black and white heart with small checkered inside

By: Micah Hobbes-Frazier

“One of the most difficult impacts of trauma can be a split between two essential needs: safety and connection. On the one hand people become the place of danger that you need to protect yourself from, and on the other hand people are exactly who you need to be connected to for contact, relationship and often survival and safety.”
– Generative Somatics

I think about safety a lot, both as a survivor of violence and as someone that is regularly called upon to support transformative justice interventions into violence, and community accountability processes. These are some of the things I find myself thinking about: what does real safety actually mean? what is it exactly? How do we create safety in the midst of ongoing violence? How do we maintain it over time? Especially in a world that is inherently unsafe, where violence happens all the time, and where we often don’t have access to the resources that help create immediate or long-term safety. And most pressing, what does safety actually look like when we don’t believe in throwing people away or locking them up in prisons?

Safety is one of two essential needs for us as human animals, the other being connection, and both are necessary for our continued evolution as a species. If a person giving birth does not feel (or actually isn’t) safe the biological process of labor and birth will stop. And if we are not connected to other people we won’t have the opportunity to procreate and pass on our genes. The need for safety and connection are so strong in us that pretty much everything we do is about navigating and trying to get these two needs met, especially after experiences of trauma/violence. Ideally safety and connection can exist together, meaning we are able to be safe in our connections and relationships, however, so often that is not the case. Most incidents of trauma/violence happen between people that know each other, and have some sort of connection and/or relationship. That very connection and/or relationship can also complicate the need for and attempt to gain safety.

What does safety look like if the person that was abusive/violent to you lives in the same house or same neighbourhood as you do, is in the same movement or organization as you are, or is a respected and active part of a community you are also a part of? The need for safety doesn’t disappear, however, what safety looks like in those circumstances becomes much more complicated. It is easy to think about safety as sending someone that is abusive/violent away, removing and/or banishing them from community, or putting them in prison. That is our current idea and usual practice of creating safety. However, Transformative Justice asks us to imagine what safety might look like without expulsion, without banishment, without prisons, and most importantly, in conjunction with accountability. Most studies show that accountability rarely happens outside of relationship and connection. It’s the relationship and connection that provide the support, leverage, and motivation usually necessary for real accountability. If that is true, how do we hold accountability thru connection while also holding and maintaining safety for victims/survivors? Especially if what they want and need for their safety is to not have any contact or connection with the person that was abusive/violent.

Transformative justice (TJ) and most other community accountability models, hold safety as both a core principle and a core practice of any intervention or response. TJ defines the principle of safety as “liberation from violence, exploitation, and the threat of further acts of violence”.  All Transformative Justice interventions and responses seek to create safety on three mutually reinforcing levels; individual (safety from immediate and/or future violence), community (establishing norms and practices that challenge and prevent violence, and state (shifting power dynamics and systems of oppression to prevent violence).  However, we are also forced to acknowledge that absolute safety on any of these three levels is not a static place, can never be guaranteed, and may not be possible to ever truly achieve. The reality is that given the current state of our world where abuse/violence is at epidemic rates on all three levels, especially in response to challenging power dynamics and resisting abuse/oppression, being completely liberated from the possibility and/or threat of violence may be impossible. I believe, however, that while the possibility of violence may always remain, we can create spaces where the threat of violence does not exist. I believe that safe spaces on all three (individual, community, state) are possible and necessary, although sometimes difficult to create and maintain over time.

Questions around safety force us to practice holding contradictions. However, even though the questions are sometimes complicated and we may not have all the answers, our transformative justice practice must still focus on establishing safety as a main priority for victims/survivors, and additionally for those that have perpetrated abuse/violence. This means that even in our pursuit of safety (and accountability) we will not engage in abuse or violence against those that are perpetrators abuse and violence. How we do this will depend on what is happening and/or has happened, what resources we have access to, our principles and values, and the level of accountability those that have been abusive/violent are willing to engage in. Somatic healing works with safety as being “self-generated”, meaning that our focus is on building the internal capacity for safety instead of looking to the outside world or external forces to create and maintain our own safety. Our typical reactions after trauma/violence are to seek safety by controlling our environment and/or by controlling other people and their actions.  Our survival thinking becomes: “if this person wasn’t allowed to be in this space then I would feel/be safe”, or “if that person would act in this particular way then I would feel/be safe”.  As real as this might feel and as true as it might actually be, the problem is that we don’t actually have control over other people and what they ultimately choose to do, or control over the external environment outside of our own homes (and often we don’t even have complete control over our homes, especially if we live with other people). We can make requests, and sadly those that have been abusive/violent and/or the broader community may ignore or say no to those requests. Unfortunately people that have been abusive/violent to us may continue to be in the same spaces we frequent, and may also continue to behave in ways that make us feel (and actually are) unsafe. Especially if they denied what happened, are still engaging in abusive/violent behavior, and refuse to engage in accountability. If we tie our own safety to other people and external factors that we have no real control over we may never feel and/or actually be safe. Thus we have to build and cultivate the capacity to generate safety for ourselves, or as Somatics would say we have to become “self-responsive”.

