How to Increase Accountability in Organizational Change and Community Work
How are you accountable to yourself and your community? How are you accountable to underserved and underrepresented communities who make up the world we live in and communities you occupy? to your commitments and work results? to mistakes and harm? to teamwork, unity, and progress? How do we all embody accountability in our everyday encounters and relationships towards our collective humanity?
When we talk about accountability in change work, we can mean so many different things. In my own work as coach and consultant who focuses on equity, inclusion, and justice, depending on the context, I can be referring to anything from the accountability aspect of long-term organizational change work or short-term project management work to cultural humility, the need for amplifying underrepresented leadership voices, or even radical self-care. In this spirit, I want to share two frameworks for steering clear towards what accountability can mean in different, but related contexts. Language is important.
Accountability in Strategic Change or Project Work
“In all the institutions I try to be present and accountable for all I do and leave undone. I know that eventually I shall have to be present and accountable in the presence of God. I do not wish to be found wanting.”
Accountability in equity, inclusion, and justice work first begs that you to center yourself in cultural humility. You must examine privilege and power dynamics that are going on and gauge their impacts. Then it’s about asking, how you are accountable to yourself (first) and then to your community? How do you stay aligned with your goals and vision?
Assuming you are committed to the goal of advancing justice, how are you accountable to those who have been underrepresented and underserved? Are the people you are trying to help a new community to you or are they the community you yourself come from? What does it mean to amplify the strengths and potential of others? To support their goals using your “time, talent, and treasure”? What does it look like to be accountable in the face of harmful impacts (despite well intentions) and/or abandonment (in the name of progress)? More than anything perhaps, you need to be in alignment with and allegiance to underrepresented and underserved communities, working alongside them. This may mean suspending access to privilege and resources. What does that reparation and giving back look like? Authentic allegiance to a community means demonstrating shared values, visions, and commitments responsibly and reliably.
In any transformational process, there is always necessary project management work to be done, too. Accountability shows up here as well. In this context, I like the RACI model where you ask four simple questions:
Who is Responsible?
Who is Accountable?
Who has to be Consulted?
Who just need to be Informed?
These questions help define clear roles and responsibilities, thereby managing expectations, making labor visible, and reinforcing leadership and boundaries. For example, with a racial justice action that you want to take, you assume responsibility for the group you represent and you are then accountable to the work… for keeping the commitment and monitoring impacts and outcomes. Then you will want to consult those individuals you are trying to help or who are impacted by the thing you are trying to fix. The work is to amplify their voices, see people in all of their humanity first, again, working alongside them. This way you will inform and cultivate their leadership in addition to your own.
Rhythm Systems also created an excellent 5 C’s model that is intended to help teams share labor equitably while assessing progress. The 5 C’s are:
Communication and alignment
Below is their table with the essential questions that correspond to these five areas. I like this tool because it’s a quick and easy way to center work that is often intangible by making it tangible. You’ll be surprised how quickly you get a sense of how responsible and accountable team members feel to a project using this tool in a group or one-on-one team member “check-in”.
Accountability in Work Relationships
“Our individual power to effect change may not seem like much, but remember, we are all interconnected: We are One. Powerlessness itself is an illusion. Every positive action we take, no matter how small, will have an impact.”
Most folks know the golden rule and pride themselves in trying to live by it. Those of you who train with me know I recommend practicing the platinum rule, which is, “Treat folks how they would like to be treated! This appears to be simple enough, but is one of the most difficult mindsets to master. When practiced, the platinum rule helps shift people’s consciousness, empathy, and privilege dynamics while in relationship to another. Making this shift and embodying this practice is critical to practicing cultural humility. Remember: Be curious. Frame your questions intentionally. Ask attentively. Listen actively. Work Alongside respectfully. Positive human connection leads to liberation.
To illustrate the accountability intrinsic in cultural humility work, I turn to adrienne maree brown’s blog “muting is not disposing of (distinctions),” which by the way is a stellar example of brown’s own cultural humility exercise in and of itself. She writes “...with no public demand for accountability, they are given a green light to continue to act from their abuse shaping, rather than do the hard work of healing, changing.”
“what we need is a path to redemption: understand that you caused harm, stop future harm, turn within, repent, apologize, learn boundaries and how to navigate power and connection, grieve, grow. transformative justice recognizes that the state upholds systems of oppression more than accountability, and requires us to name the truths within community, to stop the harm ourselves.”
When we think about our own path in activism or systems change work, Toni Morrison speaks to the sort of accountability that is about looking back and understanding where you came from, the struggles shouldered by those before us and paying it forward as if we are all connected:
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’”
As we think about accountability in relationships, we must not forget our relationship to ourselves. How are you accountable to yourself and your beliefs, vision, and values? My question is always, Can I go to bed at night knowing I did the best I could and it was for the right reasons? If the answer is yes, then that is all I can control. To me, this is a version of radical self-care.
On this theme of self-care, I also highly recommend that you read adrienne maree brown’s work to witness her journey. I love that she quotes Camus on her blog: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I like this because much like the Chavez quote (that of course includes all genders and beings) it can seem that accountability is a tethering of sorts, but this tethering and relational work can actually be the path to our collective liberation. Accountability is really humanity in action.
As you can see, accountability can mean oh so much. In its highest sense, accountability is about asking how are we all accountable to this planet and the generations to come after us as well as the generations who came before us. We must have the courage to ask these questions of ourselves and each other.
“When we are really honest with ourselves we must admit our lives are all that really belong to us. So it is how we use our lives that determines the kind of men we are.”
Angelou, Maya. Letter to My Daughter. Random House. October 2009.
brown, adrienne maree. “muting is not disposing of (distinctions),” adriennemareebrown.net. 4 February 2019.
Houston, Pam. “The Truest Eye: Toni Morrison Talks Love.” O Magazine. November 2003.
Overmire, Laurence. The One Idea That Saves The World: A Call to Conscience and A Call to Action. Indelible Mark Publishing. July 2012.
Pao, Maureen. Cesar Chavez: The Life Behind a Legacy of Farm Labor Rights. NPR. 12 August 2016.
VanSant, Gwendolyn. “Working Alongside Versus Welcoming In: Moving Beyond Inclusion Toward Authentic Integration” gwendolynvansant.com. June 2018.
© 2019 Gwendolyn VanSant