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Nov 15th, 2007 - 17:25:18 


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Prisons and Peacemaking: An Interview with Helen Park

Alternatives to Violence Made Practical

By Lois Barton

Posted on Nov 13, 2007

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My friend Helen Park has been involved in Alternative to Violence Projects (AVP) for more than fifteen years. A recent conversation with her has given me insight into how this program operates. She has facilitated over twenty AVP workshops in state and federal prisons in Oregon well as in "outside" communities and she shared experiences from those occasions as well as background information about Alternatives to Violence Projects that may have wider applications.

Alternatives to Violence was organized in 1975 when an inmate group in Greenhill State Prison in New York requested nonviolence training from a local Quaker group in that community. The project was so successful that it has been growing ever since and is now world wide.

Helen described some of the work being done in Africa. "One of the most exciting programs is in the Great Lakes region. In Rwanda and Burundi where the 1994 genocide killed more than half a million people in three months, AVP has been spreading as a force for reconciliation and healing. They have developed trauma healing workshops based on AVP. There was no word in their language for trauma. The word they have created, when translated into English literally means taking oneís heart out and returning it upside down.

"These workshops are very frightening for many participants, because they are sitting in the same room with people they have known as enemies, They listen to each others stories, and they cry and they heal. AVP workshops are also being given to Gacaca judges, the traditional elders who arbitrate many tribal disputes, so that they will have the skill and understanding to continue the work of reconciliation in troubled region."

Helen went on to say, "In my experience AVP projects have been most successful in prison work. Prisoners bring direct experience with violence that is not usually found in community workshops. These are people whose lives have been seriously disrupted by violence, and they are ready to try something different. It is more than an academic exercise to them.

"The training takes place over a long weekend from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, a total of 18-20 hours. The time commitment is long, especially in "outside" communities where people are reluctant to give up a whole weekend, but the intensity of community building and interpersonal connection that develops in the workshops is an important factor. Helen feels that if the training took place a couple of hours a week over a ten week period, much of the content would be lost between sessions. The agenda includes exercises designed to create community, resolve conflict, improve communication skills and affirm the value of each person. The workshops are led by a team of three to six facilitators which, in prisons, includes two or three inmate facilitators.

Helen says, "The AVP curriculum in the most effective Iíve ever found in many years of work in education. It is based on a concept we call simply ĎTransforming Power,í the innate capacity of every individual to transform a potentially violent situation with a peaceful solution. Everyone has Transforming Power. We donít teach it. We help people recognize it and decide to use it. We also discuss tools and techniques, and spend a lot of time practicing and coaching each other. As the sense of community grows and trust develops, external barriers start to break down: between prisoners and outsiders, facilitators and participants, men and women, and among the prisoners themselves. Another wonderful aspect of the workshops is the incredible ethnic and religious diversity - the prisons are the most multicultural settings in Oregon. Unfortunately, most of the time prisoners remain fairly segregated from each other. AVP gives them a safe place to learn about each other and practice nonviolence together."

Each participant is given a laminated card called "Guide to Transforming Power." The following points are listed:

1. Seek to resolve conflict by reaching common ground.

2. Reach for that something good in others

3. Listen before making judgments.

4. Base your position on truth.

5. Be ready to revise your position if it is wrong.

6. Expect to experience a great inward power.

7. Risk being creative rather than violent.

8. Use surprise and humor.

9. Learn to trust your inner sense of when to act.

10. Be willing to suffer for what is important

11. Be patient and persistent

12. Build community based on honesty, respect and caring.

Helen admitted that working with Alternatives to Violence has been a soul searching process for her. "Iíve learned a lot about myself. In the workshops, the separation between teacher and learner becomes fairly transparent. Once I was participating in a role-playing where we were acting out a scenario in which we were supposed to be a prison staff cook and an inmate assistant. The assistant is found in front of a huge pot of spaghetti spilled on the floor and the cook is to act outraged. My partner in this exercise was a tall, well-muscled man. I was the helper, and he was the cook. He began his bombastic scolding, with all kinds of threats and verbal abuse. I stood up as tall as I could, honestly apologizing for my part in the situation and said I would clean up the mess. That is all I said, no excuses or explanations but I continued to stand there calmly listening. He tried to keep up the tirade, but in a minute or so, he began to laugh instead and when the facilitator wanted to know what was happening he said, ĎIt doesnít work. You canít be intimidating to someone who isnít intimidated.í Thatís one of the lessons I learned that day. We both learned it, two teachers, two learners. You have twenty people doing exercises like this all weekend and it is very powerful. It actually is a transformation experience.

"There is lots of creativity, humor, play and laughing. These workshops are fun! The inmates call the weekend ĎA vacation from incarceration.í We often hear them say ĎI havenít laughed so hard in years. One popular game we play is Mrs. Mumbly, in which you have to cover your teeth with your lips and ask the person sitting next to you. ĎIím looking for Mrs. Mumbly. Have you seen her?í The person next in the circle line says. ĎNo, I havenít seem Mrs. Mumbly, but Iíll ask my neighbor.í The supposed goal is not to laugh, but the real goal is to get everyone laughing and this one always works. I also try to get them to sing, plowing right through the embarrassment and shyness that many of them have. I pick lively tunes, folk songs, hymns and rock and roll. They usually get into the songs and it is both meaningful and fun.

