The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution

Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) logoThis is the text of a peer-reviewed paper that Gener Lapina (from AVP and Family Support Newcastle) and I had published as part of the 2018 Family and Relationship Services Association conference. The citation with a link to the published version is:

Stuart, G. & Lapina, G. (2018) The Alternatives to Violence Project: Reflections on a strengths-based approach to nonviolent relationships and conflict resolution. FRSA Conference e-Journal (3), 62-69. Available from: https://frsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/FRSA-conference-ejournal-2018.pdf

Strengths-based practice is widely accepted as an important foundation for social work, family work and community work in a range of settings (Hunter, Lanza, Lawlor, Dyson & Gordon, 2016; Oliver & Charles, 2016; Saleebey, 2013). There are, however, a number of challenges or dilemmas involved when adopting a strengths-based approach in certain contexts where there are significant risks associated with people’s safety, such as working with perpetrators of domestic or family violence and in child protection.

In this paper we explore some of the dilemmas involved in offering Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops to parents and partners. We provide a brief overview of AVP, discuss some characteristics of strengths-based group work and then consider five dilemmas we’ve faced in offering the program.

AVP Background

AVP is a community-led initiative that began in the 1970s in New York’s Greenhaven Prison. The program was developed following concern expressed by senior inmates about the cycle of reoffending amongst younger inmates, and a desire to help their fellow inmates develop skills in navigating conflict, without resorting to violence. After much success in Greenhaven, AVP was soon introduced to other prisons and then expanded to other countries and to a range of other contexts (Addy, 2009; Kayser, Roberts, Shuford & Michaelis, 2014; Kreitzer & Jou, 2010; Lambourne & Manirakiza, 2017; Walsh & Potter-Daniau, 2017).

There are three levels of AVP workshops: the Basic workshop (focusing on affirmation, community building, cooperation, basic conflict management skills and transforming power), the Advanced workshop (exploring one or two issues such as power or anger in greater depth), and the Training for Facilitators workshop (AVP International, 2018). AVP workshops around the world have a common structure, although the content can vary greatly. Each level usually involves 18–22 hours, completed over two or three days. The workshops are divided into eight or more 90–120 minute sessions each of which includes a gathering (where there is a question that everybody answers going around the circle); an overview of the session’s agenda; at least one or two experiential exercises that explore the session’s focus; some games that help build community, release tensions and energise the group; feedback about the session; and a closing activity. The AVP manuals provide a wide range of activities that can be included and facilitators are free to add other material if they believe it is appropriate.

The AVP organising guide (AVP International, 2018) identifies 14 principles that underpin the workshops and the way in which AVP is run.

  1. AVP-trained teams: Workshops are facilitated by teams of AVP-trained facilitators who practise and model the attitudes, skills, processes and knowledge of AVP.
  2. Shared power and leadership: We share leadership roles and we commit to drawing on the strengths and wisdom of everyone in the group.
  3. Alternatives: The workshops are built on a belief that people always have options and choices, and choose how they respond.
  4. Inclusiveness: We make a conscious effort to be inclusive and to seek common ground while identifying and embracing differences.
  5. Good within everyone: We recognise that there is something of value in everyone and, when we affirm and connect with the capacity for good, the potential for nonviolent, caring relationships are increased.
  6. Journey of personal exploration: We value many different paths and respect people’s right to choose their own path.
  7. Experiential Learning: The workshops are built on experiential exercises and the belief that “everyone has knowledge and experience to share and can learn from the experiences of others” (Addy, 2009, p. 259).
  8. Community: We help build a sense of community within the workshop and within the AVP community.
  9. Personal nonviolence: We encourage people to take personal responsibility for not harming oneself or others.
  10. Consensus: We work towards consensus in making decisions within workshops and within the organisation.
  11. Safety: We work hard to create a safe environment that is conducive to collaboration, personal growth and taking risks.
  12. Accessibility and consistency: While there is a great deal of variation around the world, AVP workshops are recognisable anywhere in the world due to established practices and processes.
  13. Mutual respect: Respect for self and others is at the heart of the workshops.
  14. Transforming power: We believe we all have the power to transform ourselves and situations.

