Alternatives To Violence Project
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AVP is Building the Way- By Michael N Nagler

Posted by Dashing Dutch on February 9, 2013 at 12:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Building the Way (Pages 146-150 of "The Search For a Nonviolent Future" by Michael N Nagler)

A friend of one of my students, a petite, attractive young woman, was sitting one day doing a workshop in a circle with a dozen or so prisoners in a concrete, windowless room in San Quentin when the lights went out. In the dark, she could hear the men shuffling around her and whispering—and the blood pounding in her ears.What seemed like a long time later the emergency lighting came on.The men were standing around her in a circle, arms linked, facing outward, protecting her. One of the most successful restorative justice projects in the United States was started in 1975 at Greenhaven State Prison in New York. Significantly, it was started not by scholars or social workers; it was initiated by prisoners themselves. Calling themselves the “Think Tank” (an intentional pun, I assume), they contacted a local Quaker group to help them find nonviolent alternatives to prison life and what it was doing to them.What emerged from that collaboration quickly spread to fifteen states and Canada and is now widely known as the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). Many similar projects sprang up, like the one for which the woman in the previous story was work- ing. What is AVP? Essentially, it is a set of workshops designed to provide a rehumanizing environment and a set of tools that allow the prisoners to unlearn aggression.The idea is simple, and slowly becoming more familiar.

Social learning theorists have demonstrated that aggression and violence are learned behaviors. They can, therefore, within biological and genetic limita- tions, be altered by utilizing social learning principles such as [role] modeling. . . . Research has demonstrated that utilizing positive responses which are incompati- ble with the act of violence (e.g., smiling; state of muscle relaxation; open, clear, direct communica- tion; active listening; the development of trust, etc.) renders the likelihood of aggression and/or violence much more improbable than do negative sanctions such as punishment, shame or guilt.

We might want to query those “biological and genetic limitations” (was Gandhi of another species?), but we can certainly accept, indeed applaud, the “basic premise of AVP, as explained at the beginning of every workshop . . . that human beings don’t have to be violent with each other, that human violence is not a given, even in prison.” Teaching nonviolent techniques, therefore, “can . . . greatly profit assaultive people.” For example, teaching them (or any of us) verbal skills reduces their need to react to a provocation with violence (as Winston Churchill once said, “It is better to jaw, jaw, jaw than to war, war, war”). More than this, being more articulate helps them preserve their integrity and self-esteem in embarrassing situations. “This sense of worth,” University of South Dakota’s Lila Rucker reminds us, “is tied to our sense of connectedness to other human beings.”

That premise is basic to the nonviolence worldview. We are not talking only about getting some assaultive people back in line with “normalcy,” but getting them over some of the spiritual isolation that has been accepted today as normal.When they can channel some of their considerable assertiveness into social competence, reorienting their drives for “power over” somebody to “power with” others, they are having the kind of growth experience that even us “nonassaultive” types could do with.

As Rucker says, it “can bring tingles of excitement if we allow ourselves to conjure up images of transforming correctional centers into healing centers.”  Frankly, I agree. I admit, I feel tingles of excitement about programs like AVP. Imagine if we could convert the entire criminal justice system from warehousing and punishment to restora- tion and social healing. And this happens, often. One of the best formulas is when progressive-minded reformers mix in certain indigenous practices with their own innovations, as we’ll touch upon in this book’s epilogue.

If we could somehow convert the entire judicial system to healing projects like AVP, it would help immensely, because those projects arise from right principles. Those we label “criminals” are in reality human beings with full human potential, but who are alienated. If crime is alienation (a kind of violence), it cannot be healed by vindictive punishment (another kind of violence).The real cure must come from something that is not a kind of violence and does not further alienate. Instead of telling offenders, “Hey, get outta here!,” as one colorful prison activist put it, restorative programs convey, “Hey, get back in here!” It is indeed mind-boggling to imagine what it would be like to convert our whole criminal justice machinery from punishing to healing.

Yet it would be dishonest, and finally ineffectual, to stop there. For think of how much damage has already been done by the time someone lands in prison. Ray Schonholtz, founder of San Francisco Community Boards, once told me, echoing the insight of Deborah Prothrow-Stith, “Our entire justice industry is after-the-fact, like our entire health industry. It’s all after-the-fact.” Even programs that heal instead of punishing are after-the-fact. I want to share with you a story from India about a villager who is out gathering firewood near his village and meets a holy man. The sage tells him about a forest of sandalwood trees deeper within the forest, and the villager is enchanted to find them and enjoy not only their purifying fragrance but some income. However, when he goes back to thank the holy man, the latter tells him, “Don’t stop there: if you go further on you find a copper mine.” The villager is thrilled, but not being Indian, I will make this delightfully long story short the holy man tells him, “Don’t stop there,” until he comes to a silver mine, a gold mine, and finally a diamond mine.

