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AVP: The Alternatives to Violence Project

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The mandala serves as a backdrop for two of the project's manuals.

The mandala serves as a backdrop for two of the project's manuals.

A Brief History of AVP

The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) was started by a group of inmates in Greenhaven prison who worked with troubled youth in the community. This collaboration of incarcerated men, called "The Think Tank," contacted a local Quaker group to come up with a program that helped provide direction. During this period—the 1970s—the New York Prison system had experienced some terrible riots in Attica. The Greenhaven population wanted to help ensure that their facility did not experience a similar event. Through these collaborative efforts, the AVP project came to fruition and now holds workshops through many countries around the globe.

Focus of the Program

At first, the AVP focus was on the prison system. Most inmates were raised in environments influenced heavily by violence and other forms of social disparity. The prison system is a microcosm, greatly magnified, of the outside world that most of the prisoners had come from. AVP allows participants to explore the roots of their problems.

Many people who are incarcerated had come from broken homes, suffered abuse, experienced poverty, or been marginalized by some factors in the outside world, and those frustrations led to poor decision-making. AVP permitted inmates to explore those roots and share them with one another in a safe forum.

Where AVP Is Used Today

Initially, AVP was designed to help lower the levels of violence in the prison system and create an environment where the incarcerated could live peacefully when pursuing their rehabilitation. Eventually, the transformative aspects of the project became apparent, and it moved into the community to help those who were seeking alternatives to conflict as well as communities of people who sought positive ways of communication. Today, AVP can be found in schools, community groups, senior centers, businesses, and universities, as well as houses of correction.

Purpose of This Article

What I hope to do in this brief article is provide an overview of what AVP is. I hope to introduce some of the principles and philosophies and describe some of the exercises you might encounter in a workshop. Actually, to call it a workshop is a bit of a misnomer, because it is an experiential activity with interactive aspects that are difficult to describe. One of my colleagues says, "It is like trying to tell someone about chocolate. You really can't put it into words. You have to try it yourself."

I hope to do the AVP program some justice, but I will only be able to touch on aspects of the program in a superficial way, at best.

Spreading the Word About AVP

What I hope to do is pique your interest and have you investigate AVP for yourself. If you are reading this article, I suppose you have an interest in social justice, and I believe you may want to find a way to make the world a better place. Either way, I thank you for coming this far, and I encourage you to read through a few more passages and then, should you be so inclined, reach out and take a few steps forward.

Greenhaven, where AVP began

Greenhaven, where AVP began

What an AVP Workshop Is Like

AVP is an experiential workshop where participants meet together and share ideas and work on their communication skills. Usually these workshops are composed of various activities and exercises. They usually start out with a gathering where we sit in a circle and engage in dialogues that allow us to come together by sharing our experiences on a certain theme. "A time I was proud of myself was..." or "If I won the lottery, the one place I would visit is and why...". These may seem a little silly or try, but they allow us to come together and achieve a level of comfort and make sure that we are all on the same level.

One of the ground rules of AVP is that no one is forced to participate or engage in any activity they are uncomfortable with. There are established ground rules to ensure that the group is a comfortable and safe place. Some participants often talk about some deep experiences and a secure level of confidentiality must be established to encourage a successful workshop.

There are also activities where individuals or groups are required to solve problems. You may be asked to create a project out of materials you are provided without talking to other members of your group. You may be required to help determine what the attributes of a perfect society are. Sometimes you are given scenarios such as trying to determine from a list of candidates who should be given a special car. The list of candidates have various qualities and the point of this activity is to arrive at a consensus comfortably without conflict.

In order to help recharge the group, or wind down for a deeper project, there are Light and Livelies (L & L's). These are basically games - sometimes seemingly juvenile - which are a lot of fun. The response you see from participants in the community and the prison setting are really various. The point of the L & L's is to keep the workshop fun and keep people inspired. Often, in some settings, there are emotions that come up and there needs to be a way to pace the tensions when you have many personalities present.

A group navigates their way through an exercise.

A group navigates their way through an exercise.

AVP is worldwide.

AVP is worldwide.

What Are the Main Goals of AVP?

Well, the goal is to create a better world, in short. AVP volunteers work in schools, the community, correctional facilities and offer workshops to encourage positive communication. AVP works on self esteem, perception, patience, listening, learning how to get your message across in a manner that encourages resolution even if there is a conflict initially. Basically, all things good.

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AVP participants have the opportunity to eventually run workshops themselves because AVP is one of those activities that continues to grow. Keep in mind that AVP is a non-profit organization that is supported by grants and donations. They will usually ask for a donation from participants, but NEVER turn anyone away for lack of payment. Ultimately, they are looking for you to become a trainer and work on facilitating AVP activities in the community or the prisons. This means that eventually you may be able to bring AVP to other people.

AVP is a workshop that is offered to participants who can eventually become facilitators themselves. This means you may be assisting a troubled youth group, a shelter for battered spouses, a police league, people in transitional housing units or even in prisons. AVP has changed peoples lives and given them tools to use when conflict arises. You really don't learn anything new in AVP. Most of what is presented is something you either have heard before or understand intuitively. What the workshop does is present a context in which to practice this knowledge and a safe environment to experiment with these techniques that ring of authenticity.

