in the Catholic Worker Movement; accompaniment in the context of mental illness and disability; standing with non-human animals (in a chapter authored by G. A. Bradshaw); and accompanying trees, water, mountains, earth, and air. The latter reminded me of Indigenous thinker and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. In her wonderful book Braiding Sweetgrass, she says that traditional wisdom sees humans as “the younger brothers of Creation.” Since we have the least experience with how to live, we need to look to other species of plants and animals as our teachers.

Watkins is direct in naming systems that enforce vertical relationships: colonialism, racism, capitalism. One of the great benefits of mutual accompaniment is the challenge to the power dynamics that are embedded in such systems. While those from dominant communities are often most comfortable relating to others from a position of charitable giving, helping, or providing knowledge, this dynamic just reinforces the hierarchical structures. If I can bring myself in as an equal, however, with an assumption that I will learn, grow, and move toward greater wholeness through my relationship with you, we challenge the foundations on which those systems are built. As we learn and grow through those relationships, we are compelled to put individual suffering into a larger context, and to act.

While “accompaniment” in the present may be most closely associated with standing in solidarity with undocumented immigrants, I loved how Watkins stretched the concept to include not only other groups of humans who are seen as “less than,” but also non-human animals and the natural world. In the chapter on farm animals and wildlife, I had to wonder how her theory would relate to pets. What would truly horizontal relationships look like there? And what about children? What would it mean to assume complete respect and opportunities for learning that flow equally in both directions, regardless of age?

In the final chapter, Watkins traces the origins of colonialism to English treatment of the Irish, and suggests that the beginnings of poor houses and prisons are directly related to the creation of the urban poor due to enclosure of the commons. This was the walling off, by legislation, of land that villages had used in common, most often to graze animals. Once enclosed, these areas came under the control of the local landowning elite, and villagers could no longer benefit.

Enclosure took place on an even larger scale in North America, where settlers were completely blind to Native understanding of the commons. “Because of the walling-in and walling-out that are essential ingredients to the enclosure of commons,” she concludes, “accompaniment is often both a movement across constructed borders and an effort to create [spaces] where a different ethic of relationship, belonging, and mutuality can be tended.”

Mutual Accompaniment is not an easy read. The style is dense, and Watkins is not afraid of long words. But the picture that she presents of liberatory relationships and practices is well worth the effort. I kept being astonished at her pathbreaking, deeply integrative, and challenging insights. Though it goes unmentioned in the book, the author is a Quaker, and her spirit and values shine through. I recommend it to anyone who hungers for mutuality in a just and peaceful planetary commons.

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