AVP workshops are currently offered in over 50 countries, including in most major cities in Australia. In Australia, AVP workshops are held in various settings including youth services, schools, community groups, and prisons. In Newcastle, AVP was first introduced in 1994 with local community workshops held regularly until 2001. After being reintroduced in 2016, a partnership between AVP in Newcastle, Family Support Newcastle (FSN), and the Family Action Centre (FAC) at the University of Newcastle was established to explore AVP workshops that focused on families and explored alternative ways of navigating conflict within family relationships. The team then adopted an action research process of adapting an AVP workshop for parents and partners. We are also increasingly having participants who have recently been released from prison.

The workshops for parents continue to evolve with each group. Some ways that it is developing as a family-focused group workshop include:

  • through the use of real-life family scenarios
  • introducing material that explores parenting styles and linking this with responses to conflict
  • an increased emphasis on child focused conversations
  • adapting exercises to bring attention to children’s experiences, feelings, needs, etc.

Outcome Measurement

AVP is increasingly recognising the importance of measuring outcomes and research evidence, and one of the authors, Graeme, is a co-convenor of an international working group aiming to improve the AVP evidence base. In Newcastle, AVP is part of an evaluation being led by the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation or Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) with the support of the University of Sydney and University of Newcastle. The evaluation is using two pre and post scales—the General Self-Efficacy scale (Schwarzer & Jerusalem, 1995) and a self-developed social capital scale—and focus groups. The unpublished preliminary results indicate a statistically significant improvement for both scales and positive feedback from the focus groups.

In addition, after each workshop, participants are invited to complete the FSN service feedback questionnaire involving 10-point rating scales exploring process and outcomes, and two questions about what was most and least significant about attending the workshop. We need to consider the number of forms we are asking participants to complete, especially for participants with low literacy skills, because between 2017 and 2018 only 76% completed the feedback (there is a higher response rate for the two scales).

Of the responses received:

  • 70% strongly agreed and 24% agreed they felt listened to and their concerns had been understood
  • 77% agreed or strongly agreed they learnt new skills that helped them and their children
  • 97% agreed or strongly agreed they would recommend the service to others
  • 80% agreed or strongly agreed there had been positive improvements in their circumstances
  • 60% agreed or strongly agreed things were getting better for them and their children
  • Only 37% agreed or strongly agreed their children had noticed a difference in how they parent.

These statistics need to be treated with caution as participants are likely to want to say nice things about the workshop, and some of the measures (e.g. the last three responses above) are designed for longer-term programs.

Strengths-based practice

Strengths-based practice underpins the work of both the FSN and FAC and, as suggested by the principles above, AVP is consistent with strengths-based practice. There is surprisingly little literature exploring the nature of strengths-based group work (see for example Jenkinson, 2015; Lietz, 2007; Pollio, McDonald & North, 1997). Here we briefly propose six characteristics of strengths-based group work and suggest how they apply in the context of AVP workshops.

