Transformative justice activist Mia Mingus reflects on responding to sexual assault without creating more harm.
Mia Mingus is a longtime social justice activist and a transnational and transracial Korean adoptee raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Mingus is also queer and physically disabled, two identities that have formed a large part of her perspective and activism. After working in the reproductive justice arena for the better part of a decade, Mingus is now at the Oakland-based Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, which their website describes as “a community collective of individuals working to build and support transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse.” While Mingus’ work focuses on child sexual abuse, it also touches on other types of intimate violence.
Mingus and her work responds to intimate violence with alternatives that don’t rely exclusively on alienation, punitive measures or the state (police, prisons and the criminal legal system). We spoke by video chat about transformative justice, #MeToo and alternative approaches to responding to harm within communities. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved in transformative justice work?
My mom was one of the founders, along with other women including Audre Lorde, of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, a direct service organization that did work around domestic violence, sexual assault and rape. It was founded the year I was adopted, so most of my childhood was filled with Take Back the Night marches, playing with other kids while our moms had meetings, listening to our phone ring during the night because victims needed an advocate at the ER. Through that, I really got the sense as a child that sexual violence was a huge problem, and that it wasn’t just [being done by] a few bad apples.
In my early to mid 20s I was doing work around reproductive justice in the South. Because most of it was with queer and trans people of color, I realized one day that the reason why they weren’t seeking reproductive health services was because they had experienced sexual violence as young people. I already knew [these issues] were connected, but that was [an aha] moment.
What is transformative justice?
Transformative justice (TJ) is a political framework [that asks] how do we respond to harm without creating more harm? How do we respond to violence, harm and abuse without relying on state systems—the police, the criminal legal system, immigration and customs enforcement, prisons, the foster care system? And also, at the same time, [we want to] actively cultivate the things that we know prevent violence, things like safety, accountability, healing, justice, connection and transparency.
Can you say more about the idea that preventing intimate violence isn’t just about singling out “a few bad apples”?
[If you] look at literally most any study done within the last 15 to 20 years, all of the statistics, really no matter what form of intimate or sexual violence you’re looking at, are at epidemic levels. [With child sexual abuse] we have estimates like 1 in 4 girls, 1 in 6 boys—those numbers are epidemic rates. And we know that child sexual abuse is one of the most underreported forms of violence.
When I say that it’s not just a couple of bad apples, [it’s because I grew up] in this type of work, seeing that it was my friend’s families, that it was people that I knew [who were involved in intimate violence]. I got a sense really early on that it’s not just like we [can] hunt out these couple of bad eggs and once we find them, we’ll lock them away in some prison cell and then everything will be okay.
The reality is that intimate and sexual violence is happening all the time. That it’s actually the norm in our society. When we look at those statistics, it’s most of us. If we’re going to lock up anybody who has ever been violent or done harm, we’d be locking up most people. We’d be locking up the people with whom we have relationships, our family members, our friends.
In that realm, it seems like #MeToo is getting at that truth that intimate and sexual violence happens all the time and it is the norm. What do you think about that campaign?
I think it’s complicated. On the one hand, I’m really happy that so many people are disclosing what happened to them, making it public and feeling empowered to do that. For people who don’t know a lot about sexual violence, or are in denial that it happens so much, I think it’s great for them to learn that this happens all the time. I think it’s wonderful that other survivors feel encouraged to come out and disclose. I think it’s great that there is attention being paid to men in power, and the ways that toxic masculinity and masculine privilege play out, especially if you are a celebrity, especially if you have money, especially if you have status and social capital.
But on the other hand, there is almost this performative aspect of #metoo—not by the survivors necessarily, but mostly by these institutions and the public-at-large. It feels sometimes disengenous. It’s almost like a, “See we fired him? It’s done. I don’t know what you are complaining about now.”
How do you feel about the narrative being so focused on cis women as survivors?
It’s not just cis women who get attacked. And it’s not only cis men who [commit] violence. Domination and abuse of power can happen by anybody. I believe, from my TJ work, I believe that given the right conditions, any of us could abuse power.
What do you think about the consequences for the perpetrators who are being outed by #metoo?
We’re still so steeped in punishment and revenge. I want us to enter into deeper conversations. What is justice? Is somebody getting fired from their job and losing their livelihood, for example, or getting exiled, getting demonized in the public sphere, is that justice? Especially for communities of color, for queer and trans communities of color, for disabled communities of color—we have to be vigilant with how we’re understanding concepts of justice constantly.
Why do you think it’s so crucial for marginalized communities?
Because it will get turned around on us. Because we know who gets thought of as criminals. We know there will be a backlash.
