Punishment Is Not Accountability

Orange background with a red origami bird flying free of bird cage with broken bar that is hanging by a white string. The words punishment does not equal accountability are in red on the left.

This piece is the first in the blog series, “Dreaming Up a More Liberated Future” which will explore how we (as a country, and as a movement to end gender-based violence) have prioritized expanding and strengthening punishing systems over helping strategies, the impact of those choices on survivors of trauma and their communities, and how we can do better.

In the United States, we have created a system of incarceration and punishment that is virtually incomparable to other countries. For example, in 2015, the U.S. held 5 percent of the world’s population, yet imprisoned a shocking near-25 percent of the world’s prisoners.[i] If the US prison population were a city, it would be among the country’s 10 largest.[ii] 

We unequivocally lead the world in incarcerating and punishing our own people. These astonishing numbers beg the question, however: with so many people entangled in the criminal legal system, are we as a country especially good at delivering accountability?

In this country, we often think accountability and punishment are interchangeable. We say, “that person needs to be held accountable for the violence they committed” when we mean, “that person needs to be punished,” but this is a mistake.

We must stop conflating these two ideas because accountability and punishment are not the same thing. Indeed, they actually rarely overlap. So, what do they mean, and what are the differences?


Accountability is meant to stop harm from happening.

  • The process of accountability is founded on the premise that when a harm is done, the harm creates an obligation–to the person harmed, and often to others in a group or community.
  • Accountability builds connection by acknowledging the harm and its impact.
  • Accountability is often active and can be proactive; the one who committed harm can initiate the accountability process rather than waiting for a consequence to be imposed upon them.
  • The most effective accountability processes are voluntary and ongoing–they are more of a process than a single event.
  • The person or persons who were harmed are active participants in the accountability process along with the person who committed harm.

Punishment, on the other hand, is a way of enforcing rules.

  • Sometimes the process of punishment can be violent or shaming. In this way, punishment can sometimes be a continuation of harm.
  • It is usually coerced; most people don’t volunteer to be punished.
  • The type of punishment may or may not be decided in consultation with the “victim”.
  • Whether it’s a time out, or a suspension, or being expelled, or incarcerated, punishment is often isolating; it involves being removed from one’s community.
  • As Danielle Sered of Common Justice points out, being punished only requires that a person endure the suffering imposed upon them. It is passive. To complete punishment, one must only not escape. It requires neither agency nor dignity, nor does it require work.
  • The issue of repair and restoration is rarely if ever addressed in punishment; the focus is on retribution, rather than repair or healing.

Punishment is steeped in either/or thinking: one is either guilty or innocent, a perpetrator or a victim. To explore and find alternatives to punishment, we must move away from simple binaries and acknowledge that all of us both commit and suffer harm at some point in our lives.

Teal green background with red headline letters that say Punishment on the left versus Accountability on the right. Below each title word is a bullet-pointed list of what constitutes punishment versus what constitutes accountability.

Accountability requires five key elements[iii] 

  • acknowledging one’s responsibility for one’s actions;
  • acknowledging the impact of one’s actions on others;
  • expressing genuine remorse;
  • taking actions to repair the harm to the degree possible; and
  • no longer committing similar harm.

In this country, we have built a vast array of punishing systems–from school suspensions to incarceration to the death penalty–yet punishing systems rarely if ever deliver accountability, as defined above.

On the contrary, punishing systems impede accountability by forcing the person who causes harm (often literally called the “defendant”) to defend, deny, and deflect, rather than take responsibility and acknowledge the impact of their actions. A defendant is successful in the court system if they prove their innocence, rather than take responsibility.

In addition to punishing systems failing to deliver accountability, many survivors tell us that they either choose not to engage with punishing systems or are harmed by them when they do engage. Take the criminal legal system, for example: a small portion of survivors have felt safer after using the criminal legal system, but as advocates, we’ve witnessed too many survivors who have been re-traumatized by using it. Despite this knowledge, for decades the movement to end gender-based violence has invested significantly in this system, and we continue to do so.

Nearly everyone who commits violence has also survived it. Yet the survivor/perpetrator binary (dividing people into either “survivors” or “perpetrators”) continues to pervade our movement, as though people who commit violence aren’t both…and weren’t survivors first.

When we invest in carceral systems that we know create more trauma survivors and fight for harsher penalties in the name of “victim safety”, our actions communicate that only certain types of survivors are worth protecting.

It’s time to ask ourselves some hard questions:

  • If our movement is, at its core an “anti-violence” movement, why are we choosing incarceration—a system of punishment which produces violence and suffering—as a primary response to violence?
  • How has our movement’s investment in policing and incarceration benefitted survivors (and which survivors)? How has it not?
Large blue-purple flowers in the background with white letter text that says, nearly everyone who commits violence has also survived it.

Earlier this year, the Action Alliance joined 44 other sexual and domestic violence coalitions in signing on to the national “Moment of Truth” statement, which outlines the ways in which our movement has failed Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) survivors, leaders, organizations, and movements, and offers a call to action to pivot toward investing in solutions that protect and heal individuals and communities. It calls us to create a future where “all human beings have inherent value, even when they cause harm” and “people have what they need – adequate and nutritious food, housing, quality education and healthcare, meaningful work, and time with family and friends”.[iv]

We can do this by redefining “public safety” as approaches that support and nurture healthy communities and investing in community-based solutions that offer care and protection to our most vulnerable community members. Transformative justice practices use community-based strategies to respond to and prevent harm and exist outside of punishing systems like the criminal legal system.

We can do this by letting go of the myth that punishing systems are a “solution” to violence.

We can also do this by turning toward accountability, making clear its distinction from punishment, and learning as we go.

Mia Mingus, a writer, public speaker, community educator and organizer working for disability justice and transformative justice, leaves us with these important musings about accountability and its promise:

What if accountability wasn’t rooted in punishment, revenge or superficiality, but rooted in our values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation?

