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Mod. 4.1 - Harm & Accountability

Key Points:

When we work with others, we have the capacity to treat them with care, and also to cause them harm. Like care, harm is exhibited and received through actions, not intentions. It doesn't matter what you feel about someone if you don't show it. It also doesn't matter what your intention was if it was received differently. The goal is not to eradicate all harm--that is impossible. The goal is to be increasingly mindful of harm, and to be accountable when harm is caused.

Harm & Accountability

Set aside 2 hrs to review this material and respond to the discussion prompt. This material may support your execution of your Capstone Community Change project, troubleshooting along the way if something goes sideways, and/or reflection on the project once it is completed.

In Community Work, Harm is Inevitable

We all cause and experience harm in relational work. We make mistakes. We behave carelessly. We misinterpret others. Some folks, especially people who have historically enjoyed high societal status and privilege, are more afraid of causing harm than any other aspect of community work. This fear may lead to avoidance of potentially transformative work. If this fear feels real for you, please know that it is not the goal to be perfect. Harm happens. And if you avoid certain actions in an attempt to avoid harm, you might not take the kind of personal risks that can be the foundations of a real partnership. When we fail to act, we can cause harm, often more so than when we stumble into imperfect action on the way to building real relationships.

Addressing Harm is an Act of Accountability

One of the great ironies of harm is that the more you are aware of its potential, the more likely you are to see your own mistakes and their impacts. This is a sign of growth. You cannot address harm that you cannot--or refuse to--see. If we accept that harm is all around us, what can we do about it? We can be accountable to the harm we've caused, and we can ask for accountability from others.

In general, when harm is caused, the following tenets may be helpful:

  • Seek to understand the harm without judgment or defensiveness.

  • Reflect on your own role in the harm. You may need to do this on your own, so you can fully process ideas that might trigger feelings of shame, embarrassment, anger, defensiveness, or frustration without bringing those negative feelings into the relationship and related interpersonal learning.

  • Apologize and acknowledge the impact of your behavior. Intent isn't what's important here. A full apology occurs without qualification, with deep respect for what the other person/people experienced.

  • Work to repair the relationship and commit to behavior changes to make that harm less likely in the future. No one is perfect, and the goal is not zero harm. The goal is for you to build a real relationship in which each party can trust that the other is doing their best to act with care and not to repeat harmful actions that have been held to account in the past.

Harm and your Capstone Community Change Project

Will you experience or cause harm in your Capstone Community Change project? Probably. If you identify the potential for harm as particularly high BEFORE your project enters a particular phase, I strongly suggest that you take some notes for yourself about that potential and your related fears before entering any high-stakes community or partner meeting. You might even want to introduce the idea of harm accountability with your partners early in your relationship. You can say something simple like, "I know we haven't worked together before, and it's possible that I'm going to do something that might come across as hurtful or unwelcome. If you experience that kind of ouch moment, I hope you'll tell me. I want to be a good partner, and while it's on me to act with care, if I make a mistake, I'd really like to know so I can do better." If you experience or cause harm DURING your project implementation, I strongly suggest that you hold an accountability conversation with anyone else involved. This could mean you saying, "hey, it didn't feel great for me when..." or "I wondered if maybe I made a hurtful mistake when" If dealing with, responding to, or being accountable to harm is something you reflect on AFTER project implementation, I suggest you hold an accountability conversation with those involved. This could mean you saying, "I've been reflecting on our work together, and I realized I felt hurt when..." or "I've been reflecting on our work together, and I wondered if I made a mistake when..." Their reflections may inform your own learning and processing of the project for your final discussion with the review committee.

On Your Own...

Please share your current sense of where harm--or the potential for harm--may come up in your Capstone Community Change project in the comments below. Do you feel ready to be accountable if you cause harm? Do you feel able to ask others to be accountable to you if you experience harm? My guess is that among you, there is a wide range of experiences, perspectives, and competencies when it comes to accountability. It might be helpful for you to see where your classmates are at and who might be a peer thought partner for you if some issues around harm arise.


In my previous post about care, I referenced BCO’s last MD Search and the harm that was generated as a result of a lack of care and consideration of the Orchestra’s musicians. It was vitally important to me that we not repeat the damaging cycle of harm that underpinned the orchestra’s last 20 years of performances, which is why I strongly advocated for the musicians’ inclusion in the process in an equal capacity as the rest of the committee. By prioritizing the musician’s experience on the committee, it’s important that I not cause harm to the board members and community/audience members who are also participating. While my priority favors the musicians in order to ensure the historic example of previous harm is not repeated, it’s important that I recognize where that priority might create harm for the other search committee members by inadvertently devaluing their perspective and position on the committee. I’ve seen many examples where overcorrection in one area can create unexpected harmful outcomes in another. In order to create a check on myself during the process, the Search Committee Chair and I agreed to divide our follow up and feedback efforts among the different committee members and check in with each other to try and mitigate that from happening. So far, there have not been any examples of harm or concern expressed by any of the search committee members, which I am very proud of, but that means I have to be even more cognizant as we move forward and the number of candidates gets smaller.

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