We hope that this will continue to grow into something substantive that’s more than people coming forward on social media. I worry that it’s not actually leading to stopping the violence. What we know from our work is that when you publicly shame someone, when you do character assassination, 9 times out of 10 it doesn’t stop the violence, it doesn’t transform the behavior. It just means that they go underground and they figure out how to hide the violence better. I wish it was more transformative. I wish we were engaging in deeper conversations about justice.
I think some folks believe #metoo will serve as a deterrent to other potential perpetrators. Do you agree?
I don’t think that Harvey Weinstein getting fired from the Weinstein corporation is going to significantly bring down rates of sexual violence. We’ve had so many campaigns. We’ve been through this. Where is the disconnect? What is it going to take to actually end sexual violence?
I know part of the TJ approach is working with perpetrators of harm and abuse. Why is that so important?
If you look at how prevalant this is, and again that it’s not just a couple of bad apples, we’re going to need to work with people who’ve caused harm.
Part of what we need to shift and change if we’re actually going to end sexual violence, is that we’re all going to need to take accountability for how we allow this rape culture to continue. No one comes out of the womb knowing how to torture somebody, how to rape somebody, or sexually assault somebody. These are learned behaviors.
What does accountability look like from a TJ perspective?
Questions about justice are inevitablity questions about accountability. Questions about accountability are inevitably questions about justice.
For our work, accountability is not just saying you’re sorry for something, it’s not just reparations, it’s not just repairing the harm. True accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm does not happen again. You can apologize all you want. You can repair trust all you want. But if you continue to do the harm, and the violence or the abuse, then what does it matter? That’s what I hear 9 times out of 10 from survivors, including myself as a survivor. What most people say is that they don’t necessarily want an apology, they just don’t want anyone to go through what they went through.
How do you actually help someone to stop harming other people?
What we’re talking about is changing behaviors. I’m sure everybody reading this article has tried to change their behavior many times—and failed. Even if you think about benign things, like, I’m not going to procrastinate anymore. We have a hard time doing that.
This is not to excuse or justify any type of harm or violence people have done. If you have a deeply engrained behavior that maybe is a trauma response from the violence you grew up in, and now you just have to stop that. We tell people to be accountable all the time, but we give them no tools, no support to do it. What we [at the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective] try to get to in our work is to support people who have done harm and caused harm to do their own work.
Can you give me an example of a TJ process that tries to get at this?
One of the strengths of TJ is that it’s not one size fights all. What that means is that different incidents are going to be different. TJ requires and demands and really invites community members in, to grapple with themselves, rather than giving someone a manual. It’s inviting us all to ask, what would justice look like in my family?
I get that a cookie cutter model doesn’t work, but what’s an example of one TJ process?
A common structure for a TJ process is you have a survivor and three or four people supporting them. Then you have the person who caused harm and three or four people supporting them in their accountability. That’s what we strive for, and we call it pods. Then there is a coordinator or facilitator, or a circle of coordinators/facilitators. In this kind of a structure you have a core meeting where they discuss how it’s going, what needs to happen to move forward.
Then you’ll have the survivor think of what their demands are. What would it look like for person who caused harm to be accountable to you? That could include everything from a year of feminist therapy to disclosure to any people they’re dating for the next three years about what they’ve done. It can look like needing to write letters of apology, it could look like outing themselves at work. Those are just some of the examples. And I want to be clear, TJ processes are not just about the person who caused harm, it’s about things that support the survivor, too.
What we’re trying to do ultimately is create lots of different tools in our toolkit that I can pull out in different situations. We’re trying to create human processes for human people.
Have you seen these processes work?
Yes. I have. And I want to be clear that sometimes, given the incredibly violent conditions that we are living in right now, a lot of what TJ is [redefining] is what victory and success look like. Sometimes a victory and a success could be if a child discloses to their parent, and they believe them. And that’s sad, but that’s where we are at right now. A victory or success can be just getting the violence to stop. Maybe there is no accoutability, maybe everyone isn’t healed. Maybe a victory is getting the person who caused harm to even just admit what they’ve done and be willing to be part of a process.
Do you feel hopeful, despite the really difficult work you’ve dedicated yourself to?
I feel incredibly hopeful. I see the way that people are resisting. Survivors don’t have to go through these processes, but they do because they don’t want more harm to happen. I see bystanders who are stepping up to the plate. I see survivors being so vulnerable and sharing with their communities. And also people who have caused harm being willing to be transparent and vulnerable in their community on some of the worst things they’ve ever done. I feel incredibly grateful that I get to be part of witnessing that kind of magnificence. It’s not to say that everything is always good. [But] there are people who are saying, yeah, while punishment might make me feel good in the moment, I actually want something other than more trauma.