Accountability (Counsel) in the Community

In 2017 I had a best friend. A best friend who lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her mom, sister, brother-in-law, and their two kids. A best friend with asthma that only seemed to complicate over time. Many people grow out of their asthma by early adulthood, but for my best friend, her inhaler was only increasingly relevant to her life.

When breathing became a chronic issue for my best friend’s niece and nephew living in the apartment with her, not much was thought of it at the time – a family problem perhaps. But when black mold was discovered growing out of a crack in their bathtub, suspicions arose. They moved a few doors down, compliments of the apartment complex, to a unit with the same design. Breathing problems persisted.

Several months later, black mold was discovered all over their furniture – the same furniture that two toddlers treated as a climbing wall. A lawsuit quickly uncovered that the HVAC systems in the apartment complex had been illegally installed and remained unchecked, allowing for black mold to develop in many of the apartments and irritating, if not inciting, my best friend’s asthma. Her family received a settlement and they quickly escaped the soaring rent prices of Carrboro.

A smattering of oppressive systems intersect at this story, and each of them relate to the community-based approach utilized by Accountability Counsel, underutilized by nearly every other institution, and touted by members of the transformative justice movement. A few of the many include: the environmental racism forced upon poor black and brown urban communities, the lack of corporate oversight on development projects, and the cycle of poverty that disproportionately pushes people with one or more marginalized identities into unstable living situations.

But how would this story be different if, like Accountability Counsel, the town of Carrboro (or whoever) listened to the demands for community oversight and involvement to be central to the development of the town? Could my best friend’s trips to the hospital have been saved? Would the apartment complex still have illegally installed malfunctioning HVAC units? Would it even exist in the part of town it did, so close to some of the only other apartments in town?

These questions arise at a time when community-based approaches are extending into parts of the national conversation that, until today, have yet to engage with such a fundamental concept. Now more than ever, impacted communities are demanding a community-based approach to the systems that govern their lives, such as with agriculture, local safety, housing development, and any other altercations to the physical and spiritual landscape around them.

This summer, and for years prior, The BlackLivesMatter movement has demanded the defunding and abolition of police in lieu of more community-based approaches to safety and accountability. At least in my white-aligned circles, social workers, mental health professionals, and mediators trained in de-escalation are seen as some of the immediate alternatives to police. While it should be noted that social workers can function within the same medical-industrial complex that serves to incarcerate non-white and disabled Americans into prisons or mental health facilities (often one in the same), the discussion of locally-based workers being involved in the response to community needs is certainly a conversation in the right direction.

Importantly, many of the (dis)services provided by police can be accomplished by other trained professionals that are far more woven into the fabric of the local community. Car assistance, nighttime safety, and emergency response are just a few of the roles that should be played by people with more than six months of training and a real stake in the community they aid.

Focus on impacted communities should be integral to development going forward, in the United States and beyond. Accountability Counsel understands this, although it takes cases outside of the U.S. far more than within, and carries this principle throughout their work on community cases around the globe.

But how does one “focus on impacted communities” in the detached world of internationally financed development projects? For one, listen. Accountability Counsel exclusively works for communities that ask for it and when AC commits, it commits until the community decides our work is finished, an important principle for privileged persons to understand about working with and being with marginalized communities.

But the community-based approach must not end until all of our institutions are rooted in the people that they may impact, and certainly not until the community decides so. Having community accountability and oversight mechanisms, coupled with community involvement in development, could serve wonders in addressing the individual needs of unique communities around the globe. With this, maybe we could truly address issues of global and local inequity. Above all, maybe my friend would have lived happily and healthily in her apartment until she saw fit.