“How could the alternative be worse? The worst outcome is already happening.”
An interview with Val Kalei Kanuha on abolitionist and transformative justice approaches to intimate partner violence.
Albert and Michelle
Hello dear readers!
We’re so excited to bring you this interview with Val Kalei Kanuha, an Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.
Born and raised in a rural town in Hawaii to a Hawaiian father and a Nisei mother, Kalei is a pioneer in the movement to end violence against women. In the 1970s, she helped open the first domestic violence shelters in the U.S., and was a founding member of the legendary group INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. This year our students invited her to speak at a conference they organized on prisons and punishment, and she captivated us with her honesty, integrity, and warmth.
In this interview, she talks about her involvement in what was first called the battered women’s movement in the early 1970s. She talks about the major sea-change that the movement helped usher in, but also about the mistakes of the movement, which she helped build. And she tells us about how, after twenty years of working with victims, she began to work with abusers and expanded her practice to include alternative forms of justice to address intimate violence, which approaches the issue with a focus on healing and broader social transformation rather than relying on the state, police, or incarceration to punish those who have hurt, offended and harmed others.
We’ll turn it over to her in a moment, but first we’d just like to add: she’s the real deal. At seventy, she’s thought deeply on fifty years of organizing against violence, and is still evolving, thinking, laughing, organizing, counseling, and self-interrogating. She’s an Asian American and indigenous abolitionist with compassion for all. We want to grow up to be just like her.
Michelle: You were a pioneer in the battered women’s movement in the 1970s. Can you talk about how you got into the work?
Val Kalei Kanuha: I feel so fortunate that I came up in the movement—it wasn’t even a movement then—when it was very nascent. I was a newly graduated social worker, working in the early years of the American battered women’s movement in the 1970s. It was such an exciting time. I learned how to be an activist; I learned how to always advocate and work for social change in the company and in the community of others. I helped form one of the first antiviolence coalitions of diverse advocates and service providers in the mid-1970s, when there were no services, policies, or even understanding of this tragic and common social problem. We opened one of the first domestic violence shelters in the United States, Women's Advocates in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The movement started in crisis mode, which I think most social movements do. For us it was really about life and death. We were thinking about death—death by homicide and death of the body, but also death of the spirit. We wanted to save the lives of women and children in harm’s way. We didn’t even think about or to tell you the truth consider their abusive partners in our organizing. As feminists, our only concern was “the” women. In a stereotypic and very judgmental way, men—perhaps all men—were the enemy.
I met a police officer in Minneapolis in the early seventies who told me how he handled incidents of domestic violence: “Well, we’re told we’re supposed to just walk the guy around the block. It’s called ‘cooling off.’” And he said his job was to get the guy to cool off and then make sure he just didn’t do it again before they took him back home. He said that’s how he was trained. And we said, “Yeah, but if you send him back home, he might do it again, right?” And he said, “Well, what else are we supposed to do?” I remember all of us were struggling to answer that question. We didn’t even know what else the police should do. All we knew is that we needed to help victims, including their children, get out of the place they were living with their abusive partners.
In those early years, we drew upon England’s groundbreaking response to battering. It was called refuges there; in the US we decided to call it shelters. We wanted to get women out of the violent situations they were in and into a safe place. We felt the women deserved safety and protection. They deserved to not be hurt, they deserved to make sure their children were cared for, they deserved counseling and support. They deserved to be believed by advocates who held a feminist perspective on battering, one that recognized patriarchy and male control of women. It was very much about basic needs. It was much more of a social service and empowerment kind of response.
We went mainstream very quickly. We mobilized people to realize that domestic violence is ubiquitous. As soon as we shed light on this and people started telling their stories, we realized it wasn’t only poor women or single mothers or women of color who did not have options for safety and protection. It was rich and educated women, too, who started coming out as survivors.
We were also piggybacking off the women’s movement. Consciousness about sexual assault and domestic violence could only emerge out of the women’s movement which already had at its foundation a feminist analysis. It was the times we were in—the 70s liberation period—that made our movement possible. Over the past forty years, we have done much to grow awareness and create policy reform to address domestic abuse, sexual assault, and other forms of gender violence. Now it is rare for someone to say they have never heard of domestic violence, even if they don’t always understand the complex dynamics that are embedded in the issue.