What if the work of accountability was held as so supremely sacred, that people who got to practice it—truly practice it—were considered lucky and those who had the honor of supporting it and witnessing it were also changed for the better from its power?

–Mia Mingus

Friends, how would our work be transformed for the better if we did this?

Kate McCord is Associate Director of the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance and has been active in the work to end gender-based violence for 30 years.

Register here for the Action Alliance Membership Event: Exploring Accountability in the Context of Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence

Wednesday, January 13, 2021, 2pm-4pm

How do our notions of “justice” change when we bring an expansive view to how communities can offer a wide range of options for accountability in response to violence, harm or abuse? Join other Action Alliance members as we engage in discussion and out of the box thinking about possibilities for new ways to think about accountability and justice. 


[i] https://www.guilfordian.com/worldnation/2018/12/07/consequences-of-u-s-mass-incarceration/

[ii] https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/28/us/mass-incarceration-five-key-facts/index.html

[iii] https://www.commonjustice.org/accounting_for_violence#:~:text=Common%20Justice%E2%80%99s%20report%2C%20Accounting%20for%20Violence%3A%20How%20to,survivor-centered%2C%20based%20on%20accountability%2C%20safety-driven%2C%20and%20racially%20equitable.

[iv] https://allianceinaction.org/2020/07/10/vsdvaaaffirmsmomentoftruth/

Helping Families Create Safe and Nurturing Environments at Home

A guest blog by Ali Faruk, Families Forward Virginia

We all wish things were different. Most of us caregivers, especially those of us with young children, are struggling with our dual roles as caregiver and school teacher. However, we can still create safe, nurturing environments at home for our children.  To keep us and our loved ones safe, we don’t have to burn ourselves out doing a ton of new things. Strong relationships with our children are critical in preventing abuse and surviving these changes together. Below I discuss strategies and tips for success.

Man wearing purple and red shirt catching a boy wearing a red shirt and blue jeans. Photo by Conner Baker on Unsplash.

The first thing we can do is to spend quality time with children. Even short periods of time playing, reading, going outdoors, and talking can bolster children’s sense of safety and security during uncertain or scary times. Stay connected even when physical separation is necessary for safety reasons. Set up times for children to talk to important and trusted adults in their life using online video chats, telephone calls, emails, texts, or letters. Help other adults who are not living with the child (e.g., biological parents, grandparents, child care providers, teachers) and professionals who work with families (e.g., home visitors, parenting programs) maintain connections with the child. Again, this quality time can be facilitated through any number of strategies listed above. Communicate with these adults about the status of the family and child and share any updates, changes, questions and warning signs. These connections are important in helping children feel secure and supported during the pandemic.

Make time for emotional “check-ins” with your kids

Offer opportunities for children to ask questions, talk about their feelings, and receive age-appropriate information and support. When listening to, and talking with, children, build their resilience by stressing what they CAN do. Children can take care of themselves, their family, and their friends. Share stories of hope and resilience such as people helping each other or animals. This narrative provides an important counterbalance to negativity and fear about the pandemic. Make it a point to share something positive every day with your child.  

Validate feelings

Parent holding and consoling a child. Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash.

The pandemic has disrupted important parts of our children’s lives. Important milestones and traditions such as graduations, sports activities, social functions, and much more, have been cancelled or drastically limited. Acknowledge your children’s disappointments and validate their feelings. Problem-solve if there are ways to honor the missed opportunity later or in a different way. Find creative ways to honor milestones such as having family members make physical cards or notes commemorating a graduation or share videos of friends dancing to the same song.

Parents, especially those with young children, are under a lot of stress. Our children are also under stress. Model and teach stress management and relaxation skills to help your children cope with this pandemic. Support your children’s regulation skills by helping them manage difficult feelings. Build routines and rituals that help children relieve and manage stress such as some form of exercise/movement, quiet time, or deep breathing/meditation. 

To adapt to the pandemic, many children and youth are spending more time online. Children are turning to gaming and social media to maintain social connections with friends and family. Schools are heavily leaning into virtual learning. Spending so much time online means cyberbullying is an increased threat. Checking in often with your child is also an important way to protect them from participating in, or being the victim of, cyberbullying. Children often don’t tell their parents or family members that they’re experiencing cyberbullying because they’re afraid of having their access to the internet limited. Sometimes they are using social media accounts that parents have expressly limited or forbidden, thereby making it even harder to open up about the negative things they’re experiencing online.  

Why does cyberbullying happen? How can parents protect their children?

We’re all trying to teach children and youth how to make good decisions, however good judgment is something that children won’t fully develop until age 25 or so. The excerpt below is from the University of Rochester Medical Center health encyclopedia:

“…research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.

In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not always at the same rate. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.”

  • It’s normal and appropriate to place limits on screen time and access to social media for your child.
  • It’s appropriate for parents, who have decided to allow their children to use social media, to set up the accounts with their children, know their passwords, and check in on them occasionally.
  • Be transparent and honest with your children about why you are doing this and what the limits are.
  • Your children, especially adolescents, may not like these limits and that is ok.

For parents of children who have lots of friends and make friends easily, encourage your child to stand up for children who are bullied. They should also tell teachers or other trusted adults about cyberbullying. If your child is outgoing, then you can ask them about checking in with their friends who may seem sad and withdrawn. During one of your regular check-ins, ask your child, “You’ve mentioned that one of your friends is being really quiet lately. I wonder what would happen if you asked her what’s going on?”

If your child happens to be a victim of bullying, identify a safe adult who the child can talk to when they’re being bullied. To make it easier for the child to ask for help or feel safe, you can work out a system where, without drawing attention to themselves, they can be excused to leave and talk to a trusted adult.

  • Talk to your child’s teacher about specific recommendations.
  • Model for your children exactly what you want them to learn about being in a conflict situation.
  • Work as a team with your child’s teacher and school.
  • Get your child involved in cooperative, team-based activities.

