Following publication of an “accountability toolkit” by the global MenEngage Alliance (MEA), their communications coordinator Tom Hornbrook interviewed profeminist activist Chuck Derry about the meaning of accountability today. Derry, who has been working to engage men in promoting women’s rights and gender justice since the 1980s, is cofounder of the Minnesotabased Gender Violence Institute. A former member of the board of the global MenEngage Alliance, Chuck serves on the steering committee of North American MenEngage Network (NAMEN), which works to strengthen accountable practices.
Tom Hornbrook: What does accountability for men mean to you?
Chuck Derry: 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 behaviors—that are steeped in sexism—at personal, institutional and social levels?
TH: When did you first have to challenge yourself to be accountable?
CD: I was nervous about issues of accountability myself when I first got involved, back in 1983, in efforts to end men’s violence against women. 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 in the US early on is that they didn’t have men involved. So they didn’t have to attend to men’s sensibilities, resistance, comfort (or discomfort) 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 whether men would neutralize some of the political action. So we spoke about that with feminist women’s groups and they shared their concerns, as well as their thoughts on the opportunities possible from male engagement. Many of these concerns are reflected and formally captured in the Minnesota Men’s Action Network’s Advocacy Focus Group Report. As well as hearing a lot of enthusiasm for men’s involvement in preventing 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 the movement, what motivates them, and if they can be relied upon.
TH: In working with men, who are you accountable to?
CD: When we talk about being accountable, to me we mean accountable to all women and girls. One thing that’s really clear is that women of color can be erased when, in a racist culture, you only say “women.” 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 recognize all of those interlinked levels of oppression.
TH: How does accountability inform your programs/projects/ activities with men?
CD: 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, the first thing we did was go around the state 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 see what we were planning. Then we asked them what did they see were the challenges, opportunities and threats when considering male engagement. We structured and institutionalized those conversations and documented them in an Advocacy Focus Group Report, which informs our programs.
TH: Why is transparency so integral to accountability?
CD: As professed allies, we need to be transparent about what we believe and how we do things. For example, if we are challenged about our oppressive behavior, and are asked to change that behavior, and demonstrable actions are requested to represent that change, and if we think we are being falsely accused and will not attend to those requests for change, we need to explain why we believe this, and what, if anything, we will change. In this way, others can more easily determine if they will align with us and consider us allies. Transparency is key.
TH: Does holding others accountable risk taking space from women in the discourse?
CD: Being silent and listening to women are very important parts of accountability work 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—and in the #MeToo movement. 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.
TH: How does accountability work on an individual level?
CD: In thinking about the #MeToo movement, 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 to 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 instead honors and respects them as human beings, with human rights to justice and equality?
TH: Has accountability ever made you completely change your thinking on something, or your behavior?
CD: All the time. It shapes my thinking—and my behavior. One specific example is from when I was part of a profeminist men’s group in the late 1980s that did a “camp-out” in a university 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” and “Men Supporting Women’s Equality”—that kind of thing. It was an amazing experience. 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—and 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 had 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 [me to] make everything all better. You’ve got to go back and call it out.” So I did. She had called me out on it so I went back and called him out. I told him I should not have supported his comment. I told him 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.