AVP: The All-Volunteer Program
In an LRT car, I step in front of a man and tell him, “You are in my seat!”
He stares out the window, as if he didn’t hear me.
I raise my voice. “Are you deaf?” My heart races. My muscles clench. I’m ready for a fight. Still, no response.
Now I’m really mad. I yell, “YOU ARE IN MY SEAT!”
It wasn’t really me doing that. That was Dangerous G, a character the AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project) facilitators invited me to be during a role playing exercise. We weren’t on the LRT – we were in the program room at Edmonton Institution, The Max. It was March of 2003. I signed up for the workshop because I was coordinating a prison visitation program (M2W2), and I thought AVP would be a way for me to help prisoners be less violent.
Dangerous G shocked the heck out of me. Afterwards, everybody said they were glad I didn’t have a knife or a gun or there would’ve been bloodshed. I told the group how it felt to bully another guy – in fact, a man serving a life sentence for murder – just because I wanted his seat. To me, he was just a pile of clothes, and I was thrilled at the prospect of pushing him around. The seven prisoners in the workshop all agreed: “You’d fit right in here.” They said the feelings I described were the same as theirs when they committed violent crimes. I always thought of myself a nonviolent pacifist. I was shocked to learn that Dangerous G had been living inside me all my life.
AVP came to Canada in 1989, but it started in New York in 1975 and now operates in over 50 countries. AVP principles are very different from how the world works. One is that everything about AVP is voluntary. The facilitators give up entire weekends at a time to do workshops, and nobody gets paid. When prisoners hear we’re doing this only because we love the work, we immediately have their attention.
Another principle is that participants learn by doing, not just by listening to us. The last one I’ll mention is we all learn better when we’re having fun. One part of that involves picking and using adjective names: mine is Gluten-Free Gary. In September I attended the AVP-Canada annual general meeting near Olds. I met people from Halifax, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Victoria who have run AVP workshops for over 20 years. We told each other why we keep volunteering to do AVP. “AVP changes lives for the better,” someone said, and we all agreed. Many of those lives are prisoners’ and many are ordinary people in the community. All of us said we get way more out of doing AVP than we give to it.
As for me, I’ve facilitated two dozen workshops, and I’ve learned more at every one. I often think about Dangerous G and who I could have been – or could still become – if Dangerous G ever got loose.
See “www.avpinternational.org”:http://www.avpinternational.org for more information about AVP.