The Alternatives to Violence Project reduces violence in prisons, communities, and individuals—in Canada and around the world
As 2014 begins, the litany of violent conflict in the world is long: Syria, Palestine, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Colombia, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Resource extraction companies against aboriginal peoples; workers against multinational corporations and governments; rich against poor. Violence is so universal some would have us believe it is intrinsic to human nature.
Violence begins inside each of us and spreads to our homes, our communities, and around the world. The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) makes peace by starting where violence does: with individual persons in the community.
In 2006, the community of Olds, Alberta, joined forces with Crown prosecutors and probation officers to reduce community violence. One of their tools was AVP. Bruce Herzog, the Olds community probation officer who was there at the start and still refers people to AVP, says, “I have no doubt AVP reduces the odds of recidivism.”
On Friday, November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, 25 people gather at the Olds recreation centre for Olds’s 29th AVP weekend workshop. At 6:10 pm, the first participants saunter in, pour themselves coffee, take some homemade cookies to their seats in a large circle, and sit in silence. Two facilitators from Edmonton and two from Olds write the evening’s agenda on a flip chart and greet the participants as they enter. Only five couples know many others.
When the workshop ends on Sunday afternoon, a facilitator says she was nervous before the workshop. “I was ready to be in a circle of 20 angry people. But by the end, everybody was pleasant and cooperative.” Several participants report immediate changes in their lives between sessions. One says she and her husband, who also attended, separately put up two Christmas trees in their home Saturday night, as has been their custom. But this time, she says, her husband helped her.
Another participant says, “On Friday night, we all sat down in silence and looked at the floor. Nobody wanted to be here. I had no idea I could get something worthwhile out of this.” Someone else said, “I learned a lot. I could’ve punched out a friend last night at a bar, but I thought before reacting.” He credited AVP with preventing an assault that would have injured someone else and landed him in jail.
“Think before reacting” is one of six principles at the heart of AVP. Its logo-like mandala consists of three concentric circles that illustrate those principles. At the centre is “Transforming Power.” It refers to the power within each of us to do good or ill and includes spiritual, emotional, and even subatomic power. The next circle is “Respect for Self” and “Caring for Others.” The third is “Ask for a Nonviolent Solution,” “Expect the Best,” and “Think before Reacting.”
Four hundred people have participated since Olds’s first AVP workshop in October 2006. About two-thirds of these chose to dedicate a weekend to AVP because they faced disagreeable alternatives. These included numerous trips to programs in Calgary, Airdrie, or Red Deer or facing assault charges in court, racking up lawyers’ fees, and maybe doing jail time. The other third were spouses or partners of “mandated” participants and people from the community who simply wanted to improve their lives, relationships, and community.
The Alternatives to Violence Project started in 1975 in response to a request from prisoners in a state prison in New York. Wanting to know how to decrease the level of violence in their lives, they turned to the Quakers for help. The Alternatives to Violence Project was the result.
Since then, AVP has spread to over 55 countries, including, since the early 1990s, Canada. Most workshops in Canada occur in prisons, but many are in the community. AVP has also conducted youth workshops for grade fours to young adults. In its July issue, The Atlantic published a feature on AVP’s pivotal role in reducing by 90 percent the number of serious incidents at the John Paul Jones Middle School in innercity Philadelphia, one of AVP’s many successes in North America.
AVP’s effectiveness is not merely anecdotal. Two US studies analyzed the behavioral changes in prison populations where AVP was identified as a significant factor. The Sloane study showed that AVP is effective in reducing recidivism rates and that it “has a positive effect on prison discipline.” The Miller-Shuford study compared the records of AVP participants and Life Skills Program participants at the Delaware Correctional Centre and concluded that “The AVP sample consistently performed better . . . both in recidivism and in the rate of return to prison for any reason.”
AVP is not a panacea, of course. Prisoners still reoffend. Community participants backslide. But its simple approach to the endemic problem of human violence clearly works.
How does AVP work? Why are its workshops so effective? First, people learn by doing. This is experiential learning, not head stuff. Facilitators say upfront that they are not experts passing down wisdom and knowledge but volunteers who come to learn too. Second, everyone is affirmed and respected. Third, the workshop’s tone is lighthearted. Humor and fun are essential. Exercises called Light & Livelies happen several times a day—silly games that build community and teach AVP principles through laughter and physical activity.