Having just one friendship can protect children from the long-term negative impacts of bullying. As I mentioned at the very beginning of this post, supportive relationships are absolutely critical to protecting children. Spending time with our kids, helping them connect regularly with other trusted adults and peers is more important now than ever. Ask for help if these things are not resolving the bullying or other issues you’re experiencing as the caregiver. Mental health professionals can provide parents and youth with additional tools. With a little creativity, trial and error, and love, your family can support healthy and nurturing relationships at home.

Photo of Ali Faruk, a man wearing a tan suit with light blue dress shirt and coral tie.

Ali Faruk is the Policy Director at Families Forward Virginia, Virginia’s leading organization dedicated to disrupting the cycles of child abuse, neglect and poverty. Working with parents and their children, Families Forward Virginia provides home visiting programs, family support and education, professional development, child sexual abuse prevention programs, advocacy, and public awareness/public education.

Ali has served on many non-profit boards including Mental Health America of Virginia, the Virginia Autism Council, and the Community Building Committee of the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. Ali is currently a member of the Board of Long-Term Care Administrators. You can follow Ali on Twitter @FamiliesFwdVA.

It Begins With Each of Us Using Our Voice: Voting as an Extension of Sexual and Domestic Violence Advocacy

Wouldn’t it be great if our elected officials – from Congressional representatives to Commonwealth’s Attorneys and local School Board members – shared in our dream of a Virginia free of violence? A Virginia in which every person not only survives, but has the conditions and opportunities required to fully thrive? Let’s expand the frame of the possible and invest in #radicallyhopefulfutures. We can work towards a vision of a Virginia where our local offices are filled with individuals who understand what it takes and are deeply committed to ending violence together, and our congressional representatives work towards a radically hopeful future every day.

A grayscale photo of a collection of medium-sized buttons with different phrases, including "build thriving communities," "we choose all of us," "pave the way with prevention," and the central focus is on a button with the words, "Fund Prevention."

So, how do we make this happen? It begins with each of us using our voice.

Voting is one way to use your individual voice. By participating in elections (and here in Virginia we have at least one every year) you’re choosing people to represent you and your values. Your vote is your way to tell people who currently hold office, “good job, keep it up!” or “you don’t represent me, I choose someone else.” Of course, not every candidate running for office will share your views on every issue. You’ll have to decide whose vision of the future is most aligned with yours and choose based on what matters most to you. Voting’s like public transportation; there may not be a bus going exactly where you need to be, but you take the bus headed in the right direction to get you as far as you can and then keep going from there. If we don’t exercise this right, we can’t expect anything to change.

Voting’s like public transportation; there may not be a bus going exactly where you need to be, but you take the bus headed in the right direction to get you as far as you can and then keep going from there.

Need more of a reason to vote? The ongoing grassroots mobilizing efforts of groups like New Virginia Majority as well as campaigns like #SurvivorsVote in 2019 provided positive results in the makeup of the Virginia General Assembly, and this in turn impacted new laws regarding voting access, criminal justice reform, reproductive health, raising the minimum wage, and multiple other issues that we have been advocating for at the state level.

Some of the more recent changes to ensure voting access are helpful for us to understand. Here’s a step by step outline of some of those changes and how you can have the most impact this election season:

Step 1: Make sure you’re registered by Tuesday, October 13

  • Not sure if you’re registered to vote in Virginia? Check here. If you’re eligible to vote and are not yet registered, be sure to register by Tuesday, October 13 so you can vote in November’s election.
  • If you’re ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction and want to start the process of restoring your voting rights click here.
  • If you’re already registered, be sure to check your voter registration and confirm its accuracy so you don’t have any problems casting your ballot. For example, you may have moved since the last election and need to update your address and identify your new polling place.

Step 2: Make a plan to vote. Tip: there are more options this year!

Once you know you’re registered to vote, make a plan to vote by Election Day (November 3). You may be wondering how voting might look different this year during a global pandemic. Here in Virginia, you now have three different options for voting.

  • Mail-in voting: traditionally known as “absentee voting.” Anyone registered to vote in Virginia is eligible to request an absentee ballot, and can do so here. There will be an option to have your absentee ballot mailed to a different address than the one where you are registered. Once you request your absentee ballot it will be mailed to you a few weeks later. Return it as soon as possible to make sure your voice is heard!
    • *Note: Traditionally, absentee ballots require a witness signature before being returned. If you are unable to safely have a witness present, this requirement is waived.
  • In-person early voting, also known as “in-person absentee voting.” Anyone registered to vote in Virginia is eligible to vote early in person at their local registrar’s office, or other designated early voting location. This begins on September 18, 2020, and goes until October 31, 2020. You can contact your local registrar here to determine your options for in-person early voting.
  • In-person voting at your polling location on November 3. You can confirm your polling place here and polls will be open from 6am-7pm. Virginia no longer requires a photo-ID to vote, but bringing one with you will help get you through the process quickly. Other acceptable forms are your voter registration card, employee-issued photo ID, utility bill, bank statement, or other government document that lists your name and the address where you are registered. If you are unable to bring any of these forms, you may sign a sworn statement confirming you are who you say you are and then cast your ballot.

Step 3: Encourage everyone you know to vote as well!

An image of two mushrooms with red tops, one larger and one smaller, next to each other on top of a black grassy ground with a light wood grain background. At the top are the words, "vote for survival."

As advocates, we work to ensure survivors are knowledgeable about their options and empowered to make their own choices because they are the experts in their lives. Voting is an extension of this work. If we want to eliminate violence in the long-term and improve interventions for survivors in the short-term, we need to use our voice during elections. We can build a #radicallyhopefulfuture.