  1. We focus on strengths, abilities and potential rather than problems, deficits and pathologies. Clearly this is at the heart of strengths-based practice (Oliver, 2014; Saleebey, 2013). In the workshops we do this in a number of ways, including a focus on affirmation of self and others as one of our foundations, framing gatherings and topics for discussion in pairs in terms of strengths and aspirations, and exploring times when they were able to respond to conflict or challenges nonviolently. We struggle with the focus on violence in the title Alternatives to Violence Project, and have considered changing it, but the broad use of the name in Australia and abroad makes it difficult to change.
  2. We recognise the strengths and expertise of participants: Everyone is a teacher and a learner. Facilitators do not position themselves as the experts with all the answers and we value lived experience. Through the experiential nature of the workshops we draw on the insights of the participants. The AVP structure also encourages participants to become facilitators if they are interested.
  3. We actively involve participants in decisions about the purpose, content and processes of the group. Rather than waiting for feedback from participants at the end of the workshop (by which time it is too late to adapt the workshop to the group), we ask for feedback from participants at the end of each session (there are four sessions a day in our standard workshops) so that we can adjust the workshop as we go. We often make decisions about how to modify the workshop (e.g., whether to omit an exercise or to break early) in front of the group and invite their input. Lietz (2007) suggests that strengths-based groups are unlikely to run to a set curriculum with pre-determined outcomes. AVP involves a broad approach rather than a set curriculum and, as discussed above, AVP manuals include a wide range of activities, and facilitators are free to add other material as needed. In the Advanced workshop, the topic of the workshop is determined by the group rather than being determined by the facilitation team.
  4. We use language based on strengths, ownership, collaboration and solutions. AVP is built on a constructionist pedagogy. In other words, AVP encourages people to explore how they attach meaning to important aspects of their lives and—through experiential, cooperative, and relational processes—to transform how they see the possibility of living in the world nonviolently (McEady, 2017). How we talk about ourselves and the world around us plays a crucial role in shaping our perceptions, and strengths-based language uses the language of collaboration, ownership, possibilities and solutions (Greene, Lee & Hoffpauir, 2005). Through activities, questions and conversations in the workshop we encourage people to discover their strengths; take ownership of their feelings, experiences and hopes; work collaboratively with others; and find nonviolent solutions to conflict and challenges.
  5. We provide experiences where group members can be successful. By creating safe, supportive environments, participants can try new skills, activities or behaviours without being ridiculed. The experiential nature of AVP means that participants have a range of opportunities to be successful and to identify their existing strengths. Each session starts with a gathering where we go around the group and each person responds to a question. For people who may say little else during the workshops, these can be quite powerful in giving them a voice and showing they do have something to contribute to the group. Other exercises demonstrate how working with others can frequently lead to better outcomes.
  6. We recognise complexity and have a commitment to social justice. Many families face a range of complex problems (Moore, 2011) that cannot be simply addressed by focusing on people’s strengths. A major criticism of strengths-based practice is that it is closely aligned with neoliberal notions of individual responsibility and self-help, and that it ignores structural inequalities (Gray, 2011). AVP has a commitment to working with marginalised groups (e.g. people in prison, refugees), we encourage participants to recognise the role of structural violence (e.g. sexism, racism, homophobia), and we challenge traditional notions of power. In AVP, and in nonviolence more broadly, power is seen as arising out of relationships rather than being a characteristic owned by individuals, and so there is a focus on power-with and power-within rather than power-over. Such an approach to power has far reaching implications and can help promote social justice (Mathie, Cameron & Gibson, 2017; Stuart, 2004).

Dilemmas of AVP’s strengths-based approach

The strengths-based approach adopted by AVP, however, leads to a number of dilemmas: practices that are strengths in its approach can also be limitations. In this section we discuss five of these dilemmas.

  1. AVP is built on volunteersparticipants and facilitators

An important foundation of AVP is that it is based on voluntary participation (AVP international, 2018; John, 2015). We expect that workshop participants have made a choice to come to the workshop and generally do not accept mandatory referrals (e.g. court orders). According to AVP International (2018, p. 3) ‘Our workshops are about personal growth, and people can only grow when they choose to do so themselves’. Such a position is consistent with a philosophy of nonviolence that recognises people’s right, and ability, to make decisions for themselves (Stuart, 2004, 2006).

At times, however, the voluntary nature of participation is debatable. If a court recommends that someone does a workshop or if a child protection agency suggests that it would help a parent regain custody of their child if they complete a workshop, clearly they may feel they have little or no choice. People being mandated or ‘strongly encouraged’ to attend means that we do often have participants who feel they have been coerced into coming. While this leads to some people being in the workshop—and even benefiting from it—when, if they had free choice, they would not have attended, it also means that they may be angry and test limits within the workshop (Levin, 2006). When faced with such participants, we encourage them to make a decision about what they will do, and are careful that we do not react negatively if they are angry or testing us. By acknowledging their anger or frustration, emphasising that it is up to them whether or not they stay, and making it clear they have the right to pass at any time, we encourage them to take responsibility for how they will react to the workshop. At the end of the first day, we have a brief exercise where people make a conscious decision about whether or not they will return for the second day. We can, if needed, also include this exercise earlier in the day so that participants make a conscious decision about whether they will stay for the afternoon of the workshop. In this way they can at least decide to what extent they will be involved in the workshop. We generally find that as the workshop progresses, they discover that they really do have a choice about how involved they will be, and most people will actively participate in at least some activities.

