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Accountability gets a bad rap. But what if we leaned into it?

In this historic moment of complex trauma that we are all living through, self-care can be a radical practice. Empathic accountability could be the radical self- and community-care we all need.

I had dreams of being a dean and even a provost one day. 

Upon receiving tenure at Adelphi University, my dream became a reality. I accepted the role of Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and assumed that the fulfillment I always craved would soon follow. 

After a few months in this role, I was anything but fulfilled. I realized the negative impact it was having on my mental health and my ability to be present with my two young children. I would arrive home sometimes tearful, angry, and physically and spiritually exhausted. 

As a woman of color in a predominantly white institution, I was isolated in this role, not seeing or having any models of leadership that looked like me. I experienced stereotyping, silencing and  marginalizing from the mostly white and male administration. After only a year in the position, I decided to step down and return to my role as faculty. 

The decision was a radical act of self-care — because in that moment, I chose self-preservation over self-sacrifice.

Four years later, I have finally found that fulfillment I was craving. My mission now is to help others embrace radical acts of self- and community-care by leaning into empathic accountability. 

I define accountability as an act of generosity and a radical way to take care of ourselves and our communities. Yet, accountability gets a bad rap. It is seen as a punishing or a “calling out” rather than an act of radical love and generosity.

The word empathic means accountability that is grounded in empathy and compassion. The ways in which I define accountability are very much tied to my outlook on life. That is, I operate from the perspective that I am here to serve a purpose and that purpose is very much related to the responsibility that I have to make the world a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place. 

The roots of self-care and accountability begin at home. The ways in which we understand the world, how we learn — or do not learn — to take care of ourselves and our community are grounded in our childhood. I have spent time examining the practices and values that I grew up with, and the practices and values that I hold. 

Growing up as a child in a home filled with trauma and instability, I never learned the importance of setting personal boundaries; self-care was a luxury, and the act of holding people accountable was not part of our familial values. Generational trauma was also an obstacle to sincere relationship building within my family and with others outside of my family. 

I often joke that the only rule we had was not to blow your nose at the dinner table and to say “bless you” when someone sneezes. I can imagine we all have memories of arbitrary rules that governed our homes. For some of you, these rules were made with intentionality, mindfulness, and an explicit link to taking care of ourselves and our community, while for others — like myself — the focus was on survival. 

Laura Quiros teaches the power of accountability at Konica Minolta, the Japanese multinational technology company, as part of their Step Forward speaker series in early 2020, before the pandemic shutdown. (Photo courtesy of Quiros)

I was also unaware of the practice of accountability. When someone acted in a way that caused harm to someone else in my family, the pain sat there, noticed — and like spectators, everyone “watched” but no one said anything or cried out against the injustice. 

And why do I define accountability as a necessary act of generosity?

The closest people in my life are the ones who hold me accountable. They are usually the people who help me move from a place of unconsciousness to consciousness. They are the people who make me look at myself first, before reacting in a space of defensiveness or blame. They take the time to bring awareness to a behavior that may be impacting others in negative ways.

The impetus for writing this piece is connected to the zeitgeist of our times. In this historic moment of complex trauma that we are all living through, self-care feels to me like a radical practice. Literally, finding the space to create moments of calm, reflection and renewal to take care of ourselves and our communities of family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Yet, it has never been more necessary to do so, and part of that care involves the practice of empathic accountability.

I have noticed in my work as a professor and as a consultant that accountability is a difficult practice. Some of what holds us back from holding each other accountable is the diversity of our experiences, our different standards and perspectives on life, as well as fear of the anticipation of a potential conflict.

Sometimes it just takes too much work and sometimes we have already decided that the person or situation won’t change, so what is the point? I wonder, if we leaned into the practice of empathic accountability and viewed it as a form of generosity and self- and community-care, would we, as a society, be more willing and able to practice accountability on a daily basis?

If we saw accountability as a way to better ourselves and each other, would it come more naturally? Ultimately, I see accountability as radical self-care. I use the word radical because the act and embodiment of caring extends beyond the individual into the community. 

Ultimately, we will be better. Able to be more human together, and positively disrupt systems of oppression through practicing empathic accountability as an act of self- and community-care.

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Laura Quiros

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