OCP part 4: Accountability

respect and accountability

Joshua Kahn Russel is also writer of "Organizing Cools the Planet"

Accountability means that individuals and groups are answerable to their decisions and actions. It also means that even as an individual, you are part of something larger than your own work. We usually only talk about accountability in the negative: when someone is “being unaccountable.” 

That conversation can feel like a field of landmines. This is why we promote active accountability, the kind we want to take responsibility for. Our good intentions can complicate accountability because, in a field of landmines, it’s intimidating to take risks and to innovate. In that way, we no longer need to look at it as black-and-white being “accountable” or “unaccountable” but instead as a path we are all constantly walking as best we can. 

Clayton Thomas-Muller from Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) shares what accountability means for them when aligning with environmental non-governmental organizations: “IEN has…always tried to be very principled about how we work with non-Native organizations. One of the ways that we do this is to insist that these organizations engage with Native communities in ways that are respectful of our unique needs as Native people. We need to be sure that they are not tokenizing our community leaders in campaigns and initiatives that build the profile and power of that particular NGO instead of helping to build the power and profile of the community… We push them to develop mechanisms to make sure that the free and in-formed consent of Indigenous communities is respected, and to make sure to involve all community stakeholders (I hate this word but will use it for lack of a better one),  including our traditional people, our hunters, our women, our youth, and not just the council governments.”40 

Building a practice of active accountability is a core component of aligning your frontline, because it can help:  

  • to build trust between groups that the social, political, and economic powers want to keep divided; 
  • to be consistent with stated and shared goals; 
  • to ensure that our actions and decisions do not exacerbate existing inequalities and injustices; and 
  • to build relationships that repair our social relations across difference. 

So often we’ve been socialized with destructive behaviors or ideas that undermine our ability to build collaborative social and political power. 

Principles of Accountability

Sometimes people who think of themselves as “allies” misunderstand the idea of accountability and think it means just doing what you’re told. But accountability is reciprocal and cyclical, it’s not something that flows at you. Below are four principles necessary to working for accountability. 

Transparency means being clear about your politics, organizational structure, goals, desires, and even weaknesses. The point here is to be as open as possible about the perspectives and motivations we bring to begin working from the same understanding.  

Participation is about actively and equitably contributing especially in regards to decisions that affect people directly. Most often participation refers to the abilities to contribute to decision-making.  

Reflection and Deliberation: the commitment to developing the process of accountability, as it will shift and change in time and with different people. Deliberation means that every part of the accountability process is open for discussion, which account for the practices and mechanisms put in place for accountability, but also the culture and knowledge that surround accountability. 

Response: the ability to make amendments, adjustments to issues raised by the Reflection and Deliberation principles. 

While we don’t think there’s a formula to this stuff, below, we’re proposing a pathway to frame our approach to accountability:41 Influence means finding an organization or a form of political leadership that inspires ideas. This phase doesn’t involve a direct relationship, or even a specific project. It’s more about identifying the sources of our inspiration, our ways of looking at the world, our motivations, and our strategies. If I am starting from a point of not knowing where to look, or who to look to, for leadership and accountability, then mapping out the people, projects, and communities that are influencing me is a way to begin the conversation. This may seem basic, but it is also fundamental. This part of the work deserves discussion, because it’s a necessary precondition for everything that comes after—and a perfectly legitimate place to begin! This mapping of influences can help identify missing links, as we ask ourselves: are we being influenced by the people on the frontlines? Are we being influenced by the people we’re hoping to be relevant to? If that answer is not really, then it’s time for some homework. What can we read, what can we listen to, who can we talk to? Starting from wherever we are at, we can begin to get familiar with the perspectives of the people on the frontlines, whether that’s in our home community or further afield, and use that influence to guide our next moves.  