Having strong registration processes, where we talk to people before the workshop, can help in preparing participants, but it is far from a guarantee that everyone in a workshop will be an enthusiastic participant. At times there are people who do not actively engage, and we respect their right to make that decision.

AVP also relies on volunteer facilitators. Most facilitators in Australia and other parts of the world volunteer their time as facilitators. At times, like in NSW, AVP works in partnership with other organisations that allow staff to facilitate workshops as part of their work. Both authors, Gener and Graeme, work for organisations that support AVP and pay for some of our time spent on AVP, although we also both volunteer extra time to the work.

One of the advantages of having a team of volunteer facilitators is that it makes it an affordable program that can be implemented in a range of settings. It means that facilitation teams usually include three to six facilitators, which allows us to model teamwork, respectful communication and cooperative relationships—important skills in nonviolent relationships.

Relying on volunteers, however, does also create challenges, especially in terms of supporting volunteers, ensuring that facilitators have the necessary skills, and maintaining long-term volunteers.

  1. Valuing lived experience

Having teams of facilitators makes it easier for people with lived experience (but not formal training) to become facilitators. One of the strengths of AVP is that anyone can become a facilitator, but it also creates challenges in maintaining high-quality workshops. Based on the belief that there is good in everyone (AVP international, 2018; Shuford, 2009), interested workshop participants are invited to become facilitators. Facilitation training involves completing all three levels of workshops and then becoming an apprentice facilitator.

The absence of minimum requirements in terms of qualifications or training (apart from participating in AVP workshops) means that there can be real diversity in facilitation teams. There is a particular emphasis on having facilitators with lived experience similar to workshop participants. Prison workshops usually have inmate facilitators, school workshops often have youth facilitators, and workshops with refugees have facilitators with refugee backgrounds.

In Newcastle, with our focus on parents/partners and people recently out of prison, we are trying to build a pool of facilitators who have experienced having children removed from their care (by child protection or separation), being in a violent relationship, or being in prison. At the moment, however, most of the facilitators are working in family or community services, although some still have relevant lived experience.

Having people with recent lived experience can create some challenges, especially if they have little experience with facilitation. There is the risk of generalising from their own experience and assuming that other people’s experience is the same as their own. The main way we address this is by encouraging facilitators (and participants) to speak for themselves and to use ‘I’ rather than ‘you’: in other words, as facilitators, we speak about what we have experienced, how we feel, or what we have noticed. We also encourage facilitators to be curious in their approach. Instead of making assumptions about other people and their experience, we encourage them to ask questions and to wonder about what it was like for other people.

We want facilitators who are still exploring nonviolent relationships for themselves, rather than people who are doing it purely to help other people. One of the foundations of AVP is that ‘none of us have all the answers’ (AVP International & AVP USA Joint Education Best Practices Team, 2018, p. 43) and, as we say in our introduction to the workshop, ‘We are all teachers and all learners’. By working in a team of facilitators, there can be facilitators with varying levels of facilitation experience and it is an opportunity for facilitators to participate in numerous workshops. Because facilitators participate in the group when they are not leading an activity, facilitators continue to explore nonviolence and conflict resolution, and grow from the experience.

At times, facilitators make statements that other facilitators don’t agree with, or that are not consistent with the approach of AVP. When this happens the other facilitators have to make a choice about how they will respond. Sometimes, we don’t respond at all (e.g. if it is in relation to a minor issue or if it would be too disruptive to present an alternative view). Sometimes, we use it as an opportunity to model how we can disagree or have differences while maintaining respectful relationships. Sometimes we will treat it as a response from any other participant and see what other people in the group think.

  1. Inclusive nature of the group

We generally try to avoid being selective about who attends the group, and allow people to make their own decisions about whether it is something they want to do. While this approach is consistent with our philosophy of nonviolence and respects participants’ choice, it can create dilemmas, particularly around safety.

