By Graeme Stuart and Selene Moonbeams
For an organisation proud of its interactive, experiential workshops exploring nonviolence and conflict transformation, the pandemic created a crisis of identity. With the introduction of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) was no longer able to offer in-person workshops and started exploring the potential to offer workshops online. In this essay, we discuss how we transformed an 18-hour workshop to create the world’s first fully online AVP Basic workshop, identify lessons relevant to other online workshops, and discuss how we addressed group safety and helped create a deep sense of community.
Since its humble beginnings in New York’s Greenhaven Prison in 1975, AVP has grown—to the best of our knowledge— into the largest volunteer peace education organisation in the world. Working in prisons, educational institutions, refugee communities and many other community settings in almost 60 countries, AVP has been effective in developing nonviolent conflict resolution skills and supporting trauma recovery, healing and broader peacebuilding in diverse settings. There are thousands of AVP facilitators worldwide within local organisational structures, with regional, country and international coordination.
AVP is built on three levels of workshops: the Basic workshop (focusing on affirmation, community building, cooperation, basic conflict management skills and transforming power), the Advanced workshop (exploring consensus and one or two other issues such as power or anger in greater depth), and the Training for Facilitators workshop. 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.
Through a series of small group activities and discussion, participants are invited on a journey of self-reflection and discovery. Facilitators position themselves as co-learners who are also on a journey of self-discovery rather than experts with the answers. “We are all teachers and learners” underpins this approach. Instead of a rigid curriculum, AVP has a learner-centred pedagogy that allows for flexibility in adapting to local contexts and offers participants the opportunity to shape the focus of workshops.
In 2019, in Australia alone, volunteer facilitators offered over 100 in-person workshops with a wide range of people including prisoners, people from refugee backgrounds, students, people involved in domestic violence, teachers, and family and community workers. With the introduction of social distancing and stay-at-home rules in March 2020, plans for workshops came to a grinding halt. At the same time, there were widely reported concerns about the potential for increased violence in the home.
The need to go online
In some ways, AVP was in a poor position to quickly respond to the changed circumstances. For almost 30 years, AVP in Australia (as elsewhere) had only offered in-person workshops. As facilitators, this is what we knew and what we valued. Most of the very experienced facilitators who underpin workshops are older—most of us are baby boomers—and are not digital natives. But AVP also has a history of innovation and flexibility that has allowed us to adapt to a wide range of contexts and, due to the tyranny of distance, AVP in Australia and internationally had been using Zoom and Google Docs in meetings for several years.
With an increasing emphasis on social distancing and staying at home in the leadup to, and following, a “human biosecurity emergency” being declared in Australia on March 18, AVP in Australia and around the world started exploring the possibility of online workshops. In the following month, we (Selene and Graeme) attended 16 meetings or mini workshops exploring possibilities for AVP online. By 25 April, we felt we had done enough talking and decided it was time to dive in and trial a full Basic workshop. Over the next few days, we obtained agreement from our local AVP groups to offer the workshops, invited two other AVP facilitators to join the team (Jim Thomm and Robert Duncan), and started recruiting participants wanting to complete their first AVP workshop. Within 10 days, we had recruited 13 participants and started the workshops, although one person did not make the first session, and two more withdrew after one or two sessions because of other issues in their lives.
Because we had no examples of full online AVP workshops to follow, we had many questions and were unsure what the best choice was for a wide range of options. We felt a full-day workshop might make concentration hard, so held two 2.5-hour sessions a week via Zoom for four weeks. The day after each session, we met to reflect on the session and to plan the next. This had the added advantage of allowing us to innovate, plan and adapt as we went, rather than having to plan all eight sessions at once.
At the start of the workshop, we had two major concerns: how to ensure the safety of the group and how to build a sense of community in the workshop. Some AVP facilitators (including one person in our team) were sceptical about our ability to create the sense of community in an online workshop that is normally experienced in an in-person workshop.
Creating a safe, comfortable space
Knowing that creating a safe, comfortable space for participants was crucial for the success of the workshop, we recognised that going online added significant challenges. In particular, we were concerned about the use of breakout rooms because, while they allow small group discussion, they also carry risks. Unlike a normal workshop, where participants usually stay in the main room thereby allowing facilitators to monitor what is happening in small groups or pairs, we have no way of knowing what is happening in a breakout room unless a facilitator is in it. We might not realise that a participant was being inappropriate, insensitive, or threatening. It is thus important that participants know how to leave a breakout room quickly and easily. Before using breakout rooms, we had a couple of practices where we placed participants in a room and invited them to come back as quickly as possible. The second time we warned them we would broadcast a message and they had to follow the instructions (find out what everybody’s favourite food was) before returning, to ensure they were familiar with broadcasted messages. We also told them, a facilitator would always be a in the main room, so if they ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe in a breakout room, they could leave and come back to the main room.
Until we knew the group better, we avoided working in pairs and were careful about the make-up of small groups. Early in an AVP workshop there is usually an exercise in pairs where participants practice affirming themselves. In the online context we changed the exercise to threes, each of which included a facilitator or consisted of participants we were confident would be alright in a group on their own (because we knew some of the participants).