MK: You’ve written and spoken about some of the mistakes you think the movement made in the 1970s. Can you talk more about that?
VK: I now think our focus on giving teeth to the criminal legal system—many of us don’t use “criminal justice system” as we don’t view that system as inherently “just"—to protect women and children failed. It set a pathway for the prominence of and reliance on police, prosecutors, judges and criminal and legal systems to act as the sole intervenor in the lives of survivors and the problem of violence against women.
In the 1970s, we relied upon the precedent set by legal definitions of child abuse, child neglect, and general criminal assault laws to define domestic abuse. We argued in particular that assault laws had to be changed because these laws said you couldn’t assault someone—stranger or not—in a bar or on a street corner, but you could assault your partner at home. And changes in the legal code, and more broadly the state’s response to violence, happened really quickly.
By the end of the seventies, we were deeply in partnership with the state. The state gave us a lot of money for shelters, for training the police and prosecutors, advocacy, and educating the general public. In the trainings we told police what to do. We told them things like: “Don’t interview the couple together. Don’t walk the abuser around the block. Don’t encourage her to make up and stay with the guy. Tell her it is against the law for your husband to beat you.”
I think it never occurred to us that by training the police, prosecutors, and judges to understand the dynamics of violence, we inadvertently gave them more power over victims, abusers, and, in the end, even us advocates. We slid right into a relationship with the state, and then the state basically assumed power over everything. This is way before the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), which poured millions into law enforcement, training of judges and prosecutors, and jails and prisons to hold domestic abusers. There was already a lot of local and federal money funding the kind of work we were interested in, but it didn’t go to all parts of what we needed and wanted to do. The money didn’t go, for instance, to human or social services. It was funneled mainly into the criminal legal system to arrest, convict and punish abusers as lawbreakers.
As soon as we saw what was coming down the pike, a lot of us—mainly women of color, many of us lesbians of color—put up a huge fight against our white feminist sisters. We basically said: “This is going to be really bad for people of color and for women of color. It means the police and court systems that are already overly surveilling and incarcerating us will have state sanction to go after our communities for another crime.”
In the early 80s, some of us lesbians in the movement also began to raise the issue of violence in our relationships. We were afraid that pervasive homophobia—and especially that of the criminal system—would target us once they “found out” that battering was happening in our relationships too. But we lost those arguments about scaling back and asking for caution towards solutions that relied on the criminal legal system.
I can say confidently that VAWA passed the way it was because of racism. And I tell this to some of my really good friends, who thought it was more important to get the federal government to put money behind services than to think through whether or not that money was dirty, whether or not it was harmful in the end to some of our communities. We did all we could to argue and push against that type of thinking, but we just didn’t have enough power over the majority of white feminists who were already very prominent nationally. More importantly, they truly believed that the best solution to domestic abuse was to criminalize the issue.
Another thing: VAWA had an opportunity to go through two federal departments: the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) or the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). I still remember some of the debates we were having where many of our white feminist friends would say to us, “Oh, you’re all so social work-y, social service-y. Social services are never going to solve this problem. We’re going to have to arrest people. We’re going to have to prosecute. We have to make this against the law. That’s the only way anybody will take this seriously.”
I think the reason my white feminist friends picked the DOJ was that they wanted the criminal legal stick to hold over those who did not take the problem seriously, whether individual abusers, policymakers, judges or even the general public.
And we said, “Yes, but what’s the price? What’s the price of taking it seriously by using arrest and prosecution? Many of our communities don’t want offenders to go to jail. We need them to work. We need them to help take care of the kids.” But that just didn’t resonate. The white feminists pooh-poohed the social services side of things because they said it didn’t have enough teeth. It wasn’t serious.
Albert: What would have happened if the anti-domestic violence movement had gone through the Department of Health and Human Services rather than Department of Justice?
VK: I think if we had gone with DHHS we might be in a very different place right now, a significantly less carceral place. But it’s hard to know. The 1980s until today mark a time of increased retributive control by the state. So maybe no matter what we did, it would have implicated the crime and punishment climate of our country.
