I was invited to attend an Alternatives to Violence workshop at a Youth Correctional Facility back in December 2019. I had already done a basic workshop in the community, but I was interested in attending this type of workshop in a prison because of my interest in social justice and the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). I found the prospect of going into a correctional facility exciting. It offered me the opportunity to learn, to teach, and to grow with people who I wouldn’t ordinarily meet.
I wasn’t thinking about being a fish out of water. Not when I agreed to go nor when I got fingerprinted and given a volunteer badge. I didn’t think about it on the drive to Trenton with my professor or when we entered the chilly visit hall with stained ceramic floors. It didn’t feel weird that thick cell doors needed to be opened or closed behind me. It crossed my mind that I was a young woman in a men’s correctional facility, but I decided that I would talk about football and writing and omit my gender from the conversation the best I could.
Some of the men hugged the facilitators and when we got started, things went as swimmingly as I hoped, until…we got our first ten-minute break. I sat in a chair in the empty circle while facilitators worked on the next part of the program and the guys joked around with each other and got food. I am not a great small talker. I did not know how to small talk with men who have been through more than I could ever imagine, and it was deterring—that fish out of water feeling coming back and I carried that feeling with me until the powers of transforming wouldn’t allow me to anymore. Until I saw faces in the advanced and the facilitator workshops that I recognized, who met me with smiles and hugs. I would end up spending 3 weekends with these guys from December to February.
There was no worry over my safety at the correctional facility. James Ferry, a teacher at a prison in Rhode Island, states that it’s more likely to get “wounded at Walmart” than at a prison (Ferry, 2020, p. 2). During this journey, I could see why. The guys, ages 18-30, were silly and interactive. They loved to joke around but were capable of being serious when it was called for. Some of the guys would censor themselves when I was in a group with them, to the point where they wouldn’t curse in front of me. During breaks, the guys would ask for a minute of my time and they would ask my about myself, like my writing and football.
Alternatives to Violence Project began in 1975 in a prison in Upstate NY by older incarcerated men who wanted to teach the young guys paths to non-violence and conflict resolution. With the help of Quakers, Alternatives to Violence, affectionately known as AVP, was born. Together, they developed a clear system for explaining and teaching about non-violence. The program is designed for 18-22 hours of immersive interactions over 3 days. To become a facilitator, a participant needs to start with a beginner workshop, consisting of building a community and teaching the basics of non-violence. An advanced workshop follows, getting deeper into conflict resolution and finally, a facilitator workshop where a group trains to be leaders in teaching the principles of AVP to others.
AVP holds their principles in high regard, including that participants and facilitators alike are volunteers, that power seeps up rather than trickling down in AVP, where no one is above another, and participants learn by doing. Dr. Eleanor Novek, an AVP facilitator and a Monmouth Professor, states that “learning by doing is the key to AVP” because learning comes from the interaction instead of through books and lectures. The AVP Mandala represents these principles in five elements that all lead to a concept known as “transforming power” (Angell, 1994, para 3). The five elements are: expect the best, respect for self, care for others, ask for a non-violent path, and think before reacting. For this article, I will examine my experiences from December to February through the AVP Mandala, showcasing how the guys and myself partook in the essence of Transforming Power.
To begin any AVP Workshop, the participants and facilitators give themselves a positive name that we use throughout the workshop. This consists of the first letter of your first name and a positive word that starts with that letter. I decided on Motivated Michelle. To protect the privacy of the guys for this article, Dr. Deanna Shoemaker, an AVP facilitator and Monmouth Professor, suggested giving pseudonyms to the guys. The men I speak about will have a positive name, followed by the name of a president of the United States.
Expect the Best
The AVP Mandala starts with “expect the best,” which means that when in conflict, a violent approach can take many shapes, such as physical violence, screaming matches, and cutting off communication. AVP suggests that in conflict, expecting the best may lead a person to find it (Stuart, 2016, para 12).
I saw incarcerated men dig deep into their emotions and talk about things that were harder than I could ever imagine. I had difficulty sharing my own stories because I didn’t want to impede on the opportunity for them to speak. This didn’t go unnoticed. One of the guys, King Kennedy, called me out on it. The small group of men chimed in that I didn’t share enough, and I was honest; that I thought what they had to say was more valuable. But King Kennedy cut me off. He listed the perspectives they had in the group and told me that they didn’t have my perspective, which could end up being more valuable. The rest of the group agreed and while I felt embarrassed to have been so quiet, the moment was uplifting and meaningful.
