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How do we address sexual violence without contributing to the harms of mass incarceration?

A conversation with Sonya Shah, founder of Ahimsa Collective, on restorative practices to address harm

A restorative justice circle at the Ahimsa Collective. Photo illustration by Alex LaSalvia.Ahimsa Collective

This article is the second part of our four part series in collaboration with Inquest, Lux Magazine, and The Recall: Reframed’s outreach campaign.

THE RECALL: REFRAMED is a documentary film that examines the 2018 recall election of California Judge Aaron Persky, who lost his judgeship after handing down a short jail sentence to Stanford swimmer Brock Turner for sexual assault. The recall came at the height of the #MeToo movement, and some hailed it as a victory against rape culture, White privilege, and a system stacked against survivors of sexual violence. But there’s more to the story – specifically, how we rely almost exclusively on punishment to support the needs of survivors, and how that punishment is targeted disproportionately against people of color. This film ends by asking a question it doesn’t answer: How do we address sexual violence without contributing to the harms of mass incarceration?

Sonya Shah, founder of the Ahimsa Collective, has spent the last 20 years trying to answer that very question by flipping the paradigm of crime and punishment to one of harm and accountability through the practice of restorative justice.

Restorative justice is a set of principles and practices that relies on the idea that when a harm happens, it’s a violation to people in the community and requires all impacted parties to come together to heal. Shah came to this work partly through her own experience of childhood sexual abuse and her interest in healing herself and making intentional space for others to heal. In particular, Shah focuses on creating healing in cases the criminal legal system is “least able and least likely” to address: sexual, intimate partner, and interpersonal violence.

We spoke with Shah to talk about her work and what it looks like to attempt to address both the harms of mass incarceration and sexual violence. We talked about why our reaction to sexual harm is different, what survivors of sexual violence look for in their path to healing, and our collective responsibility to deal with the messy, nuanced work of holding people accountable and helping survivors heal.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

JEVHON RIVERS: The Recall: Reframed ends with a question that it doesn’t answer: “How do we address sexual violence without contributing to the harms of mass incarceration?” How does your work help answer that question?

SONYA SHAH: One of the things that happens when we talk about sexual violence or sexual harm is that it somehow gets this special status, because it’s something that we just cannot deal with in our society very well. And part of the reason we can’t deal with it is truly because survivors of sexual harm have not been considered, have not been taken seriously, have been victim-blamed and haven’t been able to have time to just be angry long enough to process long enough, to be heard — to be really valued.

Sexual harm is also really reinforced by families, culture, and communities, and we normalize it. If Trump can do it and get away with it, why can’t anyone else? If things can happen in different community contexts and people can get away with it, why shouldn’t it be just something that is a normal process of being a young person?

So, when someone is convicted, it becomes: “Now we need to throw everything we have at them,” because we haven’t dealt with everything else. We haven’t given survivors space.

[To address the harms of sexual violence without contributing to mass incarceration], we need to give survivors a lot of space to process, to ask for accountability, to do all those things. And [we] also need to hold a philosophy and a worldview that no one’s born and automatically decides that they’re going to be violent. That’s a very, very, very rare situation. The majority of folks, it’s conditioned. It’s socialized. It’s environmental factors. It’s poverty. It’s racism, it’s trauma.

And so if we believe that these things are true, then there’s always a process for those things to get healed and to change — to transform.

We’ve been socialized to capitalism, we haven’t been socialized to collective care. So, what would that look like if our dominant value system was around care?

[At the Ahimsa Collective], one program we have is called “Restorative Justice in the Community,” [where] we do restorative justice work that is entirely outside of the criminal legal system. We will take anybody’s calls. Anyone – a survivor, a bystander, a person who’s done harm – can call us. And [within a few weeks], we find two [restorative justice] facilitators that can work with that person.

That person is probably calling because they have a restorative impulse and they don’t want to call the cops. Usually, it’s something that happened a while back and [they] want to deal with this, they want accountability, but they don’t want to get any authority involved. And so we’ll go through a process of working with that person, trying to find the other person, [and] if it’s a survivor, trying to find a person who’s done harm and creating an opportunity for both of those parties to have a dialogue. We’ve also had people reach out who have done harm and are like, “Look, I know I did this. It happened five years ago. I want to do something about it. And if I can’t talk to the person who I did it to, I at least want to work on my own accountability.”

So, there are people out there in the world that actually have a really deep desire and impulse to do all of this outside of mass incarceration.

A restorative justice circle at the Ahimsa Collective.Ahimsa Collective

In your experience, what do survivors most need or want in a restorative circle? What are the things that they need or want to heal that they’re not getting in most cases that go through the criminal legal system?