One of the tools that can help you do this is our Building Thriving Communities Toolkit. The toolkit includes guides for facilitating community conversations, campaign materials, candidate questionnaires, and strategies that you can use to engage your community and amplify survivor voices in our democratic process. For example, you can encourage others to vote by hanging one these posters in a shared space at your agency and by sharing this handout on why voting matters.

You can also participate in our technical assistance call on the importance of survivors voting. We hope to energize advocates, preventionists, and others in the movement to end violence in Virginia about the importance of building connections between the census, electoral politics, and supporting survivors in our communities. Join us virtually for our voter access call:

The Election is Coming! How to Ensure Voting Access for Survivors
Wednesday, September 9, 2:00 – 3:30 PM Eastern
Sign up for the call on Zoom at: https://bit.ly/votingaccessTAcall

Stay tuned for a call with our partners at New Virginia Majority – registration coming soon

Meredith Smith of New Virginia Majority will discuss a timeline of important dates for voting, options for voting, and information to make sure people experiencing housing instability can vote.

During these unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global uprising in defense of Black lives, and political uncertainty, it is more important than ever that we all do our part to elect candidates who will be supporting us and our communities.

Hannah Cannon is the Building Thriving Communities Intern at the Action Alliance and is a current Masters of Social Work student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Making the 2020 Census Count for Us

Too often, people and communities most in need of resources lack access to them. In the U.S., the distribution of resources and political power is based on the census, which is an effort to count every individual living in the country every ten years. While this system is imperfect, the census is an opportunity that could enhance the quality of life for survivors throughout the country. This is especially true among populations often considered to be underserved: in Virginia, populations who are most undercounted include Black, Latinx, and Asian communities; children; and those with unstable housing. We must do our part to improve the accuracy of the census to ensure resources are equitably distributed.

The 2020 census offers more safe ways to participate in a brief questionnaire than ever before – online, by mail, over the phone, or with a census enumerator coming to your residence – and even offers support in twelve languages other than English. Despite improvements in accessibility, data collection faces unique challenges due to mixed attitudes about the census, the government, and the tech used to collect and store responses – all during the COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings for racial justice.

But it’s exactly this social context that highlights the importance of the census. As people committed to ending and preventing violence, we shouldn’t forget that getting counted is another way to influence decision-making power for the benefit of our communities. Getting a full, fair, and accurate census count is critical for communities to get their fair share of $1.5 trillion in federal funding for essential services and public works, and influences economic development impacting local jobs. Census data also determines how residents are represented at all levels of government for the next ten years and serves as the cornerstone for research and evaluation projects.

Street lamp post with red sticker on it with yellow words that read, "do you want a future of decency, equality, and real social justice."

As an emerging evaluator, I know the value of using census data to support our anti-violence work. Along with the data collected on our programs and services, census data can help us talk about the context of our work in needs assessments, grant applications, evaluations, and outreach efforts. Sexual and domestic violence services, community education, and partnerships depend on grant programs that rely on census data for funding and planning. And we know that advocacy builds survivors’ connections to community resources such as housing programs, Medicaid and FAMIS, SNAP and WIC, childcare services, child and adult education, and services for older adults – all of which receive funding based on census data.

I also know that data can be weaponized, and I recognize the legacy of using the census for disenfranchisement and oppression. While I’m no historian, I see clear connections between the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, the use of census data to incarcerate Japanese Americans at internment camps in World War II, counting incarcerated people in the rural areas where prisons are located, the dangers of asking about citizenship, and insufficient information on gender and sexual orientation. Fortunately, the Census Bureau is legally required to protect the confidentiality of responses and doesn’t ask any questions about citizenship this year. I can understand why people may feel uncomfortable participating – and despite their concerns, I encourage everyone to think about which communities get fewer resources when older, white adults with higher incomes are more likely to participate than people with other identities.

Census activities started at the beginning of 2020 and there’s still time to be counted. However, the director of the Census Bureau announced on August 3 that all data collection efforts would end on September 30. Cutting the timeframe short by a full month means billions of dollars are at stake for communities across the state. There’s greater risk of not reaching populations identified as hard-to-count in Virginia, including Black, Latinx, and Asian people; young children and older adults; and people who are unhoused. Additionally, an interactive map of current census response rates show lower self-response rates among rural localities in Virginia, where broadband internet is less accessible.

Since the census affects our resources and representation, it’s up to us as trusted community organizations, advocates, and activists to make it count over the next few weeks. Here are a few ways we can help get out the count:

  • Make sure your organization has participated. While individuals and organizations are required by law to participate in the enumeration process, we still get to make decisions about what that participation looks like and how to share information safely. Plus, the Census Bureau offered domestic violence shelters and connected housing programs the opportunity to work with specially trained enumerators. But if you didn’t opt-in to that process, there are still safe ways to complete the form. Check out this blog post from census partner NNEDV or reach out to us.
  • Fact-check myths. For instance, lots of people mistakenly believe that the census is only for citizens or asks about citizenship status. People also worry that the census asks about religion, income, or collects other demographic information. Check out the sample form in English and Spanish to review the questions and answer options.
  • Spread the word in your organization. Talk to your coworkers, volunteers, and board about why the census matters. Discuss the possibility of making public statements, distributing information to clients, or connecting with local partners also working to get out the count.
  • Support your Local Complete Count Committee. Sexual and domestic violence organizations can help with outreach or collaborate on virtual or socially distanced census events. Find yours by clicking here.  

This urgency is why we are holding two technical assistance calls on the importance of the census and voting. We hope to energize advocates, preventionists, and others in the movement to end violence in Virginia about the importance of building connections between the census, electoral politics, and supporting survivors in our communities. Join us online for the following events:

Why the census is so critical for survivors
Thursday, August 27, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM Eastern
Sign up for the call on Zoom at: https://bit.ly/censusTAcall

The election is coming! How to ensure voting access for survivors
Wednesday, September 9, 2:00 – 3:30 PM Eastern
Sign up for the call on Zoom at: https://bit.ly/votingaccessTAcall

Getting counted in the census and voting in elections are important ways that we can influence decisions about our collective futures, especially when the votes and voices of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have been systematically excluded and suppressed. Movement building requires us to be involved in multiple strategies to bring about sustainable change, and we can’t afford to overlook the ecosystem of approaches beyond electoral approaches. We look forward to hearing how you will integrate these options and others into your toolbox for social change!

