The Three Paths of Transformation; Stories from the Alternatives to Violence Project

by Bobby Seigetsu Avstreih.

The Alternatives to Violence Project started in the mid- 70’s by men in New York’s Greenhaven Prison who sought assistance from the local Quaker Meeting in developing ways to lessen the violent prison atmosphere. When I joined in 1986 A.V.P. had both national and international branches. I joined to seek out understanding and controls for my own violent (non-physical) outbursts. It is because of my experiences with A.V.P. that I became a storyteller.

An A.V.P. workshop is usually 3 days of communication skills developed through story-sharing experiences in dyads or quartets, team-building exercises, problem solving exercises and playful, light-and-lively activities, all built around the theme of “Transforming Power.” From a storyteller’s perspective, the workshop is about developing a sense of narrative continuity in one’s life that extends within and beyond prison walls. To use traditional terms, the dead end of the locked cage transforms into an on-going quest for healing and the reintegration of a fragmented self in a fragmented society. In addition to the development of a peer support network and the acquisition of new problem-solving skills, one of the goals of the 22 hours of workshop is a perspective that life, even in prison, is an unfinished story, a work-in-progress. A sign I read in the group room in the hospital unit of Sing Sing Prison sums it all up for me: “I am what I do; not what I’ve done.”

At its core, AVP emphasizes transforming power as “persistent creative action.” It is not a religious concept, like A.A.’s “higher power,” but it does draw from the Quaker Meeting tradition of sitting in silence until one is moved/inspired to speak. It rejects planned cleverness and learned techniques. It is based on a combination of:

  1. An insistence on a self-preserving non-violent response to a perceived threat;
  2. An insistence on recognizing the essential humanity (and hidden legitimate needs) of the potential perpetrator.

The concept of transforming power is an active commitment both to an “unknown possibility” and, simultaneously, to clear, non-judgmental reality testing. Maybe it is simplest to say that it seeks a perspective that is neither victimization nor retaliation.

I need to emphasize, again, that this non-violent action is not a technique for political change, though its development was influenced by Tolstoy, Gandhi and King. Within the context of The Alternatives to Violence Project, transforming power is about restoration: maintaining one’s own humanity (safety, self-worth, integrity) while restoring (not labeling as “perpetrator,” “aggressor,” or “evil”) the humanity of “the other.”

For transforming power to happen, insistence (on nonviolent possibility) and commitment (to our common humanity) do most of the work, not our conscious minds. As in any quest, to paraphrase the mystic poet Kabir: “it is the intensity of the longing” that makes the journey possible.

Access to this power can be based on one’s religious faith or on one’s intellectual ideals. Either way, it calls upon an integrity of vision or an integrity of self that takes the Golden Rule seriously, without exceptions or “Yes, but….”

I theorize that it is in living this integration through experiences with self-threatening situations (and we know this could be in love as well as in war) that one becomes stronger, with a sense of greater wholeness. Through this experience of self-integrating wholeness one gains more strength to believe or commit to such non-violent action, and ’round it goes in a self-rein- forcing cycle. It is simply about acting when one is free from the mind-prison of winning or losing.

Over the years, A.V.P. members have collected stories about a special kind of non-violent action that protects both potential victim and potential perpetrator. Some stories are personal, some are about friends, and some from newspapers. To my mind’s ear these stories fall into three different transformation themes: humor, reframing and common humanity.

This article is aimed at providing glimpses at the three kinds of stories that A.V.P. members have collected to illuminate transforming power. All the stories are true. Most of the stories do not aim for healing or change in the aggressor, only in the safety of the situation. They exemplify the street basketball ethic of “No harm. No foul.” But, in protecting the aggressors from acting-out their own violence, and in responding and reaching out to the common humanity “hidden deep within each man” (to quote M. L. King, Jr.), the “good” is fed and not the “bad,” creating a potential space within where other changes can take place.

As storytellers, you may wonder how these stories are processed within the workshop, and the answer is they are not. Working with prison populations in heterogeneous groupings means that there is such a huge range of thought-styles, intellectual abilities and motivations that the “discussion” style of processing is not appropriate. There is also too much work to be done in building a peer-support network (the safety of eye-contact and letting down the “prison mask”), so that the exploration of these stories through a non-verbal (art, movement) media is not time-appropriate.