There are role plays and scenarios that you will work through using tools such as "I Messages" in which you learn to discuss with someone you may be having a conflict with in a way that doesn't attribute blame or put the person in a situation in which they feel the need to respond defensively. I messages are something you probably learned in grade school: instead of saying "you are making me mad" you will learn how to turn that around and instead say "When I see the clothes on the floor, I feel embarrassed because I value cleanliness". The removal of the "you" alleviates any sense of accusations in the language and can allow the person being spoken to, to be more receptive and respond in a positive manner.

The AVP Mandala describes the major tenets.

The AVP Mandala describes the major tenets.

The Guides to Transforming Power

The Guides to Transforming Power describe some tools to use to help dissuade conflict. They are pretty basic, but they're often very useful.

  1. Seek to resolve conflicts by reaching common ground.
  2. Reach for that something in others that seeks to do good for self and others.
  3. Listen. Everyone has made a journey. Try to understand where the other person is coming from before you make up your mind.
  4. Base your position on truth. Since people tend to seek truth, no position based on falsehood can long prevail.
  5. Be ready to revise your position if you discover it is not fair.
  6. When you are clear about your position, expect to experience great inward power to act on it. A response that relies on this power will be courageous and without hostility.
  7. Do not expect that this response will automatically ward off danger. If you cannot avoid risk, risk being creative rather than violent.
  8. Surprise and humor may help transform.
  9. Learn to trust your inner sense of when to act and when to withdraw.
  10. Work towards new ways of overcoming injustice. Be willing to suffer suspicion, hostility, rejection, even persecution if necessary.
  11. Be patient and persistent in the continuing search for justice.
  12. Help build “community” based on honesty, respect and caring.

These guides serve as tools to use and often the exercises and discussions within a workshop will focus on implementing one or more of the above. You have probably seen these before in some way or manner. You may have used some of these without understanding that they are useful tools that can help influence the direction of a conversation or situation, particularly one bordering on conflict. In the workshop, you will have the opportunity to practice these in hypothetical situations that mirror realistic events you may encounter in the world.

The Guides to Transforming Power are very useful at times, and they're often inspirational.

AVP and the Rehabilitative Process

One of reasons why people pursue AVP in the community is that hope to help the incarcerated populations behind prison walls. AVP began in the prison system and has been very effective at lowering rates of violence in that environment. Studies have shown that in yards that have AVP programs, incidents of violence have been reduced as much as 80%. Many inmates have embraced the workshops as a way of life and adopted the philosophies the way some followers pursue a religion. Volunteers who go into facilities to work with prisoners have found the experience very rewarding.

One of the concerns that potential students might have about working behind the barbed wire fences is, "is this safe?". Yes, there have been no reports of any volunteers ever being harmed during an AVP program. Inmates value programming and the chance to interact with free staff who treat them with respect. The project abhors violence and participants have sincerely embraced the nonviolent philosophies and tenets.

The prison setting is a microcosm of the outside society, but often greatly magnified. As someone who works in a penal institution, I can testify that sometimes I feel more safer inside than I do on the streets. I have a body alarm and several ways of getting the attention of custody staff should an incident arise. I have never had anything happen with the residents in my vicinity or those that I have worked with. If you treat people with respect, they will generally respond accordingly.

Many of the people who are in prison and participate in the AVP programs are those who have spent some time behind bars. Most consider the prison their home and want to have a peaceful coexistence with their fellow citizens in their communities. Most people's perceptions of prison life are based on what they hear on the streets or have seen on television. Those ideas are often greatly exaggerated and based on fictions created in someone's very wild and often disturbed, imagination. AVP brings light and inspiration to confined minds that are seeking positive pursuits that assist them in dealing with an environment of despair and deprivation.

A men's group practices a Light and Lively.

A men's group practices a Light and Lively.

AVP appeals to women prisoners, too.

AVP appeals to women prisoners, too.

AVP Is a Great Place to Start

If you are seeking a way to help your community become a better place, or if you have ever wanted to volunteer to assist prisoners, AVP would be a good choice. You can take a class yourself, just to help better your communication skills or you may want to follow up and become a facilitator that runs workshops. Either way, devoting your time to a program such as this will benefit yourself as well as the community you choose to assist. Once you become a facilitator, you are certified to run workshops anywhere in the world. All communities follow the same agreements and embrace similar philosophies. There are no borders based on language, religion or culture. That is one of the more beatific aspects of this setting.

There really are no requirements to become a volunteer other than you need to be able to devote some time - often a weekend. There have been teen volunteers and those who are retired. You don't have to have a religious background. Even though the Quakers helped inspire this project, there is nothing religious about it. Sometimes you may go into a group associated with a church - some halfway houses are connected with Christian organizations - but we are not a religion.

If you are interested in pursuing something that might make your community safer, sharpen your communication skills and help make the planet a little more comfortable, consider AVP.

Here are links with more information about AVP:

A News Story About AVP in Bakersfield

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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