One thing that I say often, and will stand by to my grave, is that a survivor doesn’t need to be anything, right? I mean, people have woken up in spontaneous forgiveness after something’s happened and others have advocated for the death penalty. And a survivor gets to do all those things. They get to be as forgiving or as angry as they want. And I think that’s a good starting point for anybody who’s in this work.

Some survivors, when they’re on their own journey of trying to understand the worst thing that’s ever happened to them and going through all of their feelings – all their anger – they’re like, “Let’s put people away.” Some survivors come to a point where they’re like, “This is not working. I need something else. I want something else.”

What those things tend to be is, one, “For my own healing, I really feel like I need to talk to the person. And there’s certain kinds of questions that I think that person can answer that will help me heal and understand what happened, and how I’ve been feeling and all the impact.” So, one thing that survivors want is answers. Like, “Why me?” “When you did this, were you thinking about that? Did you see me? Did you know who I was?” Depending on the circumstances, folks will come with really specific questions.

The other thing is, [survivors] want to see remorse. Think about any time any of us have been wronged. And you think, “If the person could just show me that it mattered, that they get it, I would feel so much better — if they just truly showed remorse, if there was genuine accountability.” So, they want genuine accountability and remorse, which is what any of us want — even in a fight. Genuine accountability.

A third thing: a lot of survivors say that people get tired of their stories and tired of their pain. [At first], folks are there for them. And then eventually it’ll be like, “Aren’t you over your daughter’s death yet?” That kind of mentality of like, “Oh, it’s been 10 years, aren’t you done feeling that way?”

And when you’re doing this work and in this process, people make you feel like they understand that the grief that you feel is lifelong. [Survivors want] to be around a community of care that truly understands that the grief of loss, of sexual abuse, of rape is lifelong. It’s not just, “Get over it tomorrow, please.” Or like, “It’s been five years, aren’t you done yet?” As opposed to creating a culture of care where people genuinely understand that that can just come up anytime and that that’s a part of who we are, and that we’re going to care about that when that happens.

So, I think that’s a really big one, too, which doesn’t necessarily have to do with the person who’s done harm, but with the rest of us in the world. We’ve been socialized to capitalism, we haven’t been socialized to collective care. So, what would that look like if our dominant value system was around care?

What was your reaction to the recall campaign? What was your reaction to THE RECALL: REFRAMED?

It’s such a crazy and interesting situation. For me, it goes back to what I said in the beginning: Chanel [Miller, the survivor in the case] wasn’t really able to be angry long enough. It was the way White privilege played out, class privilege played out, all of it played out in a courtroom. And that doesn’t play out well anywhere, but in this case, it really played out badly. I understand why people did what they did. I understand the sentiment and emotions behind the recall. I really get it.

And there’s some part of me that’s like, “Fuck that, I agree,” right? Yeah, “Tear them down, kick these judges out, man. They’re ridiculous.” And then to see that [sentence]... And honestly, I don’t think what [the judge] did was good. I don’t think it was fair. I think there’s a lot of people of color that have gotten much harsher sentences.

All of those sentiments make sense, all of those sentiments are valid. And I think we need to spend a lot of time validating the anger, and we don’t have a way to make survivors feel heard and [to] protect them.

And then some part of us has to reconcile with the worldview that just taking this judge down, that’s not really going to do anything. I think the part of the film that really spoke to me was [when we recalled Judge Aaron Persky], and then had the backlash of judges giving harsher sentences — and mainly on people of color who are coming up for these crimes. Like, you’ve actually done the worst thing, so that now we can’t reconcile our worldview of not wanting prisons with how to get really good healing and justice for survivors.

I don’t have a “Yes, this should have happened,” or “No, this shouldn’t have happened” feeling about the film. I have a [feeling of] “Oh my God, this is showing exactly the problem.” ‘Cause here we are and it’s playing itself out right in front of us, and it’s begging us to reconcile these two things. How do we create healing and justice for survivors while not creating a reliance on the prison system? How do survivor communities and movements do that? How do [we] as community members do that? How does the justice system do that?

What I love about the film is that this is the question that [the filmmakers] want us to grapple with. I actually feel like, “Oh, this is it. There’s no straight line and there’s no right answer. We all have to deal with this.” And that’s what it’s asking us to do — see everybody’s side. We can see the judge’s side, we can see the side of the people that advocated [for the recall]. We can see that there’s wrongdoing in every direction.

And then we all got to do something about it.

Jevhon Rivers is the Impact Director for THE RECALL: REFRAMED.