Additional Census Resources for Advocates:

Kristin Vamenta (she/her or they/them) is the Data and Evaluation Project Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. In addition to assessing the effectiveness of Action Alliance programs and supporting member agencies in collecting and using data, Kristin provides training and technical assistance on crisis intervention services; prevention and advocacy approaches to tech safety; and racial justice as integral to violence prevention and intervention.

Centering Survivors in Virginia’s Special General Assembly Session

This week, legislators reconvene in Richmond for a special session to address Virginia’s biennial budget, which has been severely impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and to consider policy measures in response to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent global uprising in defense of Black lives. Many of these measures are being introduced to advance equity, reform policing, and to begin the process of undoing systemic harms related to criminal justice and policing – which have historically and disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income Virginians. 

The movement to end sexual and domestic violence has long worked with the criminal justice system, including police, as one option to respond to violence. Many officers have a history of collaboration with victim advocates in building trauma-informed communities that provide safety and accountability. We acknowledge and value those individual officers who have made significant contributions to bring about change. However, the history and culture of policing in the United States is one that is steeped in self-protection, toxic masculinity, violence, racism, and domination. This has led to institutional responses to violence that are ineffective and unsafe for many victims of sexual and domestic violence and particularly for victims who identify as BIPOC[1]. Our movement’s reliance on police and criminal response interventions show no indication of reducing rates of violence nor do they provide justice for a majority of victims who choose to report[2]. This must change.

As the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance considers proposed legislation, we center the voices and experiences of survivors and rely on our values to guide us. We believe that all people have the right to a life free from sexual and domestic violence and oppression. We believe that violence will not be solved by violence. We believe that sexual and domestic violence are complex problems requiring equally complex and varied solutions.

A drawing of a tree with blue leaves in the center of a circle with drawings of multi-hued faces, fruits, houses, books and a bus on a yellow background. In the center are the words, Imagine a World Where We All Count.

This moment offers both a sense of urgency and possibility– a tipping point for change. We are asking Virginia legislators to affirm the following values and support legislation which speaks to those values.

  • Everyone deserves safety and healing.
    • Make meaningful investments in community stability, wellness, and wholeness including healthcare infrastructure, teachers, counselors, and education, as well as affordable and safe housing access for all;
    • Promote widespread adoption of specialized risk assessment tools, like ODARA, which use data to make evidenced-based determinations about bail and bond, pretrial services, and assess risk for future violence, ultimately reducing the risk of intimate partner homicide;
  • Criminalizing survival strategies prolongs trauma. Punishing survivors for engaging in survival strategies, like low-level drug use, panhandling, sex work, and self-defense perpetuates trauma and increases the likelihood that survivors of sexual and domestic violence will become incarcerated.
  • Preventing violence before it starts is not only possible, but it is critical to building healthy futures.
    • Support robust collection and analysis of data on high risk sexual and domestic violence perpetration and intimate partner homicide at the state level can help Virginia better identify which community strategies actually help to prevent severe violence and homicides;
    • Invest in sexual and domestic violence prevention through the newly established state fund will support expansion of violence prevention strategies across Virginia;

Want to make sure your voice is heard? Take action NOW to send a message to your legislators and urge them to center survivors during the special session as they address the COVID pandemic and criminal justice reforms. Or, you can also pick up the phone and give them a quick ring – it takes about two minutes and gets logged as a constituent request/community contact by legislative staff. Your voice really makes a difference – at this moment in time, we have the responsibility and the power to act in service of safety, justice, and healing for all Virginians!

[1] Survived & Punished data: https://survivedandpunished.org/quick-statistics/

[2] U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics: https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/rsarp00.pdf and RAINN Criminal Justice System data: https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system

The Action Alliance Affirms the “Moment of Truth” Statement of Commitment to Black Lives

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, along with 44 other coalitions, has proudly signed on to the national Moment of Truth: Statement of Commitment to Black Lives. The full statement and list of signatories are included below.

Moment of Truth: Statement of Commitment to Black Lives

This is a moment of reckoning. The murder of George Floyd broke the collective heart of this country, and now, finally, millions of people are saying their names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery – an endless list of Black Lives stolen at the hands and knees of police. The legacies of slavery and unfulfilled civil rights, colonialism and erasure, hatred and violence, have always been in full view. Turning away is no longer an option. Superficial reform is not enough.

We, the undersigned sexual assault and domestic violence state coalitions​ call ourselves to account for the ways in which this movement, and particularly the white leadership within this movement, has repeatedly failed Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) survivors, leaders, organizations, and movements:

  • We have failed to listen to Black feminist liberationists and other colleagues of color in the movement who cautioned us against the consequences of choosing increased policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solution to gender-based violence.

  • We have promoted false solutions of reforming systems that are designed to control people, rather than real community-based solutions that support healing and liberation.

  • We have invested significantly in the criminal legal system, despite knowing that the vast majority of survivors choose not to engage with it and that those who do are often re-traumatized by it.

  • We have held up calls for “victim safety” to justify imprisonment and ignored the fact that prisons hold some of the densest per-capita populations of trauma survivors in the world.

  • We have ignored and dismissed transformative justice approaches to healing, accountability, and repair, approaches created by BIPOC leaders and used successfully in BIPOC communities.

