“Accountability? It’s the foundation of gender justice for men”

Man giving presentation

20 July 2018

Following the recent launch of the new MenEngage Accountability Toolkit, we talked to Chuck Derry about what accountability means to him. Based in Minnesota, USA, Chuck has been working to engage men in women’s rights and gender justice since the 1980s, and is the co-founder of Gender Violence Institute and the Minnesota Men’s Action Network: Alliance to Prevent Sexual and Domestic Violence. He sits on the Steering Committee of the North American MenEngage Network (NAMEN), for which strengthening accountable practices has been – and continues to be – a significant focus

 

What does accountability mean to you?

I think male accountability is the foundation of gender justice for men, and it’s tied directly to male privilege and our willingness to relinquish the benefits we get at women and girls’ expense. Are we willing to give up the privileges and acknowledge our behaviours – that are steeped in sexism – at personal, institutional and social levels? To me, accountability is foundational to these questions at all levels.

 

When did you first have to challenge yourself to be accountable?

I was nervous about issues of accountability myself when I first got involved in these efforts to end men’s violence against women in 1983. Was I willing to give up the privileges afforded me simply because I was born a man? I was also concerned about male engagement within the movement to end men’s violence. For example, I was seeing radical feminist advocacy groups do amazing work getting the male-dominated criminal justice system to do something about male violence. One of the reasons they were so effective early on in the USA is that they didn’t have men involved. So they didn’t have to attend to men’s sensibilities, resistance, comfort levels, sexism of individual men or the social norms which silence or make women invisible by placing the spotlight on men.

This helped them move forward in ways that would not have been possible if men had been at the table. I was concerned about men being at the table, whether it would neutralize some of the political action. So we spoke about that with feminist women’s groups and they shared their concerns and their thoughts on the opportunities, as well, about male engagement.

Many of these concerns are reflected and formally captured later in the Minnesota Men’s Action Network – Advocacy Focus Group Report*, which consulted with feminist women’s groups. As well as hearing a lot of enthusiasm for men’s involvement in prevention of violence against women, common concerns included ensuring a gender-based analysis of domestic and sexual violence, and observations that men often become defensive when challenged on these issues. There were also concerns about competition over funding, and which men would be welcomed into this movement, what motivates them, and if they can be relied upon.

 

In working with men, who are you accountable to?

When we talk about being accountable we mean accountable to all women and girls. One thing that’s really clear is that women of colour can be erased when you only say ‘women’ in a racist culture. White people in particular just think of white women. If we’re being accountable to all women, then we have to address the intersectionality of gender, race, ability, sexuality, age and so on. We have to think about how we stay accountable and recognise all those interlinked levels of oppression as well.

 

And how does accountability inform your programs/projects/activities with men?

Accountability means designing interventions, approaches and projects in partnership with women. For example, when I was involved in starting the Minnesota Men’s Action Network: Alliance to Prevent Sexual and Domestic Violence, the first thing we did was go around the State of Minnesota to present our thoughts and ideas to women’s organizations and service providers for survivors of abuse. This gave them a chance to check us out to see how deep our feminist principles were and what we were planning. Then we asked them what are the challenges, opportunities and threats of male engagement on these issues. We have structured and institutionalised those conversations and captured them in a report, which informs our programs.

A lot of the work that I do is in collaboration with women’s organizations. If we’re doing a presentation, I’ll co-present and if we’re doing a project, we’ll co-coordinate the project with women. It also means being aware of and talking about the power dynamics in these collaborations. When I do a presentation by myself, on male socialization and male violence, I let the audience know that 95% of what I’m sharing, I learned from women. Because as a white male, I get instant credibility and am seen as the expert, because of sexism and racism. So I clarify that women are the experts on these topics. I then explain that the other 5% I will be sharing is what I bring of my own experience growing up as a boy and a man.

 

What about holding others accountable?

We’ve been involved with a national profeminist men’s engagement network in the USA, which was called out by feminist organizations for some problematic issues at a conference back in 2013. They did not respond very well, so we at NAMEN challenged them to respond more effectively to the demands of the women’s organizations who have been involved. The primary thing we asked from them is transparency. The women’s organizations had ten demands, and the network had only partially responded to a few of those. So we asked them to fully respond to each of the demands. We were not asking them to agree or comply with the demands, but just to be transparent and give an explanation of their position.

 

Why is transparency so integral to accountability?

As professed allies, we need to be transparent about what we believe and how we do things, then others can decide if they want to align with us, if they want us involved, or even if they want to be around us at conferences, or work with us professionally – so transparency is key.

 

Does holding others accountable risk taking space from women in the discourse?

Being silent and listening to women is a very important part of accountability for men. But on the other hand, silence can also be a tool of privilege. I can just be quiet and then I don’t have to take any risks – that’s why so many men are quiet on issues of sexism. But if we’re being accountable, it means speaking up when appropriate and calling others out, and holding them to account. In doing so, this holds us to account as well. So sometimes silence is respect and accountability, and sometimes it is privilege, depending on context.

 

How does accountability work on an individual level?

Thinking about the #MeToo movements, accountability is more than just acknowledging problematic behaviors and apologizing. That’s just the first step. The next step is how do I make amends with those I have harmed? How can I provide direct, or indirect, compensation (with their consent) that will mitigate that harm? And, how do I use my influence to create and support change. How can I create workplace policies, environments, and expectations which support women’s advancement and equal pay? If I am a legislator who has been called out on my sexist behavior, how do I acknowledge that behavior and then work to create legislation that will reduce the likelihood of men continuing that behavior? How do I use my influence to reshape the social norms in a way that stops the sexual objectification and exploitation of women for men’s pleasure, and honors and respects them as human beings, with human rights to justice and equality?

In the past, when working with men who commit domestic violence, we talked about accountability all the time. If they’re serious, then how do they make amends for the harm they have created? If a woman’s former partner is not supposed to be in the same location as her, and let’s say he sees her walk into the grocery store. If he wants to be accountable, he should leave, because he is the one who set up the threat – he is the one who created the harm. If she has to go to therapy because of his violence, who should pay for it? What does he do to repair the mother-child bond he has worked to destroy through the years? How does he honor and support his children’s mother and account for his behavior, with his children?

If men are being accountable for their behaviour, then they have to make amends where they can, directly to those they have harmed, when appropriate, and/or indirectly through his personal and professional action.

 

Has accountability ever made you completely change your thinking on something, or your behavior?

All the time. It shapes my thinking. And my behavior.

One specific example is from when I was part of a men’s pro-feminist group in the late 80s that did a camp-out in a university campus park that was notorious for sexual assaults on women. It was called “pervert park”. We camped out there for a week with signs saying ‘men against rape’, ‘men supporting women’s equality’, and that kind of thing. It was an amazing experience. But at the end I brought the key for the park restroom back to the head of the parks department and he made some kind of sexist joke, and I didn’t challenge him on it and I even kind of laughed at it. I left feeling terrible – after a week of solidarity with women, this guy who was the head of the department, in a position of power, he made a sexist comment and I went along with it. And I went back to my boss, a woman, and – thinking I have to be accountable – I told her about it. She said, “Chuck, you’ve got to go back to that guy. You can’t just come back in here and do a little confession to make everything all better. You’ve got to go back and call it out.” So I did. She called me out on it and I went back and told him I should not have supported his comment and why it was problematic. It’s one small example of how I needed to be personally accountable. What’s more, that call to accountability from my boss, and my subsequent following through with her challenge, resulted in my never replicating that type of behavior again.

 

*The Minnesota Men’s Action Network is no longer in operation but Chuck Derry can be contacted via the Gender Violence Institute.