King Kennedy’s proclamation that what I had to say was of value helped me expect the best. I am grateful for what he said because it made my fear of not belonging wash away. I was still an observer in these groups, but I wasn’t a silent observer anymore because of what King Kennedy said.
At times, the facilitators would “clinic,” which means that they would meet in a circle to discuss things like time, if someone made a mistake explaining a program, or for general purpose. During the advanced workshop, Jazzy Johnson asked me if I was training to become a facilitator. I told him I was, like the rest of the group. He didn’t understand so I said, “we’re on the same path to becoming facilitators.” He and many of the other guys didn’t understand my presence at the prison and when Jazzy Johnson found out that we would be named facilitators, at the same level at the end of our journey, he began going out of his way to help facilitators pass out materials and joked that he was going into the facilitator circle for a clinic. He seemed excited, like he didn’t know how interactive this would be or that when he was finished, he could be in a position to teach non-violence just as much as I could.
Ask for Non-Violent Path
AVP asks their participants to “ask for a non-violent path.” We don’t have control of other’s emotions, but we have control of ours; and possibilities emerge when a person asks for nonviolence instead of engaging in violent behaviors.
One of the guys, Terrific Truman, was extremely shy and pensive. I was paired with him on Saturday during the Facilitator Workshop. The prompt was to discuss someone who had a positive impact on our life. He told me his mom, but he couldn’t quite get the words out, and I wondered why he wanted to be at this level in AVP. There was something about his eyes that said he was lost in thought and only his physical self was present during the workshop. I couldn’t tell if he was feeling anxious, so I asked him questions about his mom to help get him through it. On Sunday, we ended up getting paired up again and asked to speak about a time we had been violent towards someone. His eyes never left the stained floor when he spoke, but he began talking about his mom again like he was finding the words from yesterday. He shared with me a conversation they had, where she told him that she was happy he was in jail because she knew he was safe. He shook his head and clasped his hands together. In a solemn, yet reflective voice he said, it’s crazy how prison can change a person. I eagerly asked him if he would be able to go home soon, thinking that he had spent many years thinking about his mistakes and was ready for a second chance. He finally looked up and grinned. He still has twelve years to go.
I imagined spending 12 or more years in jail for a mistake and realizing so soon that I have a chance to be better, like Terrific Truman. Like a lot of the guys in these workshops, they’ve reflected on choices and by becoming a facilitator, they intend on becoming mentors for the young men coming in. By seeking a non-violent path, these men can teach others how to ask for the same.
Caring for Others
AVP asks the participants to “care for others.” Often, participants are in groups as small as 2 people or as big as 6 people, and they are tasked with listening and sharing exercises. These programs ask for participants to display empathy towards others, listen to understand, and of course, to care for others.
I was shocked at the display of the men in this regard. One of the men, Witty Washington was having a hard weekend. He had to sacrifice going to class to attend the workshop, and this hit him hard. During a group project, we were tasked to do a sharing exercise. It came up that the men might not get a shower because they were participating in AVP too late. They began debating about whether the correctional officers would actually refuse them the right to take a shower, as it wasn’t uncommon. Witty Washington began saying that he would get himself sent to the “box” if they wouldn’t allow him a shower. He was threatening to not move from where he was sitting if they refused to allow him his basic rights, which would in turn, get him sent to “the box.” Now and again, the guys would stop to explain terms to me, like “the box” being a disciplinary punishment where incarcerated people lose amenities, privileges, and are kept in solitary confinement.
For the next few minutes, I watched on as the group of four men attempted to talk Witty Washington out of his stubbornness. They echoed each other that it wasn’t worth the fight. Towards the end, one of the men, Encouraged Eisenhower, told Witty Washington not to worry about it. Encouraged Eisenhower was getting a shower that night because he knew how to finagle the situation, and Witty Washington would be able to follow his lead. Witty Washington had his shoulders up to his ears, but he quieted. The next day, I felt relief when I saw Witty Washington enter and I commented to Encouraged Eisenhower that I guess everything worked out. He smiled. His response was, “of course it did.” He wasn’t going to let Witty Washington get himself into unnecessary trouble.
The guys showed care for each other time and time again in the three weekends I spent with them. They supported each other, encouraged one another, and showed care for everyone in the group to make room for building a strong community.
Respect for Self
AVP asks for their participants to have respect for self. Just as it sounds, this calls for treating oneself with kindness and understanding. The guys showed respect for self through their work ethic. Many of them had jobs and along with attending school. Rad Reagan shared his poetry and a paper he wrote for one of his classes. Encouraged Eisenhower mentioned his ambition to work two jobs and go to school full time upon being released. During our Facilitator workshop, he shared with me that he began working on his first novel. King Kennedy wants to get his Ph.D. and Laughing Lincoln wants to be a role model for the young men coming in and for his son, who is reaching high school age.
