Asking a Lot of All: Reimagining Accountability for the Sake of the Community

In both the Eastern and Western worlds, it is well known that many of the great spiritual teachers often used parables to convey the deeper truths of life. The generational fables within African traditional religions, parables of Jesus in the Gospels of Christian scriptures, the colorful stories of the Baal Shem Tov in Chasidic Judaism, and the mystic stories of Sri Ramakrishna Paramaha-msa in Hinduism all capture this principle of profound meanings embedded in uncomplicated, simple, and human stories in which we are invited to see ourselves. Dated around 500 BCE, this parable from the ancient Indian subcontinent has come to be known as the parable of the blind men and an elephant:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by thought, of which we are capable." So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose landed on the trunk, said, "This being is like a drain pipe." For another one who hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, "I perceive the shape of the elephant to be like a pillar." And in the case of the one who placed his hand upon its back said, "Indeed, this elephant is like a throne." Now, each of these presented a true aspect when he released what he had gained from experiencing the elephant. None of them had strayed from the true description of the elephant. Yet they fell short of fathoming the true appearance of the elephant.1

What happens to be one of the most well-worn, clichéd words in all sociocultural and sociopolitical circles, from education to medicine to engineering to artificial intelligence to social justice? Accountability. As a school leader, I have seen too often how the concept of accountability gets used, and mostly misused, in interpersonal power politics, organizational manipulations, and explicit racism aimed at forcing oppressed folx to follow a directed-agenda, formed and informed by systems of power, rather than co-creating a shared vision that yields mutual accountability for the oppressed and the oppressor, the led and the leader. Is the idea of co-creating a communally conscious accountability system increasingly difficult in a self-centered, isolationist nation? Of course it is. As our teaching and learning communities are rapidly descending into dysfunctional circles of personality-driven oppressive systems, emboldened white supremacy, and intersecting crises of economic downturns and public health botches, communal accountability is more than important than it has ever been. So how might we construct accountability in ways that help us live a vision of abolition, yielding a pursuit and actualization of freedom for all the oppressed folx in our teaching and learning communities?

To start, abolitionist accountability requires a lens through which we see our teaching and learning power constructs—the personal and positional—as an oversized, gargantuan system that demands us, in a pursuit of freedom, to see and make sense of the system as a whole. Like the wisdom of the parable, often our accountability systems are isolated and disjointed metrics that each present "a true aspect" of our work as teachers and leaders gained from and grounded in our experience. Yet, because we approach accountability through the narrowness of our individual lens, we "fall short of fathoming the true appearance" of what and who we are holding accountable. By seeing, constructing, and approaching accountability as a whole, we diminish the inclination to have a narrowed-vision that fights over elements of a system—a system by design that underserves all oppressed folx. Instead, we develop a broadened vision that sees accountability as the whole system being deconstructed and reconstructed with a higher, freer, more ethical standard. Abolition in this sense of being a lens by which to see the system as a whole requires an acknowledgment, and naming, of the identity/ies of the ones shaping, managing, and assessing accountability, which directly influences the level to which oppression and racism operate. Accountability itself, then, must be seen as a massive identity power politics at work.