Accountability: Shifting from answerability to love

Accountability: Shifting from answerability to love

By: Dr. Sophia Bolt

What does the idea of accountability engender in you? Does it spark a sense of fear? A fear of being watched, called out and made to answer for your actions? For many, it does. But what if we shifted our framing of accountability - what if instead we saw it as an act of love, as a way to live in and live out the values we want ourselves and others to embody?

In speaking recently with long-time educator, Keturah Proctor, who now serves in the role of her district’s DEI director, she contemplated the idea of what fostering accountability for equity and racial justice really means and what it looks like. She explained, “It can't be punitive. It can't be a remix of what we already have - another oppressive system. I want to know that you bring your full self into your classroom, that your pedagogy is solid. And kids are really being honored, valued, centered and have joyous experiences throughout where they can show up whole and be themselves.” 

Keturah’s words echoed the thoughts of Robert S. Harvey in his book Abolitionist Leadership in Schools (2021). He pushes his readers to reimagine accountability as a practice grounded in maintaining a culture of belonging. He asks, rather than being accountable to our supervisors or to our role titles, what would it mean if we were to be accountable to a set of co-created community values and ideals? Accountability to shared values is two fold. As Harvey explains, not only will school community members who feel a sense of belonging to the shared pursuits of equity and racial justice act in pursuit of those goals, but it is this sense of belonging that creates accountability.  

If this becomes our understanding of accountability - nurturing a culture of belonging through upholding shared community values -- such as advancing justice, prioritizing relationships, practicing love, and cultivating joy - it becomes easier to evaluate our everyday practices, policies, and protocols. How do they, and our enactment of them, uphold our values or diminish them? 

This understanding of accountability enables it to be a community practice that also breaks down power barriers. While positional power of leadership remains, value-based accountability generates the practice and culture of power with rather than power over. Power is often understood as a finite resource that some individuals hold over others, but power with embodies shared power that is grown out of collaboration and relationships. Harvey, for example, encourages us to envision community stakeholders participating in the accountability of principals by probing the school leader’s embodiment of and communication around shared values. Or students and families participating in the accountability of Board members by engaging their knowledge of and intentionality in pursuing these values. 

Lack of shared values and goals is one of the biggest barriers for DEI directors, many of whom are Black and Brown folx working with predominantly white leadership teams, siloing them in this work. If they present an idea or recommendation that would work to disrupt the status quo, they are often faced with leadership who do not hold the same values they are trying to embody. Tasked with fostering equity in their district, they often find themselves operating under disparate understandings of what that means, resulting in performative and incremental actions towards fostering equity. In such environments, progress is often measured by the impact students share they feel, and progress thus happens in small steps and bursts. Imagine what could happen if folx in districts who hold themselves accountable to students embodied collective accountability to shared, co-created values. Transformative change would be far less out of reach.