We emphasised the importance of participants respecting and caring for themselves, and others in the group. We didn’t know what else was happening in the room or house for them, so we encouraged them to think about how they could create a safe space for themselves. For example, if there are people in hearing distance, they might need to be careful about what they say. They might live with people who are not supportive and could make fun of some of the games we play, so we needed to make it easy for them to pass, mute, turn off the video, or do whatever they needed to look after themselves.
We also reminded the group that they needed to be aware it was possible that other people could overhear conversations, so they needed to be conscious of significant limits to confidentiality. We asked participants to indicate if other people were around who could hear and, in future, we would ask everybody to use earphones to reduce the possibility of others overhearing. In this workshop we believe there were no issues, but needed to continue to be vigilant.
Although the chat line in Zoom can allow an alternative to speaking in the group, it could lead to problems (e.g., a participant sending an inappropriate or unwanted private message to another participant). While there are advantages in being able to send private messages, (e.g., in the workshops the facilitators occasionally sent a message to each other clarifying something) in future we would block private messages between individuals and only allow messages to the whole group or a private message to the host.
Creating a sense of community
Despite concerns from some AVP facilitators, we believe the sense of community built in the workshop was similar to an in-person workshop. Strategies in AVP, such as gatherings and sharing of personal experiences, translated to the online environment. At times there was deep sharing and participants were very respectful of each other. After a particularly deep session (where people discussed how violence had affected their lives) we made follow-up phone calls to check that participants were OK. We found that taking the time to build a sense of safety is vital in building online community and breakout rooms also allowed deeper conversations to develop.
The sense of community was deepened by shining a light on issues that arose in the workshop and encouraging participants to reflect on what was happening. For example, one participant, Chris (not their real name) had very little experience using technology—they had not even sent a text message—so struggled with aspects of Zoom. In one session, just after exploring effective communication, Chris had trouble using the annotate feature in the Zoom whiteboard, and various participants offered advice and suggestions. Once we finished using the whiteboard, we asked Chris if it was ok to ask about what it was like to be on the receiving end of this well-intentioned advice. Chris shared how it was quite stressful and not all that helpful. Not only did it provide a powerful example of how our communication may not be received as intended, but it also helped create greater trust and connection within the group.
Adapting to an online context
We needed to think creatively and be willing to give things a go but, by using various features of Zoom and Google Docs, we managed to find a way to do most of the exercises we would normally do. It was quite easy to translate some exercises (e.g., small group discussion) into an online context. Breakout rooms were popular as they allowed more free flowing conversation and we will use them more often in future workshops. At times, we asked participants to bring paper and coloured pens or pencils so they could do a drawing or write something, which could then be shared by holding it in front of their camera. Some exercises required significant modification. For example, for broken squares, a popular small group exercise involving groups of five working silently on a puzzle, we created an online version using Google Drawing for groups of four. For another exercise where groups of four have to create an animal (again in silence) by taking turns making a rip in a large sheet of flip chart, we adapted it to the Zoom whiteboard and participants took turns drawing one line. There were some exercises, mainly ones requiring physical movement such as some of the games and trust exercises, that we were unable to modify and had to find alternative ways of achieving similar results.
Our approach essentially involved adapting a standard in-person workshop to an online context. In future, we hope that AVP groups will move beyond this approach and start thinking about how we can use the range of online tools and capabilities to create workshops specifically designed for the online context. With more and more workshops being offered online, we expect that, rather than trying to adapt in-person workshops, AVP facilitators will gradually start creating new exercises and approaches specifically designed for this new frontier.
Some things we learnt
The following are a few of the things we learnt that could be relevant to other peace initiatives moving online. It was important to be confident in the technology and to be aware of its potential and limitations. As well as participating in numerous other AVP online groups and activities, we practiced exercises and features of Zoom on different devices. Because some participants were on tablets or phones, but all the facilitators used PCs, it was important to be aware of differences between devices. We still need to gain more experience.
We found that conversation in the large group was more stilted than normal but conversation in breakout rooms with three to five participants were quite free flowing. We thus tried to use them frequently. Next time, we will encourage people to bring a journal and after an exercise invite them to write (or draw) some reflections. As well as giving quiet or more introverted people space to reflect, we also think it could help promote discussion.
In AVP there is a lot of circle work (where people take turns speaking around a circle) but the order of participants in Zoom window varies for each person. Asking people to speak when they are ready often leads to people speaking over each other or wasted time where everybody waits for somebody else to speak. In some online sessions we attended, a participant chooses who to pass on to, but we found this can be fairly confronting. In a circle, the order is clear so participants know when their turn is coming up, but there is no warning when each person randomly passes on to somebody else. We asked participants to number themselves (from 1 to 14, or however many people were in the group, and adding the number to their name in Zoom) that created a virtual circle as it was clear who was next in the order. By encouraging participants to thank the person before them and to pass on to the next person when they finished, we could also help deepen the sense of community.