This does not in any way mean that victims/survivors are responsible or to blame for the trauma/violence they experienced. Whatever happened is not their fault, and it is crucial that we always understand that fact. Victim/survivor blaming does nothing to ensure future safety, and in fact actually detracts from it making us potentially less safe. If we focus on blaming the victim/survivor we don’t have to think about the very real issue of safety because our thinking becomes: “if the victim/survivor caused or is in some way to blame for their experience of abuse/violence, then as long as I don’t do/say/wear/act like that it can’t/won’t happen to me. Therefore I am safe”.  This type of reaction is completely normal because it provides a protective mechanism that shields us from feeling the fear, uncertainty, and lack of control that trauma and violence bring. It keeps us from having to confront, feel and acknowledge that absolute safety cannot be guaranteed, and may not even exist. Additionally it keeps us from having to accept and be with the fact that no matter what we do or how hard we try to create safety, the very real possibility of trauma and violence still exists.

So then what does it mean to be self-responsive and self-generate safety? It means building the capacity to make centered decisions and take centered actions that are aligned with and promote our own safety on all levels (physical, sexual, emotional, economic, political). It means building the capacity to make centered choices about who and what we allow and bring into in our lives towards creating the safety that we want and need. This of course means that first we have to know what it is we want and need for our own safety. It is this process of self-reflection that brings us deeply in touch with ourselves, which is the core of being self-responsive. Secondly, we have to have the capacity to make decisions, and to take actions that are aligned with our own safety. That capacity is both internal and impacted by the conditions in which we exist, and are making decisions and taking actions within. For example, a person may know that their safety would be best served by leaving an abusive/violent situation whether it is a living, employment, or other situation. However, if they do not have the resources necessary (financial, emotional, legal, etc) to leave or sustain themselves in a safe way once they do, it becomes difficult to actually take that action towards safety. Thus an important part of our Transformative Justice work is to support and increase the capacity of victims/survivors to be able to take actions towards safety, because self-responsive and self-generated doesn’t mean alone. Similarly to accountability, real safety is rarely possible outside of relationship and connection.

So that brings me back to the original question; what does safety look like in a Transformative Justice context? Well, there is no set or single answer because the circumstances and conditions of every situation are different, and every victim/survivor has different wants, needs, and capacities around safety. Instead of focusing on a static destination or single vision TJ works to develop a set of practices that are relevant to the situation (and conditions), and that align with our principle of safety; “liberation from violence, exploitation, and the threat of further acts of violence”. As we develop these practices we prioritize both the immediate and long-term safety of victims/survivors. What safety looks like for me as a part of a TJ intervention or response is supporting the capacity of victims/survivors to end immediate abuse/violence, and live free from the threat of future abuse/violence, always taking my lead from them and what they want and need. It looks like holding the complexity of creating short-term and long-term safety without needed resources (including alternatives to prisons), inside of shifting conditions, and often without accountability from the perpetrator of the abuse/violence. It looks like holding the belief that accountability and transformation of perpetrators is possible, while still being with what is currently happening, real, and true. And it also looks like holding safety in ways that don’t sacrifice connection, while also holding that it is not the victim/survivor’s role or responsibility to do that work (unless they want to). As a survivor of violence safety looks like and means always making decisions and choices, and taking actions that support, create and maintain whatever it is I want and need for my safety. It looks like being supported in those choices, decisions, and actions by people that I am in relationship with and connected to, and choosing to only be in relationship and connection with those that will support my safety. And it looks like accepting that my safety might not always look how I want it to because I can’t control other people. Ultimately it looks like and means remembering that even though others may not respect or agree with what I want and need for my safety, that I still have the right and the capacity to be safe and liberated from abuse, trauma, and violence. For me, that’s what safety looks like.

Black and white portrait of Micha

Micah Hobbes Frazier is a Black queer mixed-gendered facilitator, coach, healer, doula, dj, and magic maker; living, loving, laughing, and building community in Oakland, CA. In June 2012 he founded the living room project, an accessible healing justice & community space serving black & brown queer and trans communities. Micah is a talented and experienced somatic coach/bodyworker working primarily with queer and trans people of color (qtpoc) wanting to heal and transform their histories of trauma/violence. He is a commitment to creating spaces where healing and transformation are possible, and to using his magic to help interrupt, heal, and transform the cycles of trauma and violence in our families and communities.

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