We acknowledge BIPOC’s historical trauma and lived experiences of violence and center those traumas and experiences in our commitments to move forward. We affirm that BIPOC communities are not homogeneous and that opinions on what is necessary now vary in both substance and degree. ​We stand with the Black Women leaders in our movement, for whom isolation, risk, and hardship are now particularly acute.  And we are grateful to the Black Women, Indigenous Women, and Women of Color – past and present – who have contributed mightily to our collective body of work, even as it has compromised their own health and well-being.

This moment has long been coming. We must be responsible for the ways in which our movement work directly contradicts our values. We espouse nonviolence, self-determination, freedom for all people and the right to bodily autonomy as we simultaneously contribute to a pro-arrest and oppressive system that is designed to isolate, control, and punish. We promote the ideas of equity and freedom as we ignore and minimize the real risks faced by BIPOC survivors who interact with a policing system that threatens the safety of their families and their very existence. We seek to uproot the core drivers of gender-based violence yet treat colonialism, white supremacy, racism, and transphobia as disconnected or separate from our core work.

A better world is within reach. It is being remembered and imagined in BIPOC communities around the world, and it is calling us to be a part of it.  In this world:

  • all human beings have inherent value, even when they cause harm;

  • people have what they need – adequate and nutritious food, housing, quality education and healthcare, meaningful work, and time with family and friends; and

  • all sentient beings are connected, including Mother Earth.

It is time to transform not only oppressive institutions, but also ourselves. Divestment and reallocation must be accompanied by rigorous commitment to and participation in the community solutions and supports that are being recommended by multiple organizations
and platforms.

We are listening to and centering BIPOC-led groups, organizations, and communities. We join their vision of liberation and support
the following:

The undersigned coalitions agree that the above actions are both aspirational and essential. While timing and strategy may differ across communities, states, and sovereign nations, we commit to supporting and partnering with BIPOC leaders and organizations. We commit to standing in solidarity with sovereignty, land and water protection, and human rights. And we say resoundingly and unequivocally: BLACK LIVES MATTER!

The Coronavirus pandemic, unchecked and increased police violence, political and economic upheaval, and stay-at-home isolation have produced the “perfect storm.”  We have a choice to make: run from the storm or into it. We choose to run into it and through it. We choose to come out the other side better, whole, loving, just, and more human. We have spent decades building our movement’s voice and power. How we use them now will define us in the years ahead. Let our actions show that we did not stand idly by. Let them show that we learned, changed, and will continue to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter is a centering practice for our work.

Affirmed by:

Alabama Coalition Against Rape
Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault
Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault
California Coalition Against Sexual Assault
California Partnership to End Domestic Violence
CAWS North Dakota
Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault
End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin
Florida Council Against Sexual Violence
Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault
Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence
Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Jane Doe Inc. (Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence)
Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, Inc.
Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence
Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence
Mississippi Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
Nebraska Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence
Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence
New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault
New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence
New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Inc.
New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault
North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence
North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence
Ohio Domestic Violence Network
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape
Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence
Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
Violence Free Colorado
Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance 
Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs
Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault

moment of truth

Resource Release: New 2020 Virginia Law

The 2020 General Assembly Session is officially behind us. However, the work of Virginia’s legislators and policy leaders is far from over. As we make our way through a deadly global pandemic and provide ongoing support to the global uprising in defense of Black lives, important decisions about state funding, voter access, healthcare, criminal justice reform, and public safety are still being made every day.

Our work to support survivors and build thriving communities has become infinitely more complex.  Communities are experiencing limited access to resources. Survivors are having to weigh the risks of exposure to Coronavirus versus sheltering in place with their abusers. As a movement, we are grappling with questions like “how can we address harm, accountability, and safety for all?” In all of this, the Action Alliance is working hard to amplify survivors’ voices and advocates’ needs in the policy world and beyond. New resources made available at this time include the #StaySafeVA public awareness campaign, the Rise Fund, and our COVID-19 Response Resources. We encourage you to (as much as possible) stay plugged in, stay hopeful, and know that we are here to help!

Text says "New 2020 Virginia Law: A legal guide for sexual and domestic violence advocates and survivors in Virginia" with background image of the Virginia General Assembly building's entrance.To this end, the NEW 2020 VIRGINIA LAW resource provides a summary of the legislative accomplishments that occurred between January and April and those policy decisions that we expect sexual and domestic violence advocates to be able to count on in a post-pandemic Commonwealth. (A summary document is also available here.) Our field saw several big wins in 2020, including:

  • the initiation of a new sexual and domestic violence state prevention fund,
  • firearms certification for respondents of permanent protective orders,
  • survivor-led housing protections for sexual and domestic violence survivors,
  • policies to increase access to forensic nursing throughout Virginia, and more.

We entered 2020 with a new Democratic majority in the House, Senate, and in the Governor’s mansion – this was the first time in more than 20 years that Democrats had a chance to fully pursue their agenda. As such, there was no shortage of bills filed or hot topics to debate. Legislators introduced 3,001 bills this session with 45% of these passing both chambers and ultimately being signed into law.

Though our work in sexual and domestic violence advocacy and prevention is far from over, we want to pause and celebrate our collective accomplishments and thank you for your steadfast advocacy at the General Assembly (and beyond!).

Without your support, none of our work advocating for survivors in the legislature would be possible. Thank you! Seriously.

For more information on bills of interest, the Action Alliance’s 2020 policy priorities, and news on the upcoming special session in August 2020, see the Public Policy section of the Action Alliance’s website. Additionally, if you would like to access our recorded webinar debriefing the 2020 General Assembly Session featuring guests Adele McClure, Director of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and Dr. Vanessa Walker Harris, Deputy Director of Virginia Health & Human Services, click here. As always, if you have any feedback, questions, or would like to get involved, feel free to drop us a line at policy@vsdvalliance.org.

Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence.