We have come to a point in our work where many of our once innovative and now mainstream interventions aren’t only outdated: they’re problematic and even dangerous. We do not serve women, LGBTQ, immigrant, or others very well. We do not serve indigenous or people of color very well. We have a punishment-based and criminalized approach to violence. And we continue to fail victims, survivors, their children, and those who harm them by relying on courts, jails, and prisons. We are not healing nor solving the deep-rooted foundations of domestic and sexual violence.
AW: Have any of the white feminists backtracked on their position?
VK: Oh yeah, many have. Some grudgingly say, “I know we should have listened to you.” But many of them have really taken on this abolitionist critique of the state. And that’s remarkable.
MK: Who were these feminists? Were they part of NOW (National Organization of Women)?
VK: The people I’m thinking of may have started in NOW, but they were way too radical for NOW! They were considered by NOW and most mainstream feminists as the man haters, lesbians, socialists, and those of us who wanted to break down not reform the system. NOW certainly didn’t like us.
In our collusion with the state, we lost a radical feminist and intersectional analysis. Instead we got carceral feminism. But I think it was so much about the time. The United States in the eighties and nineties was such a retributive culture. We wanted to punish everybody: welfare mothers, people who broke the law, kids who didn’t go to school, immigrants. It was a time of “anybody we can punish, we're going to punish.” And I think our white feminists were on the same bandwagon as all the Reaganites. I’m sure they didn't think they were like the Reaganites, but they were! Because they—or we—just jumped on that punishment ship with everybody else who were actually much more mainstream than us.
MK: How did you personally arrive at this critique of carceral feminism?
VK: Well, I’m speaking as somebody who had a hand in creating this world. I helped build one of the first shelters in the United States and I helped write and pass probable cause and mandatory arrest laws, and propose all kinds of responses that were constraining, not liberating for anyone. But what just never worked for me is this: for all that we talked about in terms of self-determination and autonomy for survivors, that was never actually what we practiced.
The fact is, those of us who were involved in the movement really felt like we knew better than survivors, or anyone else, for that matter. If the survivor said, “I don’t want to go to a shelter,” we would say to her, “You have to get out. Now! He will eventually kill you, don’t you know?”
Even today, when somebody says they’re in an abusive relationship, the first thing you say is, “You should leave.” But that’s never the first thing survivors want to do. I don’t care how badly they’re being treated, that’s not the first option. It doesn’t matter who you are: you could be a cop, a best friend, an advocate, and the first thing you say is, “Let’s figure out how you can leave.”
I think, doing this work for so long, I started realizing that whenever you would see that a victim was abused—I mean, she could have black eyes and a broken arm and she would say, “I don’t want to leave,” and you say, “Why? After what’s happened, why wouldn’t you leave?” We were judgmental and thought we knew what was best for everyone.
The second thing I realized is that due to my background as a social worker and therapist, I never really bought the idea that you shouldn’t have counseling for survivors or even a couple that wanted it. I always thought, “What’s so wrong about that?” I felt that I, as the counselor, could read the abuser and figure out how he was trying to manipulate either the victim or myself.
But we could never even bring up counseling as a possibility, even or especially with each other as sister-advocates. There might be a situation where she doesn’t want to leave, he wants help, there are no children, their support system confirms they want help. Why can’t we give them help? I was told, “You’re colluding with that power structure.”
You know, counseling is still not recommended today for couples where there’s abuse. I try to tell people, “Come on, folks. It’s been fifty years. We know a few more things than we did even twenty years into the movement.” I think thousands of people could still benefit from couples counseling. Counseling is not a carceral response; it is healing and tries to fix what’s broken. Our response shouldn’t focus on punishing or controlling a bad person by using the strong arm of the law.
MK: There’s also probably much more consciousness of the manipulation.
VK: Totally! So all of a sudden I started to listen more. I started to listen to what women and survivors were saying. I started to listen better to the stories that survivors were telling me. It helped me to understand that everything I thought we were doing right wasn’t. It was actually wrong, was hurtful to survivors and to victims and their children. And then I realized, okay, what about the partners who are causing this harm?
The other thing is this: when survivors would ask us, “Can we go to couples counseling?” we’d say no. They’d ask, “Can we have family counseling?” No. No, no, no. We told them to leave and get a protection order while you’re at it. This approach, I realized, was just so canned. I thought, can we not say anything more than this?