AVP facilitators always work in teams (usually at least three or four) which allowed us to ensure that the facilitator leading an exercise could focus on the process while another facilitator looked after any technology requirements (e.g., managing the breakout rooms or sharing screens). We also had to be comfortable having quick discussions between the team about process in front of the group. In an in-person workshop we are able to have private team conversations during breaks or when participants are working in small groups. This is much harder in an online workshop (particularly if the private chat is turned off) so we had to check in with each other in front of the group. This worked well as it demonstrated cooperation and shared leadership, but it did mean that it was important for the team to have done significant team building and to feel comfortable with each other. It could have been an issue if there was a problem in the group.
We initially thought we would use the Zoom whiteboard for brainstorms, but preferred using Google Docs. In whiteboard, participants generally cannot see what is written until it is entered, but once entered it cannot be edited. Using Google Docs allowed us greater flexibility. Sometimes a facilitator shared their screen, and sometimes we provided a link so that all the participants could go to the document for more collaborative exercises.
Roleplays are important in AVP and other workshops, and attempting them online added a layer of complexity. The main roleplays involved three or four people and were done in front of the whole group. We asked everyone not in the roleplay to turn off their videos and mute themselves which meant Zoom highlighted the people in the roleplay. Most phones only show three or four videos at a time, so it allowed people on phones to see the people in the roleplay and made it easier for everyone to focus on the actors. Debriefing was more complicated than an in-person workshop, particularly as we normally use empty chairs to represent the characters once participants have come out of role. This allows us to reinforce the separation between the characters and the actors. We look forward to seeing how online roleplays evolve in the coming months.
The workshops required a large time commitment, particularly because we worked in a team and we hadn’t done it before. We came online 30 minutes before the workshop to check-in and make sure we were ready and stayed for another 30 minutes afterwards to check-in and for a quick debrief. We also had the planning session (generally two hours) between sessions. In total the facilitators were online together for about 47 hours on top of writing up agendas, preparing exercises and other individual preparation.
In the rush to move online, especially in rich nations like Australia, there appears to be an assumption that everybody has online access. For groups committed to peace and justice, it is vital to recognise this is not necessarily the case. We were very fortunate that we had few technological issues although some people did occasionally drop out and some connections were not great. Most participants’ connections were reliable enough to participate. The digital divide, however, is clearly a major issue when offering online workshops. Zoom is data intensive, so participants need enough data and a reliable connection (in order to be able to use their video), which limits participation. Some of the participants could only join because Recovery Point (where Rob works supporting people leaving prison or with alcohol & drug issues) helped with access to technology and data.
But there are also advantages to moving online. Most AVP workshops are full days (sometimes 9 AM – 6 PM) which limits them to people who can give up a full day from work, family and other commitments. One of our participants was in a rural town and, due to travel restrictions, would not have been able to join the workshop, and another participant said they would not have felt comfortable attending an in-person workshop but was willing to try an online workshop.
We believe online workshops allow us to reach new audiences and open up new possibilities for building peace. There are a range of people who could not, or would not, attend in-person workshops. Not only does it make workshops available to people in isolated locations, or places where there are no AVP groups nearby, but also to people whose physical capabilities or their current emotional or psychological condition would make it hard to attend a workshop (e.g., if they are bedridden or are experiencing high levels of anxiety).
Online workshops create new possibilities for bringing people together. The impact of peace work in conflict situations could be enhanced by creating safe places for people from opposing sides of a conflict to build relationships and explore nonviolence and peace building. AVP has already worked in communities in transition (e.g., Rwanda) and the possibility of building relationships without needing to be in the same room, provides new exciting possibilities for working in zones of conflict.
In AVP there is much debate comparing online AVP workshops and other workshops. There is already a great deal of variation in AVP workshops with significant differences between workshops for specific groups of people (e.g., people in prison, students or young people and people from refugee backgrounds) and between countries. One of AVP’s strengths has been its adaptability and flexibility, and we believe that offering online workshops creates new possibilities.
While an increasing emphasis on virtual responses raises issues related to privilege and the digital divide, they are not reasons for waiting until everything is perfect. With the pandemic increasing levels of domestic and family violence and seriously curtailing peace building efforts, it is vital that online initiatives are explored as quickly as possible. We hope that our experience will encourage others to experiment and share their experiences so we can learn from each other as we innovate and create new way of working.
John, Vaughn. 2016. “Peace Profile: The Alternatives to Violence Project.” Peace Review, 28(3): 369-375. https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2016.1201960.
Novek, Eleanor. 2011. “The Alternatives to Violence Project’s Work for Peace Behind Bars.” Peace Review, 23(3): 335-341. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2011.596061.
Stuart, Graeme; Moonbeams, Selene; Thom, Jim; & Duncan, Robert. (2020). Agenda and resources from our first AVP online workshop. Sustaining Community. Available at: https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/06/07/avp-online-agenda-and-resources/
This is the text (with a couple of added subheadings) of an article that has recently been published in Peace Review. The full article is available (only to subscribers or through an institution that subscribes) online. The full reference and link is:
Stuart, G., & Moonbeams, S. (2021). Moving Experiential Peace Workshops Online. Peace Review, 33(1), 88-96. https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2021.1956135
Note, Peace Review publishes essays without references or headings. The links and headings have been added by me.
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