One Step Closer to Peace with AVP
Ed Stabler was the first to present at the “Alternatives to Violence Project” (AVP) introductory meeting on Thursday, March 9th. The sun had already set on a brisk, snowless evening, stuck between winter and spring. The door opened occasionally for late-comers as Syracuse Professor Shiu Kai Chin introduced Stabler, an ESF Professor Emeritus and a non-violence veteran. In 1975, Stabler advocated for Native Americans and women in prison and attended the first AVP workshops in Auburn Prison. From that point on, he was immersed in the work of the international AVP movement, now active in 35 states and 40 nations around the world. AVP teaches conflict management and provides people with tools for community peace through intensive workshop sessions. A movement built on the values of affirmation, unconditional respect, cooperation, and trust, AVP and its first proponents drew inspiration from the Civil Rights legends of the 60’s and 70’s.
“In the 1960’s the news was filled with stories of the Freedom Riders and restaurant sit-ins,” said Ed, a white man, “I saw people who looked like me behaving in ways that made me weep with shame.”
The Freedom Riders rode buses across the American South, insisting on equal treatment wherever they went. Ed compared their courage to that of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Shirley Chisolm. Like most contemporary social justice work, AVP was imbued with the non-violent methods of these trailblazers.
“The Freedom Riders knew they would be knocked down, spit on, jeered, hated, jailed, and beaten. They needed training. They needed to know in their bones, that responding to hate with hate could not work.”
The same training that helped the Freedom Riders could be used for others locked in cycles of violence. In schools, troubled communities, broken homes, and among gangs, the same teachings of non-violence might change lives forever. AVP, from its beginnings, offered itself as an organization to teach and nurture these skills.
AVP did not begin in communities, however, but within the concrete walls of prison. Its founding members, soon called the “Think Tank,” were prisoners who witnessed the Attica Prison Riots of the 1970’s. A thousand inmates had seized control of the prison grounds and demanded better living conditions and basic political rights. Although some demands were negotiated, New York State Police stormed the prison by force and ended the protest and hostage situation. The riots ended with 43 people dead, 33 of whom were prisoners.
“[The prisoners] carried out the cold-blood killings they had threatened from the outset,” declared Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The Coroner, however, attributed only one death directly to the actions of the prisoners. It was an atmosphere of conflict, face-saving, and chaos, with little effort toward amelioration.
The “Think Tank” prisoners were sobered by the senseless violence. Worse to them, however, were the missed opportunities to diffuse the riots peacefully. As they looked around, they recognized the conditions which gave rise to the riots in the first place. Poor prison conditions were partly responsible. But, direr was the lack of adequate rehabilitation offered to prisoners. The “Think Tank” noticed youth enter their prison for minor offenses, only to return time and time again for increasingly severe crimes. It was as if the Attica prison gates were a revolving door. It was Mass Criminalization.
The “Think Tank” teamed-up with Quaker activists and developed their first workshops together. Success was garnered as the program spread throughout the New York State Prison System. Eventually, AVP extended beyond the barbed wire and into schools, communities, and youth centers.
Today, just as in the 1970s, AVP believes that everyone has an untapped power to positively transform themselves within and, then, the world around them. The Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), in conjunction with the National Action Network, will bring AVP workshops to Syracuse. A follow-up meeting on April 13th will further this process along, but the meeting on March 9th was integral to understand our roles together as Syracuse activists. ACTS needs involvement from its Member Organizations and all others to host these workshops widely and successfully. The workshops have no leaders, just facilitators, and all participants are equal in voice. Activities, discussions, and practical lessons on conflict management, non-violence, and empathy are fundamental components in the official AVP certification one receives upon conclusion of the session. One may ask though, what do I stand to gain from an AVP workshop? The answer: a life changed irrevocably for the better.
In attendance on the evening of March 9th was Timothy Kirkland Sr., an important member of the Community Empowerment Organization (CEO). Kirkland is a father of two grown boys, the recipient of a degree in Business Communication, and a man who spent almost half of his life in and out of prison. He believes “everyone has some good and bad in them; one normally dominates the other.”
There is a Cherokee folk story that says everyone has two wolves inside of them. One is angry, envious, greedy, arrogant, insecure, and frustrated. The other is a wolf of love, peace, joy, graciousness, humility, wisdom, and self-confidence. The legend goes that a young man asked his grandfather which wolf will win in the end. To that, the grandfather looked heavily at the man and said, “Whichever you decide to feed.”
Kirkland had fed the bad wolf for 19 years, and let it dominate its way into prison time after time. One day, however, while still in prison, he decided to attend an AVP workshop. The good wolf in him learned to solve conflict and communicate positively. The workshops, which he found invaluable both in and out of prison, transformed his life remarkably. He held jobs down and worked his way out of the hole he had found himself in. His sons, just like the Cherokee legend, seem to reflect opposite sides of the same coin. One attended college for Broadcasting and Communication, the other served eight years for armed robbery. He loves them both dearly, and thinks one son shares his pain and struggles through prison, while the other proudly engages his dreams and aspirations. In the end, he hopes to be a positive role model for both, to feed the good in them until it prevails. More importantly, he believes the same about Syracuse. AVP represents an opportunity to steer youth away from violence and change their lives for the better, before they make the same mistakes he did.
A second AVP “success story” present on March 9th was Charles Rivers, now the Program Director at Peace, Inc., the Southside Family Resource Center. Like Kirkland, he once spent his days in prison but found salvation through AVP. Ed Stabler had met Rivers while the latter was incarcerated. After Rivers was released in 2012, he met with Stabler again over lunch and his life course altered irrevocably away from the prison in Auburn. He was happy to tell us that he was pursuing his Master degree, and wanted other Syracusans to find the path he eventually did. He testified to AVP’s success, and finally, dedicated his support to an AVP program in cooperation with ACTS, which he said could supplement services at Peace, Inc. as well.
The challenges of the Syracuse community are great. Another guest at the meeting, Emmanuel Snipes, runs a self-funded construction business. His employees are at-risk individuals and those who may not get hired elsewhere. He criticized the environment of intolerance that prevented his company from being hired for many opportunities. Some of the unwilling patrons were churches, even. But, he admitted that AVP would help his employees deal better with conflict and professional matters. Jenny Dombroske, from the Onondaga County Child and Family Services, imagined that AVP would provide her colleagues with better tactics to work with clients. On both sides of the spectrum, AVP workshops would build a bridge of understanding. The concentrated poverty, the community violence that plagues Syracuse, and the Mass Criminalization that permeates all issues must end. We believe we can tackle these challenges together. ACTS, and all those who believe in compassion and solidarity, are encouraged to participate in the AVP efforts we will host. April 13th is the date to begin a peaceful Syracuse, and we want to see you write that story together with us.