In the back of my mind, I always thought back to my experiences growing up in Hawaii. We’re talking about a family member who did something wrong and hurt you. Do we forget about the other members of your family who are involved? Do we act like the person who caused an offense isn’t even there? Would we, in Hawaii, ever say, “Okay, we don’t deal with those members of our family or community, let’s let the police and the batterer programs deal with them”?
So there was this huge divide in the way many of us activists in the movement thought about our work. And I always thought that some of what we were doing went against my cultural ways. Right? You never kick people out unless it’s really, really, really bad. And even then you’re going to work through things as much as you can before you do that. Families and communities are meant to try to heal things and to make things better and to give people a chance to correct their ways. And so I started thinking, what’s happening to those guys? Who are they?
And so halfway into my career—twenty years, roughly—I switched from only working with survivors to working with abusers. I started to really get to know them, and those who had or were still harming them. It happened in the context of this consulting work I did with the military—that’s when I had the opportunity to meet and actually have face-to-face conversations with a lot of Marines who are mandated to batterer intervention. And I realized I had never had conversations with these guys. Don’t you find that weird? Over twenty years of doing this work, I had never talked to a batterer.
MK: That is so nuts.
VK: We were so siloed, right? The people who do work with abusers, they’re over there. And then those of us who do victim work are over here. The ones who work with kids do their own thing. And the victims and survivors kept saying, “Can’t we do something all of us together?” No. “Can I see what my husband is doing?” No.
I began to wonder: was it all about our own control? Was it about our own control over the lives and well-being of those we said we were trying to bring into an equitable, safe, healthy world? We were promoting the very things we said we were trying to free people from. So I started thinking that I just didn’t want to do things like that anymore. And it was when I started meeting with these guys that I realized how lost they were in their own development and socialization.
AW: Could you describe your work with men who cause harm?
VK: They didn’t even know how to talk about what they were doing, what was going through them. At best, it was deep shame. At worst, it was deep denial. But all of it was about this: besides their partners and kids, nobody was telling them, “It’s not okay.” Nobody was telling these guys, “You could be different. You don’t have to be like this.” Nobody said, “You’re a good person. You’re not bad and evil through and through.”
What happened in the movement is that we set up this dichotomy: if you were an abuser, you were the scum of the earth. The core of your being was that you hurt your partner with impunity.
But when I had the opportunity to see the humanity in these men, I felt sick. I thought, what have we been doing all these decades, presenting these guys as evil throwaway people? Because they really weren’t. Even the minority who were very, very violent, you saw the humanity in them, how nobody had taken any time to love and care for them and show them a different way of being.
When I think back to the 70s, I see that our ideology was grounded in a sociological analysis of patriarchy, misogyny, and power over anybody viewed as less masculine. We only knew how to hold together both the lives of survivors and those who hurt them through a critique of sexism. We did a passing nod to race, class, nationality, and other statuses—what we now call intersectionality—but we tended to hold misogyny as the main or only cause of domestic violence.
I think my ancestors brought me to that consulting work to give me the other side to it. I saw how wrong we had been all those years and did not want to be part of that anymore. After I did the work with the Marines, I went back home to Hawaii. I thought to myself, “We just can’t do things like this anymore.”
And I think a lot of us who have been doing the work twenty-five years or longer came to this in the same way, at the same time. Almost all of us who came to this at the same moment were women of color, queer women, queer women of color.
Every great movement is led by queer people of color. We all just said, “What’s happening to our communities? Why are we doing this?” All of our men were going to prison because of laws we put in place, including laws against abusing your partner. And then “three strikes, you’re out” was passed, and these guys went away for good. We were devastating our own communities with the laws and policies some of us had fought for. We all said, “Well, we have to stop this.” Going into the early 2000s, INCITE! started, as did Critical Resistance and other movements against the carceral state.
MK: I’m moved by your honesty and profound self-interrogation about five decades of work in domestic violence. What have you found transformative and what sort of justice practices have you seen that move you?
VK: We’ve come so far, and yet we have so much to do. That domestic violence is situated in the criminal, legal, and carceral system is so enduring. It’s so institutionalized that even bringing up transformative justice and community accountability as alternatives to arrest is looked upon with a lot of skepticism and criticism. There are a lot of constraints in implementing it.
