The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) was started in 1975 by inmates at Green Haven Prison in Dutchess County, in collaboration with Quaker volunteers. A group of prisoners, some of whom had been transferred from Attica after the 1971 riots, wanted to reach out to youth who were in trouble with the law and talk to them about turning their lives around. The men asked for help from the Quakers, who had a ministry program in the prison and a tradition of promoting non-violence. Together they devised a system of experiential exercises to help people bond with each other and teach peaceful ways of dealing with conflicts.
AVP now offers workshops in prisons, schools, businesses, churches, women’s shelters, community centers, and other venues. The group operates in 35 states and 55 countries, training volunteers who facilitate workshops and providing support for facilitators. Robert Martin, a retired social worker and a member of the board of directors at AVP New York, said the process changed his life while he was incarcerated. “I began to grow from a person filled with hate, anger, and despair into a person who believes that he, too, is responsible for the protection, preservation, and enrichment of humanity.”
Each prison workshop goes from Friday to Sunday and usually lasts a total of 18 to 22 hours. The most transformational workshop Martin ever experienced was one that went 12 hours a day for all three days. According to data collected by the AVP organization, two out of three prisoners in the U.S. are rearrested within three years. AVP workshops have been shown to reduce recidivism by up to 46 percent.
When four facilitators met with me in Kingston to explain the many facets of AVP, they started by demonstrating the deceptively simple adjective-name exercise that opens each workshop. Each participant finds a positive word that starts with the same letter as the name they plan to use in the session.
Martin led off by saying, “I’m Marvelous Martin.”
“I’m Now Noelle, and this is Marvelous Martin,” said Noelle Pollet.
“I’m Jazzy Jim, this is Now Noelle, and this is Marvelous Martin,” said Jim Peppler.
“I’m Present Patty, this is Jazzy Jim, this is Now Noelle, and this is Marvelous Martin,” said Patty Tyrol. I joined in as Vivacious Violet, struggling to remember the previous names. Soon we were all laughing.
“When you have 26 people doing that, it gets ridiculous, but we learn each other’s names,” said Pollet. Workshops are never required, but some residents attend for the first time in order to gain credit for a program that will earn them visitation rights or impress the parole board. The group always sits in a circle, including the facilitators, to place everyone on an equal footing. Many participants refuse to make eye contact at first. By the end of a light-hearted exercise like the affirming introductions, even sullen residents change their body language and start looking across the circle.
Peppler, a retired photographer who documented the civil rights movement of the 60s, said the name-plus-adjective is then used throughout the workshop. “Killer Karl becomes Kind Karl. He starts to identify himself with that name. A key line is crossed immediately.”
The “Light and Livelies” alternate with exercises that gradually enable people to express deep feelings they don’t ordinarily discuss. “It can take hours,” said Pollet, “but eventually we get there. In 26 years as a facilitator, I’ve never seen a fight, and no one has ever been booted out of a workshop.”
In one exercise, participants work in small groups to devise role-playing situations, acting out problems from their own lives that they were unable to solve. “We try to find a spontaneous power that might resolve the issue,” said Peppler. “When I get home and come up against that situation again, I’ll have a better idea of how to deal with it. I’ll be able to speak to family or friends in different ways.”
In “Building a New Society,” participants break up into groups, one living on a mountain, one on the plains, another downstream. The groups decide what their resources are, how they’re going to govern, how to distribute what’s been manufactured, designing their vision of an ideal society. Then the groups come together and work out the conflicts that emerge. “Maybe your group is communist, and the people downstream are hard-core capitalists,” said Tyrol. “How do you negotiate? People get passionate.”
The workshops bring together people from different backgrounds and reveal the essential qualities and experiences they have in common. “Behavior, language, and culture may be different, but at the core it’s just another person,” said Peppler. “Understanding this commonality empowers people through the rest of their lives. When you can see behind and beneath labels to find common ground, you can resolve almost any issue.”
Landing Strips are groups of released prisoners who use AVP principles to help with reintegration into society. “They talk about what’s going on in their lives, the obstacles they’re facing,” said Martin. “It’s an open-ended discussion.”
Communications on a ‘real and deep level’
Pollet struggled with mental health issues for almost two decades. She explained, “The workshops are a safe way to dissipate trauma energy. We end up sharing stories of our lives, and that’s powerful. Then we do an outrageously goofy game that allows us to laugh out the energy. For me, AVP brought out the trauma and moved it.”
Her first psychiatric diagnosis came at the age of six, when she was deemed “emotionally disturbed,” perhaps because her response to first grade was to put her head down on the desk and weep. Over the years, she received a string of labels, including schizophrenic and manic-depressive, and was hospitalized several times. One esteemed expert on bipolar disorder told her, “You’ll be dead or hospitalized within six months if you ever try going off your medication.
When Pollet was 33, an AVP facilitator took her to a workshop at Green Haven. Having grown up in Brooklyn and been “used as a punching bag by gangs of kids with darker skin tones who knew they were getting a racial raw deal,” Pollet was terrified facing the interracial group of prisoners. A seven-foot-tall black man leaned over and told her gently, “Don’t worry. You’ll be all right.”
“Half an hour later, I was having a core-child belly laugh,” wrote Pollet in a short bio, “feeling connected already, in a way I’d been hungering for my whole life.”
In the adjective-name exercise, the most positive identity she could come up with was “Nearly Noelle.” In an activity at the end of the workshop, she made an affirmation poster, calling herself “Newly Noelle.” Shortly thereafter, she went off her medication for good and has never been hospitalized again. In addition to facilitating prison workshops, she now has a private practice, using AVP with groups in the community and with families experiencing conflict.
When Tyrol, an art teacher at Bailey Middle School in Kingston, had to supervise a group of kids delegated to in-school suspension as one of her periodic non-teaching duties, she introduced them to AVP. The session was so successful, she asked to be released from other non-teaching roles in favor of being posted in the in-school suspension room. “Kids like being heard and being asked questions about how they feel,” she observed.
Regarding her work in the prisons, Tyrol said, “There is no other place in my life where I can sit in a circle with people I barely know and communicate with each other on a real and deep level. I receive way more than I give. It almost doesn’t feel fair.”
Some prisoners become facilitators while still incarcerated. “I might do two or three workshops a year,” said Peppler. “They might do dozens a year for 15 years and become masters of the process.” But prison regulations forbid workshops to be held without outside facilitators, so there is always a demand for new volunteers. Facilitators never lecture or instruct or set themselves up as professionals. Their job is to initiate and participate in exercises, treating all participants with respect.
Anyone willing to put in the time can take the facilitator training. The basic course spreads 18 to 22 hours of training over three days. AVP staff have produced a number of manuals, packed with exercises that can be used in a variety of settings.
“For me,” said Peppler, “AVP provides the rare opportunity to have meaningfully engaged moments of awareness of others — and I also get to know myself a bit better with each workshop.”++
A basic AVP facilitator training workshop will be held in Purchase, New York, from June 22-24. See the AVPNY.org website for more information. The video on the home page provides an excellent overview of AVP in prisons.
The public is invited to two AVP “Making Friends with Conflict” programs on Sunday, May 20, 12:30-1:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 3, 12:30-3:30 p.m., at the New Paltz Quaker Meetinghouse, 8 North Mannheim Boulevard, New Paltz.