The November 22-24 Olds workshop is a typical level 1 (basic) workshop. (AVP also does level 2 workshops and facilitator training.) Friday evening’s session focuses on affirmation, community building, and identifying violence. Facilitators introduce themselves and say why they are involved in AVP. The four facilitators, including the author of this article, tell the group how AVP helped them improve their own sense of self-esteem and gave them tools to deal with conflict in their lives.
Two facilitators note that they used to think of themselves as essentially nonviolent people; they got into AVP to help prisoners. They discovered within themselves lifelong patterns of “beating themselves up.” When a voice in their heads told them they were no good, that they did something stupid, that they ought to be ashamed of themselves, they believed it. Every time they do an AVP workshop, they say, they get better at affirming themselves and shutting down that negative voice.
Then it’s the participants’ turn to introduce themselves and say what they hope to learn from the workshop. Some speak so quietly it’s hard to hear them over the furnace fan. Comments include: “My PO made me,” “I’m on probation,” and “I don’t know.”
The facilitators continue, summarizing AVP’s history and reading the workshop guidelines posted on the wall.
A facilitator asks if everyone is willing to follow these guidelines, and all agree.
The Adjective Name exercise happens next. Facilitator Amazing Deborah invites people to have fun picking a modifier for their names that will affirm who they are or who they want to be. She says her adjective name celebrates her survival of many traumatic experiences. Three of her children were sexually assaulted, her family endured the trial to convict the perpetrator, her son was critically injured in a car accident, and as a child, she was adopted by white people, robbed of her aboriginal identity, and then reclaimed it. She says she turned to food for comfort; now she’s come down from 331pounds to 175.
Shining Sandy says she chose her name because she used to shy away from expressing her talents and the love within her instead of letting them shine out for others. Still Sara’s adjective says she’s proud of her name and who she is; it also says how much she values being still and reflecting. Grampa Gary notes he is raising two grandchildren and has two others in Calgary and a pregnant daughter in Toronto. He explains that he struggles to accept that he’s 65 years old; the name helps him honor his age and the wisdom he’s gained.
He notes that many adjective names start with the same letter or sound as the person’s first name, but many don’t. He asks participants if someone wants to go first. Immediately, someone volunteers. One by one, people speak up. Some need help, and others offer suggestions. Mr. Ed, Happy Tania, Magical Mark, Charismatic Kate, are some of the names. Facilitators encourage everyone to identify themselves by adjective name whenever they speak.
After Adjective Names, Still Sara leads a Light & Lively called Big Wind Blows. It’s a takeoff on musical chairs. Instead of music starting and stopping, a person stands in the centre of the circle says something like, “A big wind blows on everybody wearing glasses.” People wearing glasses have to get up and move to another chair before the person in the middle can sit down. The person with no chair names the next group that has to move, and so on. Or that person shouts “Hurricane!” and everybody has to move.
The next exercise is Affirmation/Listening. Shining Sandy asks people to number off and invites half the participants to move their chairs in front of the person on their left. She gives them two minutes each to say “What I Like about Myself,” without interruption, and two minutes to listen to their partners. She tells everyone they will be asked to introduce their partner to the whole group based on what they heard. Some wonder if this is a memory test. Shining Sandy says every introduction is correct and that people can ask his/her partner to repeat something if necessary.
When the group debriefs afterwards, many comment on how uncomfortable they were saying positive things about themselves.
Friday’s last exercise is a brainstorm. Grampa Gary says everybody’s answers are the right answers. The point, he says, is simply for everyone to share whatever the word “violence” brings to mind. He draws the outline of a tree on a flip chart, complete with trunk and leaves, as well as a line to represent the ground. He leaves space below it. Still Sara is the scribe. She writes on the tree all the words and phrases that come up. Racism, bullying, blood, lawyer’s bills, rejection, alcohol, poverty, the silent treatment, and many other words blanket the tree’s boughs and trunk.
Then the focus turns to the roots of violence: where does violence come from? Jealousy, shame, peer pressure, upbringing, religion, wealth, and animal instinct are a few of the answers. Still Sara writes them below the ground. That sheet is taped to the wall, and on another sheet Still Sara draws a palm tree, also with space for roots. The question this time is “What is nonviolence?”