When we consider how many reform programs are after-the- fact, the sage would tell us, “Don’t stop there”; go deeper into the forest. Go back down the chain of causality; go deep, go into our value system and find the changes that will prevent crime, violence, and alienation from happening in the first place. The real challenge that comes from the “conversions” of people like Cabrera and Cardoso, like the innumerable high school troublemakers who become the best mediators, like the young offenders in Los Angeles or the thousands who have been through AVP and related programs, is not to heal the wounds of alienation once it has happened but to change the alienat- ing conditions of this world so people like them—like all of us—can live fulfilling lives. That is the only way to head off alienation of all types, those that lead to technically criminal behavior or to less for- mal sorrows.

Is there not a certain hypocrisy in doing anything else? After all, what is a “criminal”? Let me remind you of something we discovered about one of the most bruising conflicts of the twentieth century: “Why are they killing one another? . . . People here [in the Balkans] have always believed, and still believe, what they see and hear on tel- evision.” Well, frankly, “criminals” are people who believe what they see and hear on commercial television: that people are separate, that life is a fight, that happiness is outside us, that we are all doomed to compete against each other for limited material goods.


This is, of course, a more subliminal message than the unsubtle hate propaganda of state television from Belgrade. It is more subliminal —and therefore more effective. And it has not been going on for a mere five years, but at least forty (to speak of television in particular). In a culture that puts out messages like these from every radio and television tower all day long for over forty years—messages whose underlying philosophy is the very stuff of violence—it is hypocrisy to do nothing but punish those who succumb to that message in an ille- gal way. And it is folly to think that when you’ve caught those individ- uals you will gain security. “I will act the way I am treated, so help me God”; this is handwriting on the wall for all of us if we keep setting loose the demons of alienation and then looking for what Ruth Morris calls the “pseudo-security” of locking “criminals” out of sight. Real security has an altogether different face.

“The retributive justice system, with its established hierarchical rituals, robed judges, armed police and locked cells, offers quite literally a concrete substi- tute for the deeper security we have lost. More tragic still, we take this quick fix, and it appeases our inner hunger just enough that we fail to seek true security in the caring community, where we can be certain of love and support no matter what happens. We can never lock up the last offender . . . but we can create the kind of community where we know that, whatever the future holds, we will be surrounded by love and support.“


One woman's experience of AVP in Rwanda-Laura Chico's story

Posted by Dashing Dutch on February 8, 2013 at 11:30 PM Comments comments (0)

Laura Chico's Story: The Road To Gikongoro (reposted from )

Sitting in an AVP Workshop

By Laura Chico

Rwanda has been called the “land of a thousand hills” and winding through the countryside toward the southern-most province of Gikongoro, the expression seems like an understatement. Peering out the window of a crammed mini-bus (a 14 person van carrying 20 people), and bracing myself against the potholes as the bus jerked from side to side without the advantage of shock absorbers, I occasionally would try to count the hills that stretched off into the horizon in every direction. I never was able to count them all before we would round a bend and a whole new set of hills would come into view. Rwanda is such a small piece of land (the size of Maryland, I’ve been told) with nearly 8 million people living here, that I shouldn’t have been surprised that almost every piece of land is cultivated. The hills are terraced and quilted with small farms, and even the narrow strip of land along the side of the road has been claimed to grow small amounts of corn or beans or other crops I don’t yet know.

It is quite picturesque, Rwanda is, and the tranquil pastoral scene seems remote from the country’s bloody history. But I turned to my companion, Marie Paule - a poised and warm AVP facilitator who is working with me to write a report on AVP here in Rwanda - and said several times, “It is so beautiful here!” She would respond with a neutral nod, as if only to acknowledge my comment but not to agree. At first I thought this was modesty, but when I questioned her she said, “In French there is an expression that Rwanda has a thousand hills, and a thousand problems.” And I felt the sadness seep in. Even that which is so beautiful here is inextricably intertwined with pain, and the ground itself is soaked with blood.

When we arrived at the AVP workshop the next morning, the participants were already there, sitting quietly in a semi-circle of chairs waiting for the facilitators to begin. This early arrival is unusual here in Rwanda, where time is “elastic” and the unpredictability of transportation and the lack of reliable or affordable communication often leaves people waiting patiently for an hour for everyone to arrive for a meeting. We learned later that eighteen more people had come to the workshop though they hadn’t received an invitation, and had to be turned away! The others had claimed their seats, and weren’t moving.

In the workshop were 11 men, 10 women (3 of whom had no shoes) and two babies who played quietly at the edges of the circle and only demanded their mothers’ attention when they were hungry. These men and women were all judges for Gacaca - a traditional arbitration process (literally meaning “on the grass”;) that has been revived to handle the overwhelming numbers of genocide-related cases. Gacaca has the enormous task of seeking the truth of what happened during the genocide, documenting all information gathered, and processing lower level cases (those who looted, destroyed property, or were coerced into killing), and finally seeking that sticky balance between justice and reconciliation. It is no small task, and the judges have received trainings from various organizations to better prepare them for the challenges they face. AVP is among the trainings offered.