Remember, there is not even a consensus of why folks are in the group. Some are sincere about non-violence, some want personal safety, most just want a distraction from daily boredom, some are sociopaths wanting to manipulate the group or the system, and all want to use any credit the prison system gives them for attending self-help groups as a plus at their parole hearings. Nobody, including the group leaders, really has a clue what they want or will get out of each workshop.

That’s one of the secrets to A.V.P. success. There is no predetermined goal. Like a Quaker or Zen meditation retreat, the less discussion there is, the less “I, Me, Mine” opinionating and ego jousting occurs. Especially for the prison population, the less talking, the less chance the few with verbal facility (usually the most manipulative of the group) will dominate the learning-and-language- impaired majority. After all, these folks are in prison for a reason, and by limiting discussion we limit the role their dysfunctional processing can play in the group.

The stories about transforming power come about 1/3 of the way through the workshop. We use stories and personal experience because transforming power is not a thing, a religious belief, or even a philosophical concept. It cannot be defined or delineated, only evoked. Each person has to develop his or her own way to access it.

Only true stories are used, so they are not contaminated by cleverness or intellectual teaching. After all, prison is a place that is full of stories. Some are self-manipulating and some are designed to manipulate others. These folks are pros at smelling out the phoniness and inherent put-downs (“I’m better-off” or “I know more” or “I have a special gift for you” or “My way is the right way”) of most preaching and teaching stories.

The stories provide an emotional tone and thoughtful context, as all good stories do, and are the salt that flavors, that gives the essential depth to this type of experientially-based workshop.

Of special note here is that the small-group (dyad or quartet) personal storytelling is also NOT processed. The shared stories can lead to friendships or new acceptance of another, but the purpose of the story-sharing is for the much more basic, core human need of contact and community than for understanding or therapy. The meaning of the story-sharing is in the experience of being heard and being held by the attention of another. The particular content of the stories is truly irrelevant to the deeper work of such sacred communion. In this way, all stories, however small, unimaginative or haltingly told, are sacred stories because they reach out towards contact with: another, humanity, God… – you fill in the blank with your own life’s meaning.

Here are the skeletons of some of the stories. I wonder how they connect with traditional transformation tales, and also how they connect with the stories that come up in the healing work others are doing.

Humor

The use of humor is the clearest example of there being a “Third Way” between “Fight” and “Flight”.

One story concerns a curse yelled out in a prison yard. To ignore it or pretend it wasn’t heard is a lie and not a viable option. Fighting because of it is a no-win situation that just adds time and punishment to a very dangerous situation where enemies can be lethal. In this story, as the crowd begins to form around the antagonists, the hero waves his buddies off and laughingly yells to them so everyone can hear: “Man, something must be going around today. This sure must be my day. You know,that’s the third time I’ve been called”#*%&#*” today!”

The instigator, having no one to “push” against, receives the desired recognition but is safely defused without losing face, while the whole group becomes joined in sharing a moment of laughter instead of pain. No one is diminished. The more primary needs of recognition and sharing (being part of a group) are recognized and met. The instigating action (the yelled-out curse) is transformed from a superficial need for power to the essential needs for safety and belonging. The means change from a fight to a joke, while the essential (Eriksonian) human goals remain respected.

Intelligence in this area does not mean accumulating facts. It means knowing the other’s tendencies and needs (being able to see from their perspective and literally through their eyes). It is about being able to maintain awareness and read situations objectively. These are the same skills necessary for developing compassion, which is perhaps why so many great athletic competitors are able to embrace after their controlled conflicts. If only our society valued transferring these skills to “real” life.

Reframing

A young tourist couple place a valuable camera (in time-delay mode) on the edge of a trash can and run to have their picture taken together on the traffic island in the middle of New York City’s Times Square. As a thief slides forward and reaches out to grab the unguarded camera, a cab driver watching the scene unfold points his arm out the window at the potential thief and shouts “You must watch that camera and make sure that no one steals it. “ In an instant’ the thief has become transformed into the deputy sheriff, the shutter snaps, and the couple retrieve their camera and run off happily oblivious to their surroundings.