Fun, joy, love, friendship, going for walks, Gandhi, fishing, art, and singing are some of the answers. What are the roots of nonviolence? Still Sara writes empathy, respect, understanding, compassion, and happiness, among others.
When Grampa Gary asks participants what this exercise shows them, some say they’re surprised violence has so many faces. After some discussion, the group agrees that during a conflict a person chooses from among alternatives, and that most of any person’s reality, maybe even 90 percent, is the person’s attitude toward what they don’t have control over. And that attitude is a choice too.
Saturday begins with more personal sharing. Amazing Deborah leads the Concentric Circles exercise. It gives everyone the chance to talk and to listen to six other people one-on-one.
After lunch, Amazing Deborah lines up everyone in two rows, facing one another in pairs, for the Hand Pushing exercise. People put their arms out in front of them until they are palm to palm with their partners. She asks people on one side to push their hands against the other people’s hands. The others push back, but she says they didn’t have to. They could have gone limp, which is also demonstrated. Or they could have chosen to cooperate with their partners, leaning forward with them to build a human bridge.
Grampa Gary leads I-Messages. He divides people into small groups and invites them each to talk about one of their emotional triggers. He leads them through a formula: when X happens, I feel Y because Z; what I’d like to happen is …. In the process, people learn that they have the power to choose nonviolent solutions to conflict.
The day’s last exercise is Broken Squares. Shining Sandy divides people into five equal teams. Each person gets an envelope with pieces of thin cardboard cut into various geometric shapes. She says each team has the pieces to make five squares, but they have to cooperate to do it. They’re not allowed to talk. They can give their pieces to others but cannot take pieces. When the first team finishes, they whoop and holler, thinking they’d won, but Shining Sandy asks them to stay quiet until everyone is finished. It’s a cooperation exercise, she says, not a competition, and it’s about communication too. Everybody wins.
Sunday’s focus is empathy, putting ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. Four teams of participants each get together to discuss what conflict scenario they would like to role play. Facilitators assigned to each group coach the teams to ensure no one plays a role they have in real life and to keep the tone lighthearted but serious.
One group decides to be a couple with a small child, driving down the highway and getting pulled over for speeding. Another person is the policeman. They wear fictitious names on their shirts: Wilma, Fred, Bamm-Bamm, and Sgt. Slate. The man who plays Wilma sits in the passenger seat, criticizes Fred for careless driving, fusses with her nails, and nags, nags, nags in a whiny voice. The woman playing Fred gives it right back to her; he complains how hard he works to support the family, how tired he always is after work, how fed up with her whining, and the like. The policeman mostly stands by and advises them to seek counseling. The child cries in the backseat.
When the role play is over, the whole group discusses what they saw. They offer observations and suggestions for solving the family’s problems. Happy Tania, who played Fred, says, “Lots of fun. Much easier to get into the role because we took on comic-book roles. It was an eye-opener to switch gender roles. It helped me think about the impact on the kids when parents fight.”
Mr. Ed, who played Wilma, says, “When my emotions came up, it was a relief to recognize it.” His wife, Charismatic Kate, who attended the workshop to support him, remarks, “The Flintstones role play was an eye-opener. He played me! Why would he want to listen to that nagging? I’m going to change my behavior.”
The last exercise is Picture Sharing. Still Sara invites everyone to pick one or two calendar pictures from the hundreds spread out on the floor and to speak briefly about their choices. It’s a chance to speak from the heart about a personal experience, someone close to them, somewhere they want to go, or who they want to be.
Soon afterwards, everyone gets certificates of completion and says goodbye, at least until the level 2 workshop at the end of January. During the closing, several comment on how good and how unusual it was to be around positive people. One suggests, “It would be huge to see this done in a workplace!”
At an AVP gathering in 2012, 3-D Diane, a long-time Alberta facilitator, said she used to believe Mao Zedong, that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Now she believes “Change doesn’t happen by revolution. It happens by Transforming Power, people tapping into the very best in themselves and helping others tap into that. … That’s what overcomes violence. It begins with the individual, who can then influence their family, their community. The community can change the country. The country can change the world. That’s how it starts and ends.”
Gary Garrison is a writer, editor, and AVP facilitator who lives in Edmonton.