There has been much to say in the current era about accountability, and I wanted to share a few thoughts about what accountability means and what it requires of us all. The word is quite often employed in the realms of sports, politics, and the law. Yet, we rarely investigate precisely what it takes for us to become accountable – to ourselves, to our community, and to our nation. Here’s how I think of it in the context of the mission that guides the work of Millions:
First, accountability demands that we take a clear-eyed view of the facts. People often differ when it comes to opinions and feelings about what we see, which is important. However, identifying the governing facts of a situation is an essential starting point for any serious discussion about accountability. We can only be accountable when we share a common understanding of measurable, observable facts about the world. When we are accountable, we can accept no alternate nor substitute. It may require deep investigation, listening, and learning, and it may at times be painful. But facing the facts is the only answer if we endeavor to be accountable.
Second, accountability challenges us to recognize the complexity of people having different experiences with those facts. I am often reminded of the song “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s masterwork which employs a compelling image about Southern trees, key visual symbols of the region where I grew up. With an eye toward the lovely pines, magnolia, and juniper trees that make up Southern landscape, Holiday shocks us with a starkly different description that many African American Southerners also associate with these trees — the horror of lynching (sometimes the state-sanctioned kind). A beauteous, natural wonder for some can have traumatic connections for others who experienced marginalization and violence. And these contrasting experiences – not just involving symbols – but also policies, including the systems that created them, have to be respected on the journey toward accountability.
Finally, accountability invites us all to resolve to take action. Simply acknowledging facts, even the harsh reality of a failing or untenable system, is meaningless without a matching commitment from each of us to do something meaningful to change things. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that true justice never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. As with accountability, the presence of justice depends upon people who are willing to call for it and then work to enact it. Importantly, this commitment has to be personal; each of us must take ownership of our charge to improve a situation. Pressing our institutions to become more just is an affirmation both of our neighbor’s humanity and also our own. Furthermore, accountability may require a dose of creativity, since trying innovative things (perhaps even risky things) is often the surest means to achieve a different (and better) result.
As might be apparent, true accountability is more of a practice than a step. It bridges the spheres of the personal, the inter-personal, and the institutional to be successful. It does not happen overnight, but it can, with our concerted effort, yield tremendous change that can be transformative for each of us and for our society as a whole.
Kareem Crayton, JD, PhD
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