This type of reframing is at the heart of centuries of stories, from the Iroquois “Peace Maker” story, in which the arch-villain is deputized by the community to become the guardian of safety, to the final confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars. It is essentially a statement that recognizes the power of the other but refuses to see or respond to the other as an enemy.

Recognizing, Eliciting and Sharing a Common Humanity

Reaching out to another and making contact through basic human needs is what I call connecting through “common humanity.” It is commonly elicited through eye contact, but the way to gain access to that essential eye contact is often through even simpler human needs.

In a story that takes place in the mess hall of a men’s shelter’ the hostage asks the aggressor “Are you thirsty?” Eye contact is made as the cup of coffee is offered and taken.

In another story, a bystander walks up to a man holding another man at gunpoint and, completely ignoring the gun and the potential for violence, asks for a match for his cigarette. Only after “witness” and “perpetrator” have shared in this common human ritual does the “witness” look up into the man’s eyes and first asks, “Are you okay?” (recognizing first the common human emotion). Only after this shared “human moment” does the witness suggest’ “Maybe you better go home and think this over.”

No blame. No condemnation. No enemy. Like that popular story of the Indian grandfather and “the two wolves inside us,” we can also choose which wolf to feed in others.

Another form of this “common humanity” is popularly called “walking in another’s shoes.”

Threatened with a ticket for responding incorrectly to a policeman’s hand signals, the driver, instead of trying to explain or justify himself, responded, “It must be really frustrating having to tell people what to do all day. “You better believe it!” responded the cop, who, after unloading his frustrations with five minutes of bonding, let the driver go with a warning.

In another story, a driver, having been distracted during a turn, forces another car to run off the road. The enraged occupant, a big man jumps out ready to attack the driver yelling “Where the *%# did you learn to drive!?” The driver answered, “It looks like I never did learn. “ Startled, the angry man suddenly finds himself on the same side as the other driver. The threat of even verbal violence subsides’ and they work together to rectify the trouble.

A third variation on this shared-humanity theme is speaking from primary need.

A young teenage girl finds herself surrounded by a pack of aggressive boys who are menacing her prior to more intimate violence. Responding with neither useless attempts at fight nor flight’ she searches the faces around her, all the while repeating sincerely and honestly, but not as a victim: “I’m afraid. I don’t want to be hurt. Please help me. I could be your sister. I need your help. “Finally one boy surrenders to her eye contact and the spell of the gang is broken. He enters the circle and reaches out to her saying “I can’t go through with this,” and walks her towards her home.

To respond with violent action (fight or flight) makes it easier for the predator to justify violence. As with predators and prey in the animal kingdom, the predator more readily attacks what is moving towards or away from its threat. When the prey does not respond in the pre-programmed way, violence is less likely to occur.

A woman, caught alone in an elevator is told by the predator that he is going to take her to the roof to rape her. She responds that this is such an intimate act and she doesn’t even know his name. After eliciting his name, she introduces herself. Following her lead they continue talking. On the roof his story continues to pour out and our story ends with him crying on her lap while she, safe in her restored humanity, mourns the events of his life with him.

There you have it: “Three Paths to Transformation.” That’s all I know. Now it’s time for someone else, from “Coyote Steals Fire” to “Catch it and run!”

For more stories collected by Hal Brody, read: Transforming Power — Alternatives to Violence in Action, edited by Gini Floyd and Martin Hattersley, Omelet Publications, ISBN: 0-941758-03-6.


This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.

Bobby Seigetsu Avstreih has been playing blues and jazz for over 40 years, and shakuhachi Japanese flute in the ancient sui-zen tradition for 25 years. He has his BA in Ancient Greek and an MA in Early Childhood Education. For over 30 years he was a nursery school teacher, a special education therapist and an elementary school teacher. He became an A.V.P. facilitator in 1986, and also an Artist-in-Residence at Humes Japanese Stroll Garden in Mill Neck, NY. Professional storytelling began in Denver, CO in 1996, where he was affiliated with the museums, schools, libraries and universities for programs such as “Bridges of Understanding” and “Blues in the Schools”. He produced and directed shows that combined storytelling, poetry, music and dance.

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