Action Alliance Statement on Police Brutality and Working for Racial Justice

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Action Alliance Statement on Police Brutality and Working for Racial Justice 

The Action Alliance explicitly denounces the senseless and unjust murders of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, as well as the continued threats against their lives and well-being for simply existing in this nation. Pain, sadness, anger, frustration, exhaustion, and fear are only a few of the words to describe the heaviness that sits on our hearts as we continue to learn of more Black lives being stolen by police brutality, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, George Floydall those who came before, and all those who may come after. 

As advocates for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, we know too well the tactics of oppression used by people to control and abuse partners and family members and see those same tactics replicated time and again by the police to control and abuse neighborhoods where Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) reside. These tactics include intimidation, physical and sexual violence, and gaslighting through minimizing, denying, and victim-blaming. 

Racism and white supremacy have been used for centuries to reinforce sexual and domestic violence; therefore, work to achieve racial justice is inextricably linked to the work to eradicate sexual and domestic violence. The Action Alliance commits to centering racial, reproductive, and economic justice in our efforts to achieve gender justice. This requires us to educate ourselves and others about the real-life impacts that violence has on BIPOC communities. It requires that we continue to learn how white supremacy and white complacency perpetuates, upholds, and reinforces that violence. It asks us to speak up and speak out when we see these systems at work in our families, workplaces, government, places of worship, community spaces, neighborhoods, and selves. It requires deliberate, intentional, and constant action. 

When we center racial justice — when we create systems that provide shelter, food, mental and physical healthcare, livable wages, and educational access to BIPOC communities — we all are more likely to flourish. The ability for BIPOC families and communities to thrive is intrinsically tied to thriving for all of us.  

Now is a time to lean into the discomfort of acknowledging the ways that white supremacy and racial inequalities have created opportunities for many, even in our own field of work, and placed barriers in front of others. In this moment, we are called to re-examine the ways in which we contribute to injustice, including our movement’s investment in systems of policing and incarceration which often increase violence and trauma, rather than reduce it.  

Black lives are beautiful and sacred. Black lives unequivocally matter. As a coalition, we must acknowledge our complicity in upholding violent systemssystems that refuse to see the beauty and sacredness of Black livesand do the work necessary to repair.  

We call in Virginia’s Sexual & Domestic Violence Agencies to join usWe call in our fellow advocates to account for the ways in which our movement has failed BIPOC survivors and to organize in the service of listening to and meeting the needs of BIPOC survivors and communities. We call in our fellow advocates to ensure that survivors have access to voting and to BIPOC-led resources in their communities.  

We ask all who support the idea of racial justice to help make it a reality by: 

  • Supporting BIPOC-led organizers and organizations working for justice and liberation like Southerners on New GroundSisterSong, and Black Lives Matter; 
  • Supporting efforts to ensure full participation in our democratic processes, like New Virginia Majority; 
  • Assisting with voter registration efforts and advocating for full access to absentee ballots so people may vote without fear of becoming sick; and 
  • Continuing to learn and teach others about the fight for racial justice in this country. 

We recommit to amplifying and centering Black voices as well as other marginalized communities. We recommit to deconstructing the many ways in which we uphold and embolden white supremacist ideology, and actively working to dismantle them. The voices of Black and brown people will be silenced no more. We will amplify and center those voices in all we do and all we are. We encourage you to lean into the discomfort with usWe choose to do the work of racial justice every day. We will hold each other up as we do this work together. Change must come swiftly, and just like peace, change begins at home.  

We Need More Than Words

Book cover with blue skies and white mountains, with words "Something needs to change."With the recent assassinations of Black people at the hands of the police and racists in this country, there have been calls for solidarity and the need for allyship. The assumption is that we are only asking for well-meaning White folks to do more, learn more, and be more active in fighting white supremacy and racism. While this is true, we need more than fight. We need change. We need to be able to be seen as whole free people feeling real emotions inside of a country that was created by white supremacy with the intention of having control over our bodies in life and death. We need to be who we are unapologetically. We need to be represented in spaces that have historically been occupied and controlled by White people and not have our experiences ignored or silenced.

We need change. We need to be able to be seen as whole free people feeling real emotions inside of a country that was created by white supremacy with the intention of having control over our bodies in life and death.

Black people and people of color have not been extended the privileges to enter those spaces and have people acknowledge what is happening to them in this county. We often have to fix our faces, tones of voice, and emotions to get the job done and proceed as if all is well because when we do speak up and out they are seen as trouble makers and then again we are silenced. We want to be able to be angry about how we are consistently impacted by all the racism and frequent microaggressions in our workspaces and the communities we live in. We want to openly mourn seeing the people that look like us killed either by the disproportionate negative impacts that this society has created or by the police that are supposed to “protect” us. We want to be seen in movements that have historically and presently continue to erase our presence and foundational contributions.

In this field of gender violence we collectively have fought for people to have autonomy over their bodies and the end to interpersonal violence. Yet, when it comes to the disproportionate impact on Black and Brown bodies, we have become invisible. We have just now in recent years inside of the mainstream spaces of this movement been bold enough to point out these impacts in words but in actions little has changed. We talk about being here for everyone, but the painful truth is that we are not. This movement has been hypocritical in its actions.

We have just now in recent years inside of the mainstream spaces of this movement been bold enough to point out these impacts in words but in actions little has changed.

The call for allyship is nice and needed but what we really need is for your actions to speak louder than the memes, retweets, shares, and repeating the words of Black people and people of color. We need change in our environments that push us out when we speak up. We need real dialogue that includes us in the “hard” conversations about race. We need you to do more than read books about privilege. We need you to look inside and think about the many ways that your non-action in speaking up about state violence and committing forms of it in the spaces that you frequent are also violent. Yes, we need you to learn AND we need you to change.

One person's hands holding another's hand in support.

To the survivors and advocates that are Black and people of color, we see you, you are whole and are loved.

Cortney Calixte is the Movement and Capacity-Building Director at the Action Alliance. Her main focuses are underserved populations, social justice movements and their intersections with advocacy.