Laughing Lincoln was a vibrant guy, silly but straight forward. He told me that he was 19 when he got locked up. His “bunkie” is 19 now. A bunkie is the term the guys used to describe the person they shared a jail cell with. Laughing Lincoln told me that he wants to help his bunkie before he leaves, because Laughing Lincoln remembered his own stubbornness at 19. When discussing his son, Laughing Lincoln could only smile. His son grew up knowing him despite Laughing Lincoln’s prison sentence. Laughing Lincoln is due to be released soon, and he reminisced about a phone call he had with his son. His son said excitedly, “you’re coming home soon, dad.” Laughing Lincoln couldn’t hide the pride he felt when repeating those words. He stressed that he wants to be a good role model for his son.
Through understanding his own mistakes and nearly a decade of reflection in prison, Laughing Lincoln displayed respect for himself that he will carry through to his son when he gets to go home.
Think Before Reacting
AVP calls for participants to “think before reacting,” asking participants not to react in the heat of the moment but to try a thoughtful, considerate approach when dealing with conflict.
During a listening exercise, the group was tasked to pair up with the person sitting to their right. We would be asked a question by the facilitator and have two minutes to speak on it. Our partner would only be able to sit and listen. The question was “who has had a positive influence on your life?” I have responded to this question many times, and every time I tell my partners about my late mentor who had a profound effect on my life. My partner, Rad Reagan, smiled and nodded, listening intently until it was his turn. Later, during a break, Rad Reagan came up to me and asked if he could have a minute of my time. He wanted to thank me for sharing my story about my mentor. He laughed, admitting that he wanted to jump in when I spoke of my mentor, but he thought before reacting or disrupting. Instead, we shared the break and spoke about the power of mentors.
Transforming Power is the heart and final component of the AVP Mandala. Transforming Power is using the power within yourself to treat every conflict non-violently. Transforming Power offers guides to non-violence such as reaching for that something good in others, being willing to change your position if you see it is wrong, and building community based on honesty, respect and caring, just to name a few.
The influence of transforming power hit me many times throughout this journey in AVP, but one of the most meaningful moments was for our last activity of our Facilitator Workshop.
The group was asked to pair up with someone they didn’t get to work with during the weekend. A man I dub as Righteous Roosevelt and I made eye contact and agreed that we both thought of each other immediately because we hadn’t worked together. The task was a guided meditation where one person in the pair had to close their eyes while the other stared at them. At other times, we needed to stare into each other’s eyes, prompted to look on lovingly and with the understanding that the person before us has felt pain, joy, excitement, failure among many other emotions.
Staring into Righteous Roosevelt’s eyes was a moving moment because he was focused on the activity, like this was something he needed to do and I could see his shoulders lower when he closed his eyes and the pairing of pain and hopefulness when he opened them. The goal was to speak to another person by just looking at their eyes, and I saw a man who was focused on transforming despite everything he had been through. He invited me to share the moment with him, not because I am a female or because he had any other interest than participating. Afterward, he would share with the group that he felt vulnerable with his eyes closed, knowing someone was looking at him but that it didn’t matter. He felt safe. Most of the guys chimed in with agreeance.
Leaving was hard. I won’t see most of these guys again, but I built a community through AVP with them in three weekends at the Youth Correctional Facility. I ended up getting exactly what I wanted because my mind and my heart were opened to it. Somehow, between sitting by myself as the loner I am and doing this program, I developed strong relationships with men who I wouldn’t ordinarily meet. I wanted to be moved, and I was. I wanted to make an impact, and I did. But in a twist of events, I, too, was impacted.
Dr. Shoemaker calls for more people to engage with AVP in prisons because it helps to “see people who are incarcerated as complex, creative, vulnerable human beings who demonstrate incredible patience and fortitude”, and I can certainly attest to that (Shoemaker, 2019, p. 10).
For More information about the Alternatives to Violence Project, contact Eleanor Novek at firstname.lastname@example.org
Angell, S. (1994). The AVP mandala. Retrieved from https://avp.international/the-avp-program/
Ferry, J. (2020). Why I Go to Prison, 1–8.
Shoemaker, D. (2019). Stepping Into Prison: Communication Activism and Pedagogy Beyond Classrooms. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 1-12.
Stuart, G. (2016, January 21). What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops? Retrieved from https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/what-are-avp-workshops/