"In the Federal Correctional Institute here in Oregon there are no women prisoners. Some workshops have been done in the state prison system, but we havenít had any in womenís prisons yet. We hope to expand the program to include this in the coming year. For female facilitators and participants, going into a menís prison is a very complex issue. It is important to be sensitive to the sexual dynamics at work.The workshops are very safe, but these men are in a deprived situation and we have no wish to make their lives any more difficult. We are concerned not to be seductive, We dress conservatively and watch the kind of stories we tell. It is useful for these men to be around a woman that is like a sister or a mom or a friend, that is not sexual; it gives them an opportunity to converse and relate to a woman, and hear a womanís perspective. When I am there I want to have at least one other female facilitator or participant with me, because there is just this little yin surrounded by so much yang and believe me, they have so much of it!

"We have to go in humble. There is so much about their lives that we know nothing about. This is a complex culture where violent responses are expected in their daily lives... Anything else can signal weaknes, which can be dangerous, or even deadly. It is not an easy thing for them to give up this knee-jerk response to pound anyone whom they think has insulted them. We canít be judgmental. We are there to listen and learn, but also to show them the possibility, the real practical possibility of nonviolence, wherever they are. It is important to know that Transforming Power works, and that nonviolence works better than violence.

"Near the end of the last workshop I was in, we asked what each person had learned. One of the prisoners said, ĎIíve learned that it is okay to admit that you are afraid.í There were affirming nods around the circle. That was a huge advance for these guys. We just ask them to think about it and try it, starting with little ways at first - saying good morning to a guy in the yard, or practicing random acts of kindness to see if they can choose a way to transform potential violence into a situation where love can operate. By the time these men really get it, practice the ideas in their lives, share their stories with others and realize the value of nonviolence, they become wise men. Sitting in their circle, I sometimes feel like I am sitting among sages.

"As we go through the steps people will evaluate what happens to them, particularly in their relationships. With a father or a mother, a spouse, their children - they will see the relationship in an entirely different way. Once a man, a pretty tough guy, too, was walking back and forth, back and forth and talking about when his father died and what he wished heíd said. Tears were on his face. Does that sound like a normal emotional response? Of course! But in a prison setting, it is a very big deal. It is very unusual to see a man cry, but a community of trust had been built and he could let himself be that vulnerable. People get into emotional depths sometimes. We have to remind them that we are not professional therapists but we are there to help them get in touch with inner power, and that sometimes means removing the blocks that are in the way.

"Often they have to question deeply held beliefs about themselves and their personal identity. I remember clearly one doing time for murder. He had caught the guy raping his 11 year-old niece, shot and killed him. He firmly believed it was the right thing to do, and was willing to spend his life in prison for it. During the workshop he had to rethink that position. If he is faced with a similar situation in the future he may make different choice."

There are three levels of AVP workshops - Basic, Advanced and Training for facilitators. Facilitators attend all three, and then are encouraged to join a team and facilitate a workshop. Workshops are 18-20 hours long and are generally held on weekends. Prisoners donít pay for the training, but in outside communities there is a sliding scale fee to keep the organization afloat, generally less that $50 per person. Everyone who works in AVP is a volunteer. There are no paid facilitators. AVP is a secular non-profit organization that welcomes all people. Anyone who wants to learn more can check out the website Alternatives to Violence Project and to read about the work in Africa go to the website Friends Peace

In prisons, in outside communities, in far-off lands that have experienced war and strife, Alternative to Violence Projects quietly works as a force for peace. It has brought light to the darkness, insights and forgiveness where there had been suspicion and anger. This work, by people like my friend Helen Park, makes a very positive contribution to every culture where it has found a place.

Copyright ©2007 by Lois Barton

Helen Park, interviewed by Lois Barton, is the primary founder of Wellsprings Friends School in Eugene, Oregon and after serving as head for many exciting years establishing the new school, is now a writer working on her third novel.

Writer and historian
Lois Barton

Lois Barton is an 88 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.

Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life-long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton, including:

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Visit to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Frank and the Rivers

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: My Friend Peg and the Peaceful Good Fight

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: These Stones Are Speaking

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Lucy McIver, Peace Pole Artist

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Telephones, Then and Now

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Remembering Bovine Tuberculosis

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: What Is a Quilt?

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Quakers in the British Virgin Islands

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Manta Rays, and Dandelions, A Poem, also introducing Carolann Krohn

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Those Husky Macadamia Nuts

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Fender's Blue, a Nine Day Wonder

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Frannie and the Arrow

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Bhavia's Cambodia

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of the Smoking Chimney

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of Big Oak Stables

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Fishy Story

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Different Peace

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Hal and the Mountain

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Rogue River Adventure

Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Obituary for a Country Cat

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Cortesia Sanctuary

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Tree and Me and Lady Slippers

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Cranberries

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Butterflies and Community Development

and The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Last Gift.

See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The MidwifeĖThe midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

© Copyright 2000-2006 by West By

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