Katherine and Malcolm Smith, New South Wales Regional Meeting

katherinesmith20161028malcolmsmith20161028Over the years a relatively small number of Quakers have influenced many people in the areas of peace and social justice. One of the success stories of Quaker influence is the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). Most Australian Quakers are familiar with the AVP story that was so eloquently detailed by Sally Herzfeld in the 2015 Backhouse Lecture This we can do: Quaker faith in action through the Alternatives to Violence Project.[1]

The partnership between AVP and Quakers includes:

  • The involvement of Quakers from New York Meeting in the foundation and growth of the first AVP groups which conducted AVP nonviolence workshops in New York State prisons. The principles and practices of AVP grew from Quaker principles and practices.
  • The involvement of a number of Quakers worldwide as AVP facilitators and participants in workshops, and as organisers of workshops and in the AVP organisation.
  • The many Quaker groups around the world that have partnered with local AVP groups and provided financial and other support to both start and maintain local AVP groups, with such support as the provision of venues and the promotion of workshops.

AVP Australia, part of the international network of autonomous AVP groups, acknowledges with gratitude the invaluable support we have received from Quakers in Australia over the last 25 years.

Violence can occur at many levels – the personal level, the inter-personal level (relationships), and systemic level (institutional, national, international and environmental). Violence and harm can take many forms from physical through verbal to emotional, psychological and spiritual. AVP addresses all forms of violence at the level of personal and interpersonal violence. This is the “entry” or foundational level of nonviolence and peace making.

Childhood and later trauma and experiences dramatically impact the size, development and structure of the brain. The brain develops in response to these experiences. The impact of trauma is often greater for children than for adults as adults have a wider life experience and more resources.

John Shulford, a psychologist and a facilitator, introduced AVP into Delaware prisons in 1990.  He writes:

The most significant impact of trauma is the shattering of the belief that the world is safe and that important people in the child’s life can be depended upon for protection and/or safety. The result is the child will protect itself by withdrawing and, at least emotionally, disconnect from others, which leads to the child disconnecting from him/herself.

Drawing on the ideas of Dr James Gilligan[2] , Shulford says:

These unhealed traumas resulted in the development of coping behaviours that were appropriate for survival as a child, but have since become destructive and have led to addiction, mental health problems and/or criminal behaviour. The psychological impact of this is disconnection from the outside world for protection which leads to a disconnection from oneself and one’s emotions. The shame, lack of empathy and lack of effective interpersonal skills that result are a leading cause of violent behaviour.

Responding to violent behaviour only by retribution, punishment and shaming is just treating the symptom and often aggravating the underlying condition. The AVP model directly counteracts this condition of disconnection, alienation and feelings of hopelessness.

AVP workshops are fun, engaging, connecting and transformational. An AVP workshop exposes participants to new experiences or reinforcement of past experiences of connection, safety, self-esteem, social confidence and social skills. AVP helps people to connect with themselves and with others, and gives them experiences and skills that can transform their attitudes and expectations of themselves.

Shulford expresses it thus:

AVP improves attitude skills (self-awareness, empathy and personal responsibility) and interpersonal skills. Each workshop begins by creating an atmosphere of affirmation, respect and caring, which build trust, intrapersonal and interpersonal connection and a community of safety. Then communication and cooperation skills are taught and that fosters hope and personal responsibility, which leads to personal and group transformation. When participants feel truly safe (physically and psychologically), which for some may be the first time in their lives and certainly the first time in prison, they lower their barriers and then are open to new ideas and to clearly see who they truly are and not who they have had to be due to circumstances or expectations of others. This reduces shame, increases empathy and when added to improved interpersonal skills, addresses the three causes of violent behavior (Gilligan). AVP is based on the premise that laws and structure make people conform, but connection and community empower people to transform.

Research has shown that experiencing an AVP workshop can result in the reduction of violent attitudes, incidents of violence, and the trait of anger; the improvement of attitudes, behaviour and interpersonal skills; and the reduction of prison recidivism.

AVP directly accesses the subconscious parts of the brain which impacts attitudes, habits and unhealed trauma. Being experiential in design AVP methodology can be easily adapted and replicated to suit any community and any setting around the world. People from a community can be trained to facilitate their peers and will have a high degree of credibility in their community. AVP style workshops require few resources and are relatively easy and inexpensive to set up and run.


The AVP Mandala

Over the years many experienced AVP facilitators have taken their skills using AVP methodology to educational and training settings outside AVP. One such program is “Transforming Conflict”, a TAFE national module that was included in many TAFE courses taught across Australia. AVP USA is currently working with a number of AVP-informed spin-offs such as “Recovery to Practice” a mental health recovery training program, to develop a formal association with AVP.

AVP continues to grow and develop. Internationally AVP is a network of non-profit, secular, autonomous national and local groups that connect with a grassroots structure, so that the people who conduct local workshops run their own organisation within the informal AVP network.

Support is being expanded for newly starting groups and for the sustainability of older AVP groups. Manuals are being revised to include the wisdom and experience of AVP facilitators from around the world. Research is being conducted about how AVP works to reduce violence, how to improve the effectiveness of the workshops and the impact of AVP on the workshop participants and their communities. One of the recent developments is the Education Best Practice Team’s development of the Core Values of AVP. This draft list of AVP core values is currently being reviewed by AVP facilitators around the world.

How have the fundamental principles and practices of AVP grown from Quaker principles and practice? You be the judge.

 Some of the core values that are being explored by AVP facilitators are:

Good Within Everyone: The belief that there is something of value in all of us and we seek to affirm and connect with that capacity for good.

Transforming Power: We are guided by our optimism that when we are open to Transforming Power, every situation has the potential to have a hopeful, positive outcome.

Community: Building, rebuilding and maintaining a sense of belonging, connectedness and safety with others. Respecting and caring for oneself while respecting and being present for others.

Consensus: Trusting that a level playing field exists where all are part of the process to find a way forward that everyone can accept, work with, and apply.

Personal Nonviolence: Taking personal responsibility for not harming oneself or others. When we recognise there are alternatives, violence is no longer an answer to conflict.

Shared power and leadership: Acceptance that in AVP we are all teachers and all learners. We share responsibility and draw on the strengths and wisdom of each group member. We work as a team.

Journey of Personal Exploration: The understanding that each person’s path is different. We each empower our own path and are open to change.

Safety: Creating an environment that is conducive to collaboration, personal growth and taking risks to change ourselves.

Mutual Respect: Building strength and confidence in oneself and honouring dignity and connection with others.


[1] http://www.quakers.org.au/mpage/29

[2] Gilligan, J 2001. Preventing violence. Thames and Hudson, New York.

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