With the focus on violence in the title of the group, the workshops usually include people who have a history of violence, including domestic and family violence. But we also usually have people in the group who are survivors of domestic or family violence. We therefore need to be conscious and very careful that we don’t create an unsafe space, particularly for survivors.

We try to create a safe space in a number of ways including:

  1. An experienced member of the facilitation team administers the registration process, which includes at least one interview with every participant. The facilitator speaks to each participant before the workshop to start building a relationship, provide information about the workshop, and assess participants’ goals, as a way of helping participants prepare. This initial conversation involves asking participants about their situation, what they are working towards, and clarifying what they can expect from the workshop and what the workshop expects from participants.
  2. We discourage couples from doing the workshop together, but generally allow them to make the final decision. If people in a relationship decide to attend together, we interview both partners individually to assess the nature of their conflicts and assess domestic violence concerns. This conversation also explores how both partners could manage the possibility of conflict arising during and after the workshop and how facilitators can support their individual needs, as well as the group’s needs.
  3. We facilitate an inclusive conversation about group safety and responsibility. Early on in the workshop we go around the circle twice: a first round asking what they need to feel safe in the workshop, and a second round asking what they can do to help make the group safe, and use these as our group agreements.
  4. We are conscious of power dynamics, make space for quieter people to speak and encourage people to speak from their own experience rather than speak on behalf of others.
  5. We invite people to take care of themselves and to take time out, or pass from any activity, if needed.
  6. We use circle work, pairs and small groups to make it harder for strong personalities to dominate the group and are careful about who is in a group together if necessary.
  7. The agenda is flexible so we can address issues that arise if needed. For example we could include, or bring forward, an exercise to highlight the importance of speaking from our own experience, rather than speaking about other people’s experience.

There are still risks, however, and we need to observe the group carefully. There have been workshops where some women have felt uncomfortable or unsafe around a particular male, and this creates a range of dilemmas. We have discussed whether we should be more selective or limit who can attend, but at the same time, we want to engage people who struggle with a history of violence, so it makes little sense to prevent perpetrators of domestic or family violence from attending. Likewise we don’t want to prevent survivors of domestic or family violence from participating as they often benefit from the workshops as well. We continue to monitor and manage the workshops closely, and are constantly reflecting on how we can minimise risks and respond effectively when issues arise.

Workshops also often include family or community workers who are interested in the workshops as professional development, and people who are users of family and community services. The workshops are experiential, and there is a risk that practitioners who come with a focus on assisting other people rather than focusing on their own attitudes and behaviours, can change the dynamics of the workshop. We find having a mixture of practitioners and people who are doing workshops for their own reasons, can help practitioners see the relevance of the workshop to their personal lives and can encourage them to reflect on their own experience.

Having practitioners in the workshop also means that they can share their insights with the group, and hear the insights from people with lived experience. In a recent workshop, around half of the group were practitioners, and our feeling is that it is better when there are a few less practitioners.

  1. Being seen as things AVP is not

We constantly need to ensure that AVP is not seen as something it is not. Although we do not suggest or claim that we are a domestic or family violence program, we often have men referred to the workshops because of violence towards their partner or family. While we believe AVP is quite relevant to domestic violence, we also recognise that domestic violence behaviour change programs have a different approach and address issues that AVP does not. While some domestic violence programs such as the Duluth Model argue that ‘teaching a batterer to control his anger will not stop the violence if the intent of the batterer is to control or dominate a partner’ (Paymar & Barnes, 2017, p.9) we believe there is still a role for exploring anger management in addressing domestic and family violence (Crockett, Keneski, Yeager & Loving, 2015; Gilchrist, Munoz & Easton, 2015).

Even though AVP workshops are not an anger management program, we do have people being referred to AVP for anger management, and we do consider the issue of anger and some of the content is related to anger management. Although we explain to people that we are not a domestic or family violence program, nor an anger management program, we realise there is a risk that referrers and potential participants can have incorrect perceptions about the nature of the workshops.