Developing the ideas generated in Influence, the Direction phase involves getting specific about how the perspectives of frontline communities are shaping our work. Like Influence, it doesn’t necessarily involve a direct relationship; it can be as simple as responding to a public call for action. By clarifying the relationship between what frontline communities are asking for, and what we are actually doing in our frontline, we can identify a mandate for our work. Making the commitment to identifying a mandate, in the sense of democratic authorization for our actions, and letting that mandate shape our decision-making, creates the needed foundation for forging more direct relationships later on.  

Jumping off from the mandate developed in the Direction phase, Leadership requires establishing a relationship, either interpersonally or organizationally. Communication can begin to shape and guide the development of complementary perspectives and strategies. Relationships deepen that encourage participation across groups, producing work directly shaped by the identified group. 

Building on the relationship formed in the Leadership phase, Accountability involves raising the stakes on that relationship, developing and deepening trust. Becoming answerable for our actions and getting feedback are the critical components of this phase. And through the trust we build, accountability means that the groups are beginning to share priorities, in work practices and political vision, as well as interpersonal values. 

  • Collaboration means that the partnership has developed to actively and cooperatively create original work. 

Points to take home: 

  • Standard of Accountability: Notice that accountability isn’t the end goal; rather, the end goal is collaboration. This is because accountability should be a standard rather than distant objective. In this way, the pathway proposed displays the arc of collaboration among different frontlines.  
  • Practice: Take some time to honestly consider where your project or organization is located on the pathway. What necessary steps can you identify to help move toward collaboration?
  • Cumulative: Hopefully it’s obvious that working for accountability, toward collaboration focuses heavily on relationship-building. This also means that working for accountability is a cumulative process that can’t be done overnight, although there might be substantial, quick actions that can be taken now. 
  • Collective: Do you know why you’d want to build relationships across different sectors of the movement? How does it move the work forward as a whole? What is the strategy in aligning frontlines? This question is useful to break away from the “everything is fixed by having relationships” stance. 

Obstacles we Face  

Taking these ideas seriously means confronting a lot of assumptions, insecurities, and sometimes lies we tell ourselves. We also believe that each phase is going to be harder than the one before. In fact, truly collaborative work is the work of creating new sets of rules, new kinds of social relations—basically creating the world we know is possible. In our booklet feedback process, Rafter Sass from Liberation Ecology Project shared this:  Just because accountability is our watchword, and collaboration is our ultimate goal, doesn’t mean that influence, direction, and leadership are second rate. Each phase of the relationship includes, builds on, and deepens the foundation created in the phase before, while it creates the conditions for what is to come. We can start wherever we’re at, and feel good about our work, and at the same time keep the goals of accountability and collaboration firmly in our sights. And we have to, because at this moment in history, influence, direction, and even leadership just aren’t enough. The inequality we face is so profound, and the wounds in the social fabric are so grave, that nothing less than a new way of making change is required of us. 

We all have to work together across the boundaries thrown up between our communities, between power-holders and those who have historically been disempowered. And before we can truly collaborate across the boundary, we’ve got to put in some work. Those who have been granted power by this system must become accountable to those who have not.  

That’s not to say that accountability and collaboration aren’t possible right now. Quite the opposite! We’re building pockets of this work that exist in tension with the status quo, the bigger world. Navigating that tension is part and parcel to finding and aligning your frontline. What’s more, we have to find ways to translate these skills and ideas out to more people, empowering them to find what’s relevant, beyond our political circles.  

With that said, some of the most common obstacles within this work, that we’ve faced, come from being uncertain and not having space to talk about this stuff candidly. This is a goal of ours: to start talking more intentionally about what accountability is rather than isn’t.  


So what would it look like if we took these ideas and practices seriously? In our experience, that requires a considerable amount of experimentation, not just at the individual level, but at the organizational level, too. We’d like to offer Hilary’s experience with Mobilization for Climate Justice West (MCJW), written in the first person, as a case study that looks at our organization’s structure as a model for experimentation. MCJW is a regional alliance that involves a wide variety of groups working for Climate jusTice in the Bay Area. We’d like to clarifythat MCJW has since adapted a newmodel, but still want to use this example because it conveys a deep commitmentto two contentious but critical concepts: Accountability and capacity.  