The places where people have a viable chance to get restorative justice is in carceral institutions—prosecutors deferring charges, public defenders’ offices, probation. Instead of going to jail, you can get restorative justice as an option. But of course if you don't follow through, you’re going to go lose your kids or have extended probation or go to jail. The big stick is always hanging over you, ready to punish. There are no carrots, only sticks. This is especially true for people of color, Native communities, LGBTQ folks, and others who are already vulnerable to daily control by the state.
We want everyone to be able to do this work in our communities without engaging the police or the state. But we don’t have the resources to gain back this way of being with each other. And many of us have never known this way of connecting in the first place. This is where we come full circle. What’s happened is that we just don’t know how to be with each other anymore. Right? We’ve lost that sense of community. So there’s distrust. And there’s mobility, too—people do not live for a long time near each other anymore, especially in urban areas. People don't know their neighbors. State-sponsored policies, such as gentrification, have broken up our longstanding connections. They cause or exacerbate poverty, violence, and disengagement.
Everybody’s scared of trying transformative justice because we’re afraid it’s going to worsen interpersonal violence cases. But many of us argue that it cannot get worse. I guarantee you, there’s no way transformative justice is going to be worse than what is happening now. It’s not possible. Because women and children are still being killed even though we have all these laws and procedures in place. I think people are too afraid because it seems a bit too radical. Even the best of us say, “We’re not saying you shouldn’t call 911.” But then people reply, “Wait—why shouldn’t I call 911?” What we do know is that if you don’t want your partner in jail, or even to be arrested yourself, you shouldn’t think of the call as your only option for help.
The power of the state is so deeply embedded in all of our consciousness that it’s going to be very hard to implement anything outside of a state-sponsored response, I think. But women and children are asking for this. They don’t ask for their partners and fathers to go to prison; they’re asking for an alternative. So how could the alternative be worse? The worst outcome is already happening.
AW: Could you give us an example of the transformative justice practices that made an impression on you?
I’ll tell you a Hawaiian example that might not apply everywhere, but it might resonate. I was involved in a mandatory batterer group intervention consisting of men—primarily men—who had been convicted of all sorts of domestic violence. There was a guy who had actually killed his partner, had been to prison for twenty years and came out, and still had to go to a group afterward. And there were others who had done extreme violence against their partners, who had been in prison for a while and gotten probation.
This intervention was based on Hawaiian values and traditions; a group of us had developed with Hawaiian elders, advocates, and community people. So at a session, we told all of the men: “Your ancestors saw what you did to your partner. Because maybe your neighbors didn’t see, or maybe your children didn’t see what you did. But your ancestors saw you.” The idea actually came up organically from the group of men themselves, and we started integrating it into the program. And then we would ask, “What do you think they thought about you and about what happened when they saw you act that way?” And every time we posed this question, it didn’t matter how defensive and rough and tough they were: they would always do two things. The first is they’d look down, usually in shame and embarrassment. And then I would say, “Let’s all say what your ancestor thought when they saw you hit your partner, call them names, push them out of a car, stab them.”
And the responses were all the same. “My ancestors were embarrassed. They were angry at me. They thought what I did was wrong. They were ashamed that I acted that way.” Many of them would cry. In some ways, that broke the whole thing open. It broke through the defensiveness, the victim-blaming, the feeling that she deserved it, that it wasn’t their fault—all these things we’ve all heard, right? So that was a huge breakthrough in terms of using culture to transcend this facade that domestic violence is acceptable, that’s how we are, women act up and it’s their fault, all that stuff.
We told them, “This is not only about what you think and what you want to do, it’s what your ancestors think and how they feel about you.” And there are no ancestors, I’m telling you, across any of our cultures, who think it’s a good idea to beat up and kill your partners, the mother of your children, the person you said you wanted to love and respect forever. I guarantee you, none of our cultures think that’s a good idea.
This is part one. Next week Kalei will share her background growing up in an indigenous-Asian family in Hawaii, the process of coming out to her parents in 1970, and her work doing restorative justice with indigenous communities now.
Book Club on Friday, April 30th
We’re looking forward to a book club on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun on Friday, April 30th at 2:45 PM ET. Email us for the Zoom link at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to all who came out for Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. Can’t wait to see you!