We would be concerned if someone took an AVP workshop as an easier option than a more intensive behaviour change program, or used their attendance at AVP to suggest they were addressing violent or controlling behaviour without being committed to real change. At the same time, we recognise that AVP can be a first step in a pathway that leads to a behaviour change program. One of the facilitators, Gener, through his work with FSN, is able to provide follow up support and encourages men to undertake a behaviour change program if relevant.

  1. The need for challenging conversations

Being strengths-based involves more than a naïve optimism and faith in people’s good intentions. Particularly when working with people who have perpetrated violence against their partner or family, it is important that we are willing to have difficult conversations with them. In a recent AVP workshop, one of the fathers said: ‘This workshop is making me realise I’m a better father than some people say I am!’

At face value this seems to be a great outcome. But even though we want to increase parents’ confidence, there is a potential dark side to this statement. What if he was an abusive parent and there were significant grounds for being concerned about his parenting? What if it was allowing him to deny the need for change? There are real risks involved in accepting this statement without question and failing to explore it further.

Perpetrators of family and domestic violence, including child abuse, can be manipulative and charming, they can deny or minimise their actions, and there is a danger that practitioners can inadvertently collude with the perpetrator in avoiding taking responsibility for their actions (Department for Child Protection, 2012). As strengths-based practitioners, we still have a responsibility to ask tough questions and explore how to create positive change.

What the father’s statement did, however, was allow us to have a conversation in a very different context. As with the strengths-based approach the FAC adopted in fathering workshops with Aboriginal fathers in prison (Stuart & Hammond, 2006), the father’s statement changed the starting point of our conversations. We could begin by exploring what being a good father looks like and how they try to be good fathers. But we could also ask whether certain behaviour (e.g. violence, drugs) were consistent with being a good father, what the impact of such behaviour was, and what they could do to become better fathers. The men were much more open to these conversations than if we had started by looking at risk factors and what they did wrong as parents. Because we began by discussing the importance to them of being a father, our conversations helped them achieve a goal rather than accusing them or telling them what they needed to do.

In AVP, we work hard to create a safe, non-judgemental, strengths-based environment which means that participants are often willing to talk about issues they are facing. We have a responsibility to ensure that, within this approach, we do not collude nor make it easy to avoid accepting responsibility for our actions. One of the ways we are able to approach this is through the follow up that can be provided by FSN.

Conclusion

In our experience, the strengths-based approach used in AVP is generally successful in engaging participants (even those who feel they have been made to come) and building relationships that help create a safe space where participants are able to reflect on their behaviour. At the same time, we recognise there are dilemmas and potential risks.

To conclude we have outlined below a number of lessons learned from reflecting on our work with AVP. We recognise some of these have been widely discussed before, but are still worth reinforcing.

  1. No single program can do it alone. We do not pretend that AVP has all the answers, nor that it should be a standalone program. Particularly with perpetrators of domestic or family violence it can be a pathway towards or a starting point for people to access more specialised or intensive support (e.g. men’s behaviour change programs).
  2. We need to be conscious of the risk of family violence, and not ignore the importance of risk assessment and risk management. It would be a mistake to believe that assessing the risk of family violence, and addressing these risks, are inconsistent with strengths-based practice. We need to continually reflect on, and review, the workshops to identify potential risks, especially with regard to safety.
  3. There is great value in incorporating volunteers and their lived experience, despite some of the challenges they can raise.
  4. Networking, informing people about what we offer, and learning about other programs is important so that others do not misunderstand the nature of our work and we do not create false expectations about other programs if we refer people to them. By working with other services, the workshops can be part of an integrated response to address violence and can enhance other programs or counselling.
  5. We need to be open to learning from other programs and approaches, and to be willing to adapt our program based on the experience of others.
  6. We need to create a balance between recognising people’s strengths and potential for change, and supporting them to be accountable for their behaviour.

Critical reflection needs to be a fundamental priority and not simply an extra add-on if there is time. It is only through reflection and being willing to ask hard questions that the dilemmas and challenges of this type of work can be addressed.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. What is the Strengths Perspective?
  2. Seven principles for a strengths-based approach to working with groups
  3. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
  4. An Alternatives to Violence Project workshop for parents
  5. Strengths-based measurement
  6. Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

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About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), Strengths-based approaches & ABCD and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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