After one year of intensive action organizing (seven large-scale actions in five months), MCJW decided to reflect on the recent work to figure out our next steps. In February 2010, MCJW held its first organizational retreat. A lot of time and energy was put into careful reflection on past events, future goals, and practical next steps. It was here that we decided to be more explicit in our priorities as an alliance, namely to further internalize our commitments to the practice of Climate Justice principles in our internal dynamics and decision-making. 

Moreover, we needed a way to make sure our goals, principles, and alignment were at the forefront of the work. The biggest tension we faced was between accountability and capacity. We acknowledged that people participated in different ways, and that this fact required a heightened, constant awareness and responsibility in our practices and organizing culture. For us, it seemed that people with the most time and energy to contribute weren’t connected to an organized community or a base of people. In fact, most of us were young, white college students with a lot of good intentions. Moreover, the people who worked for an organization that served a frontline community often had the least amount of time, as they are devoted to their own campaigns.42 There are other layers, too, that complicate this situation, like: should people that get paid to do organizing work take up more tasks? And how much should our organizational structure try to shape what accountability looks like? 

And so, we created a unique organizational model, pulling from various other examples, to really try and meet our needs and goals. The first mechanism for accountability was requiring membership be based on organization. Individuals were able to participate, but had no decision-making power in terms of setting big-Picture organizational strategy. The intention here was to encourage individuals to organize themselves with groups that they are accountable to. Membership operates then, under two assumptions: 1) only organizations are members—there are no individuals with MCJW membership; and 2) the organization has agreed to our stated goals, principles, and alignment.  

The second mechanism for accountability was the Coordinating Council, which included:  

  • At least 50% representation from community-based member organizations.43 
  • Ensuring accountability and visibility to local campaigns by strategic planning process and general administrative needs. 
  • Proposals for campaigns or events either beginning with the Coordinating Council, or have to go through the Coordinating Council 

Below was the general pathway of proposals. Working groups came up with an idea which was vetted by the Coordinating Council and, if approved, went onto the organizational member spoke council for adoption. 

During the February retreat, we agreed that we’d come together in six months to discuss the viability of this structure. We learned some really important lessons. This level of experimentation distilled our strengths, weakness, and complex situations that we weren’t previously aware of. I think this level of experimentation was possible 

 For a variety of reasons (culture of political expectation in the Bay Area, long-term relationships  and work already built around campaigns against Chevron, concentration of skilled veteran organizers), but overall it illuminated the tensions that exist within the larger climate and environmental movement. Ideally, the process of this experiment is useful to reflect upon your own project and organization. How would taking issues of accountability and capacity seriously impact your project or organization?  


A serious experiment in Mechanized Fear. Admit-Building a culture for actrying to equalize the intedly our structure was countability is a must. You equalities that exist in this created from a place of can’t necessarily structure work and in our society. fear, trying to account for all possible ways people can be unaccountable. 

The lessons learned the role of “individuals.” countability have to be from this experiment Lack of capacity was a reaccessible, but that isn’t a directly informed our sidual challenge that cannot given. Accountability proamendments to MCJW’s solely be addressed by an cesses require commitment organizational structure. organization’s structure. and direct communication. This process strengthened relationships among those involved, especially cultivating a culture of responsibility and trust. 

40 From “Just Environmentalism?” http://www.rabble.ca/babble/environmental-justice/justenvironmentalism-i...üller 
41 This section is built around a model developed by Rafter Sass of Liberation Ecology Project, with the help of fabulous contributions from Rafter 
42 For example, grassroots organizing against Chevron Corporation’s Richmond Refinery. 
43 Definition of Community-based Organizations (CBO), written by MCJW: Funded organizations, volunteer-run groups, or collectives and their networks: A) who engage in direct grassroots organizing in a frontline community and takes direction from and is accountable to that base of members; B) whose primary mandate is to work with, provide services for, and empower local communities; C) that spend more than 80% of their time working on local community-based initiatives.  

Editorial Comment

The next chapter debates Relationships-based organizing