Solidarity Calls for More than Outrage on Social Media

Despite her claims otherwise, Amy Cooper knew exactly what she was doing when she called 911 to make a false report that Chris Cooper was threatening her in New York City’s Central Park.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” she sneers, pulling down her face mask and dragging her dog by its collar. “Please call the cops,” Chris Cooper calmly responds.

Whether Amy Cooper acknowledges it or not, growing up as a white person in the U.S., she has been saturated with toxic messages of the supremacy of whiteness since birth. We all have. She leveraged her whiteness to weaponize the police against Chris Cooper, an avid birdwatcher, a Black man who had asked her to leash her dog in an area where it was illegal to have one’s dog off-leash. She knew—she intuited—that a white woman calling the cops to lie about a Black man threatening her would bring a swift, unquestioning response in her favor. She knew that by saying, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she was in fact making a threat against Chris Cooper’s life.

Police have a long and horrifying record of using deadly force against Black people. On the same day that Amy Cooper was lying to 911, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (who had 12 prior complaints against him in a 19-year career on the force with zero disciplinary action) was murdering 46-year old George Floyd by kneeling on his neck as he gasped for air on the concrete, pleading, “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd was described by friends and family as a “gentle giant” who worked security for a bistro, and was “loved by all employees and customers.” He had moved from Houston to Minneapolis to “be his best self,” one friend said.

Equality, Justice, Love, and Peace

It’s easy for us as white folks to vilify the Amy Coopers of the world—entitled white women who police and report the activities of innocent Black people—thereby endangering their lives. Going all the way back to the murder of Emmett Till and way before that, false reports by white women have resulted in Black people being murdered.

And yes, Amy Cooper’s actions are certainly worthy of critique. But by saying to ourselves and others, “I’m not like her,” we miss the chance to examine our own internalized white supremacy and how it operates in our minds, families, offices, and communities (see illustration below).

supremacy iceberg

The white supremacy iceberg illustrates the connections between overt (socially unacceptable) and covert (often socially acceptable) forms of white supremacy.

If we want to be allies to our Black colleagues, family, friends, neighbors, and clients, it’s critical for us white people to understand that—like all oppressions—racist behaviors exist on a continuum. The actions of Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin exist on that continuum; there is a direct line from Amy Cooper’s weaponizing race for summoning the police to police officer Derek Chauvin using lethal force against a man who was posing no physical threat.

Hand holding sign saying "End Hate"Similarly, there is a direct line from microaggressions we may inflict on Black people to Amy Cooper knowing that she could lie to police with impunity and quite possibly endanger an innocent man’s life in the process. All of these behaviors support the omnipresent and toxic falsehood in our culture that Black people are “less than”.


Racist actions on this continuum have different impacts, yet all are harmful to the psyche and bodies of our fellow human beings. From microaggressions to murder, racist actions prop up the structural inequalities (the written and unwritten policies and practices) that ensure white people—on the whole—have access to more chances, more resources, greater safety, and more justice than anyone who is not considered “white.”

So, what to do, dear fellow white people? Paralysis and guilt may be understandable reactions to the onslaught of news about the excessive toll taken on Black bodies-whether it’s by police brutality or COVID-19, where the mortality rate for Black Americans is almost two and half time higher than for whites. But paralysis and guilt do nothing to save lives.

There is no dearth of information on how white people can help make change happen. Here is a list of 75 actions that white people can do to help support racial justice. Here is a list of anti-racism resources, including podcasts, reading and video lists, and other resources for white folks to learn more about racist oppression and the beauty of Blackness without putting the burden of our education on Black people (after all, it is not the responsibility of Black people to educate us on racism).


Do what you can where you are. Talk to your kids and family about white supremacy and racism, how to spot them, and how to talk with their own friends about them. Contribute time and money to organizations led by people of color that work toward liberation, like Southerners on New Ground and Black Lives Matter. Give to the Legal Aid Justice Center and the New Virginia Majority, two organizations in Virginia that fight for racial justice and democracy.

If you are an advocate for survivors of violence, commit to your own education about how racism impacts survivors of color*, learn how to engage in systems advocacy in your own community by following the lead of organizations that have people of color at the helm*, and talk with schools in your community about simple steps you can take to dismantle the trauma-to-prison pipeline*.

How Justice Movements Connect-FINALWorking for gender justice and a world without gendered violence means that we must simultaneously work toward racial justice and a world without racist violence. If you’d like to learn more about how the work to create gender justice intersects with work to end other oppressions, download these Action Alliance infographics here: “How Justice Movements Connect” and “How Oppressive Systems Connect”.






If you’d like to learn more about how the Action Alliance is currently working to build gender justice, racial justice, economic justice, and reproductive justice, download our Vision, Values, and Strategies document.

If there is one thing that the Coronavirus global pandemic has taught is, it is that we are all connected. As white people, it is up to us to honor that sacred responsibility and do our part to bring about change so that all human beings may thrive. White folks living today may not be responsible for building this country’s labyrinth of white supremacy but our silence in the face of white supremacist actions today and moving forward makes us complicit. We are responsible for actively fighting for white supremacy’s destruction. As the ancestors of future generations, we have the resourcefulness and tenacity to build a brighter future for ourselves and for our future descendants.

Kate McCord (she/they) is an Associate Director for the Action Alliance and has been active in integrating a racial justice lens into Virginia’s movement for gender justice for over 20 years.

*The Action Alliance has training curricula on these topics and/or can create “trainings-on-request” for these topics.

Source of featured image: bbc.com

Source of white supremacy iceberg: https://www.facebook.com/rtrlo/photos/a.2323769810997875/3975957802445726/?type=1&theater

White supremacy iceberg image attributions, as listed in its source post: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005). Adapted: Ellen Tuzzolo (2016); Mary Julia Cooksey Cordero (@jewelspewels) (2019); The Conscious Kid (2020).