The AVP workshop began the way AVP begins - with an introduction from the facilitators, introductions from participants, establishing ground rules, an ice breaker that got people moving and laughing, and so on. I watched as the facilitators began to create a new culture within the room, with Adjective Names (I was Lucky Laura and Marie Paule was Peace Paule), and insisting that after someone speaks the next person says “Murakose, Lucky Laura. Nitkwa Peace Paule” (Thank you, Lucky Laura, I’m Peace Paule). There were some ripples of resistance to these new ways of interacting. In Rwanda, one’s name is very important, and to some the giving of Adjective Names has echoes of baptism with Christian names. To make matters more challenging, Adjective Names don’t work in Kinyarwanda, because of the complicated language structure, so usually the names are in English or French. In many workshops, at least one or two participants are wary of being called something new, but again and again the Rwandan facilitators would insist. I imagine that most Western facilitators would have given in quickly, figuring that the Adjective Name is simply not culturally appropriate. But the Rwandan facilitators here saw a deeper value in pushing people outside of their comfort zones, encouraging them to relate to one another across ethnic groups in a completely new way. And sure enough, I watched the magic of AVP unfold as the group began to gel and create its own safe space away from the pulls of everyday Rwandan life.

On that first morning, after participants discussed Active Listening they turned to a partner and told that person about a time when they had done something good. This seemed to me the perfect way to begin self-disclosure, since so much of life in Rwanda is wondering what bad things the person next to you has done or will do. So the partners talked and listened, and then a few shared their stories with the large group. There were stories of saving people’s lives, releasing prisoners of war from jail, taking in orphans, and so on. Stories that make the few things I could think of for myself seem small and modest. After the sharing had completed, several participants raised their hands. (Actually, they pointed their index fingers in the air, keeping their elbows close into their stomachs ­ but it is the US equivalent of raising one’s hand).

“How can we know that what these people say is true?” they wanted to know.

“I mean,” added one woman, “saving someone from a crocodile with just a stick! It’s hard to believe.”

The facilitators fielded the questions, but moved on quickly. I suppose they weren’t surprised by how almost impossible it is to trust one another in a country where your neighbor suddenly turned on you or your husband killed your children and tried to kill you. But for me, the question landed in my stomach like lead. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised either, but that question was never one that I encountered in my many workshops in the US, even with the toughest, most traumatized youth. Maybe it was because they were judges? I hopefully wondered this out loud to David Bucura, the AVP coordinator of Rwanda and one of the facilitators. Maybe it’s because now they are immersed in looking for the truth? David said, “You see, here in Rwanda, because of what happened, people do not trust each other.” So much for my hopeful theory.

Later on, the facilitators introduced an activity called “Serial News.” They asked five participants to volunteer to leave the room, and they chose one more to stay to listen to a short, detailed story. Then one by one, the volunteers came in, listened to the story from the person who came before, and then retold it to the person who followed. Even though I didn’t understand a word, I was laughing just as hard as everyone else, tears pricked into my eyes as the story changed and changed some more, to the point of becoming unrecognizable. This activity, I later learned, is one of the most valuable that AVP offers Gacaca judges. Many said that after seeing how stories can change in the retelling, they will no longer believe hearsay or rumors but they will be sure to go to the source.

“Before AVP, do many judges just believe what someone tells them, even if that person didn’t witness it?” I asked incredulously.

“Oh yes,” came the answer, from judges and Gacaca coordinators alike.

It was humbling to witness how essential AVP is to the process of reconciliation here, how deeply it touches the core.

In Rwanda it has struck me that people believe, deeply, in transformation - the capacity of the human soul to repent and be renewed. Perhaps they have to believe in this possibility in order to live next door to neighbors who might turn sour without warning, but whatever the source, the openness to transformation is profound. Throughout the workshop the facilitators connected the lessons not only to Gacaca and Rwanda’s violent history, but also to violence at home, against women and children. It was warming to see the two male facilitators speak out as strongly against rape and domestic violence as the women, and to promote the power of partnerships and joint decision-making. On the third day, the facilitators asked the participants how they would use the lessons they had learned so far. As we moved around the circle, we came to an elder man who gave this testimony:

“Before, I was a bad man. Even at home I was having conflict. Now I am talking softly and they at home are wondering what happened to me”

The man went on to say that he had been changed by AVP and that he would be kind to his wife and children now. The room erupted in applause for this transformation, and then testimonies continued. Not everyone, but at least several more inspired more spontaneous applause and warm congratulations on the inner change that had been affected. Later, I asked Bucura: “Why do people believe the transformation testimonies but not the earlier stories of when people had done good things?”

“Because they just volunteered this,” was the answer, “no one asked them to share this.”

That made sense to me - that people need the space to be real. But I also wondered, watching the previously stone-faced group laugh and smile and listen deeply, if maybe AVP had started to do the impossible: to plant a small seed of trust that might, with generations to nurture it, one day flower.

AVP Vancouver Under Construction!

Posted by Dashing Dutch on July 4, 2012 at 7:10 PM Comments comments (0)


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