Many Australian Friends are involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), and many more have heard the name, but may wonder how AVP is linked with Australian Quakers.
The Australian website describes AVP as a program of experiential workshops, helping people build more fulfilling and non-violent lives. The workshops are offered in prisons, schools and the community, and draw participants from all religions, cultures, races and walks of life. They explore how we personally respond to other people and invite us to respond in new ways. All AVP workshops are based on our power to transform, on respecting ourselves and caring for others, on expecting the best, on thinking before reacting and seeking a nonviolent way. They are not about dealing with or mediating other people’s conflicts.
‘I savour the essence of the Quaker way within AVP,’ Judith Pembleton reflects. ‘AVP challenges me to live my beliefs in a more immediate way — the ‘power to transform’ at the heart of AVP is the Inner Voice we Quakers turn toward, and all the other elements as the expression of our belief in God as within each person, ourselves as well as others.’
This Quaker connection is understandable, given that AVP was developed by Quakers in New York to teach nonviolence principles. Again, from the national AVP website: ‘The Alternatives to Violence Project began in 1975 with a group of inmates, the Think Tank, in a New York prison who were working with youth gangs and young offenders. They asked some visiting Society of Friends (Quakers) to help develop workshops exploring nonviolent relationships.
‘The process they used grew out of the nonviolence principles and experiential learning methods developed to train marshals in how to keep peace marches and demonstrations nonviolent during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam Moratorium campaigns. They also drew on the experience of the Children’s Creative Response to Conflict (CCRC) program which was using experiential learning processes for teaching nonviolent conflict resolution to primary school students.
‘Within a few years, demand grew for workshops in community groups not related to prisons. By 1987, AVP was running 150 workshops a year in New York and New Jersey. In 1989/90, workshops were started in Britain and Croatia, AVP is now active in more than 35 countries, including Nigeria and now Rwanda.’
In 1991, the AVP program was brought to Australia when Stephen Angell from New York led the first Australian facilitator team in Queensland. He travelled to Brisbane and Sydney in both 1991 and 1992. Kathy Damm was a caretaker of the Kelvin Grove Meeting House in Brisbane, and hosted Stephen Angell on his first visit: ‘I was not going to join AVP because I was very active with Amnesty at the time, but the first workshop had few participants and I went out of consideration for our guest. Looking back, I think Stephen was wonderful. He took a complete novice team into a prison, five of us, and we ran that first workshop! It was fun being part of that first team. We were so enthusiastic!’
It was with great sadness that Australians working in AVP heard that Stephen Angell had died in May this year, just two weeks before a planned celebration of his life in AVP. On May 21, he was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award certificate from the International AVP community for ‘for leading and inspiring the spread of peace in our world by seeding and nurturing AVP programs across the globe.’
In a letter of thanks to Stephen Angell prepared for this celebration, Katherine Smith, New South Wales Regional Meeting, describes the development of AVP in Australia, and her particular focus on AVP in schools and colleges: ‘The ripples you started in 1991 have spread wider than anyone could have envisaged in the first few years. AVP has reached the eight state and territories in Australia. Australian AVP facilitators have taken AVP and AVP spin-off programs to, and influenced people in, many of the countries in the Asia West Pacific Region … Many people’s lives have benefited and continue to benefit in many settings in prisons, in communities, in schools and youth groups, in Indigenous communities in the cities and rural areas, interfaith groups, amongst newly arrived refugees and in developing countries in this area of the world.
‘AVP and nonviolence came from your centre. You exuded acceptance and love. While others present conflict resolution techniques as armour on the outside of us, you spoke from a heart of peace, at peace. Thus you called us to being peace-able (able to make peace). You called ‘that of God’ out of us all rather than adding techniques. You greatly influenced our work from that time on. We realised that we need to look to our centre and respond from there. Just offering tools couldn’t change our knee-jerk position when the going gets tough … Thank you Stephen for your blessing and support for the fledgling group that developed AVP-inspired programs and took them into schools and colleges.’
Bev Polzin, Victoria Regional Meeting, writing for the Australian Friend Online this year, continues: ‘For the first time last year an AVP Australia Network was established to offer workshop facilitators via a monthly Skype conversation an opportunity to discuss experiences: to share wisdom …; to learn from each other; and to hear from, and encourage, each other.
‘Recently, the sharing of one group’s experience of a workshop in a remote community opened up a very helpful discussion on the complexities and richness of taking AVP to new places, and the possible compromises which might sometimes be called for in order to meet the remote community’s needs.
‘Three new programs typify AVP’s approach for me. One is the recent workshops in Darwin organised by the Melaleuca Refugee Centre Torture and Trauma Survivors Service. It is designed as part of their “Peace Leadership Program” and aims to identify community leaders with enough English to begin training, so that they can facilitate workshop for their communities in their own languages. It reinforced for the Australian facilitators how important it is to be sensitive to those from different areas, especially Africa, with different histories and experiences, especially in relation to gender.
‘Another initiative this year is a series of workshops for Muslim women. Two Muslim women, who had previously joined in community workshops and become facilitators, wanted other Muslim women to have the same experience, but knew that most would be too shy to do what they had done. In addition to the usual aims of AVP, these ‘Muslim women only’ workshops help women develop sufficient self esteem and assertiveness to be able to take part in community groups with confidence. Following these workshops, several other women want to become facilitators to be able to take AVP into their schools.
‘And finally, AVP in Western Australia is conducting more workshops amongst Aboriginal people using trained Aboriginal facilitators. Some of the groups have been from the Kimberley area, some from TAFE pre-employment courses near Perth and one with Aboriginal service providers. ‘Each group of participants is very different,’ writes Bev,’ but because facilitators are trained to help people discover things for themselves, the program adapts to the group, not the other way around.’
For further information about AVP, visit the website, www.avp.org.au