Monday, December 13, 2010

Insights from the prison

I spent the last weekend in a prison. I mean a real prison, surrounded by barbed wires and blue-clad inmates. And no, luckily I was not incarcerated- I was facilitating another Alternatives to Violence workshop in a state prison. It was special for me, as it was my first Advanced level workshop in a long time. And it was in Spanish, my mother tongue: in this prison, as in many others in California, there are many Hispanics. And in these dire budgetary times, where many programs are being cut, Hispanics seem to be especially affected. AVP as a volunteer organization does not cost money to the state- so often it is the only program still running in certain prisons. 
I got involved with AVP 5 years ago- it immediately gave me skills to handle conflicts and communication issues, and after I completed my training I started facilitating. Besides my work as en educator, I consider AVP my other important contribution to society, both directly and indirectly. I do AVP both in the community and in prisons. It has been shown that inmates that have gone through the program show decreased recidivism. Indirectly, I know that I am a better teacher and person thanks to this program.
How so? It is not a coincidence that many AVP facilitators are also educators. The goal is the same: giving our students the tools to solve problems, not solving the problems for them. We do it in a framework of community and trust: Any AVP workshop start with activities meant to encourage community building and cooperation. Once trust is established, we do exercises and process them afterward. Between exercises we have activities for sharing and also "Light and Livelies," games meant to lighten the mood and play. 
This particular workshop was memorable because our facilitator team (2 outsiders and 3 insiders) decided to give a try to an exercise meant to model interactions based on inequality. The group is divided in 2, where one half can only speak the to other by asking permission first and addressing them in a formal way. This group wears masks, in contrast to the unmasked, who can address anybody without permission and in an informal way. Halfway through the exercise the roles are reversed, so everybody can experiment being "superior" and "inferior." This exercise usually stirs powerful emotions (especially in the prison context), and a deep analysis (debriefing) is essential for it to be valuable.
As the facilitator team plowed its way through available documentation and advices before committing to the exercise, I was struck by the similarity of the debriefing process to the strategies used to foster critical thinking in class. It should start from description and facts, then move to the meaning and significance of those facts (and in this case, the emotions and feelings associated to it), to finally arrive to the application of what was learned. It was stressed not to fall in the lecturing mode, but to combine listening to the group and asking good questions to lead them to actively analyze the exercise and formulate their own conclusions.
We finally decided to go for it. None of the facilitators had done that exercise before, and we were a bit nervous, but as a team we felt that we would "wing it" based on the general guidelines and trust in our group.
It was great. After a hesitant beginning, participants fell in their roles, and displayed different approaches of behavior in those roles. Emotions ran high but not critical and after the exercise ended, during the debriefing, we had the incredible experience of seeing the participants share, think, go deeper and deeper in their analysis, and come to conclusions on their own, helped by nudges of  questions. 
I am back in real life today, preparing finals and planning classes. But I am still in the afterglow of the weekend's experience. I have had those moments in class before, and I know I can do it again. Those are the moments we live for. 

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