Seventeen years ago, St. Louis Park resident Lee Reinharz enrolled in a workshop called Alternatives to Violence. A program in which all the facilitators are volunteers, the Alternatives to Violence Project teaches its participants how to resolve conflicts in their lives without resorting to violence or manipulation. What started as a one-time event quickly became a cause Reinharz wanted to get behind. Once a month, Reinharz travels to various prisons in the state to join in the workshops and work alongside the inmates who choose to participate.
“It’s really wonderful,” says Reinharz, who has facilitated workshops since 2004. For one weekend a month, Lucky Lee [the affirmation name Reinharz uses in workshops] cofacilitates a group of inmates in exercises designed to help participants transform their power so that it can be used in a more positive way. “[It’s] to get people to open up,” says Reinharz. “Once you’ve shared parts of yourself with others, you can build trust in a community.” Reinharz says that in a prison community, trust is something that’s extremely important to build.
There are 12 guides, or tenets, that are fundamental to the program, all of which are focused on using a positive attitude and way of thinking in order to transform conflict. These include principles such as always living life truthfully, listening to others and resolving conflicts by seeking out common ground. Reinharz says she’s seen the workshops transform the lives of those who get involved.
Many exercises are similar to the icebreakers that are often used when new groups begin working together. “We process every exercise we do,” Reinharz says. “Sometimes it’s nothing, and sometimes it’s very deep. The idea is that everyone has the power to change a situation and to turn every situation into a win/win.”
“It’s rewarding when [participants] get out of prison and you can be a support system for them,” Reinharz says, referring to bimonthly group meetings to which inmates may return. “You get to know people so well when you're spending a full weekend with them, just talking about each other and your lives.” Reinharz says she’s always felt comfortable when talking with participants, and looks forward to her trips to the prisons. “You feel close and you can share things,” she says. “You can have fun together.”
Participants value the time they spend in the workshops. “One inmate said, ‘We thought we were coming to a bunch of lectures, but this was beautiful,’” says Reinharz.
Reinharz’s wish for the workshop as it continues to grow is for more young people to get involved. Sponsored in Minnesota by Friends for a Nonviolent World, it’s easy for anyone who is interested to hit the ground running and explore their options with Alternatives to Violence. One can become a facilitator like Reinharz after three sessions.
After a brief hiatus from the group last winter, Reinharz has since gotten back into facilitating the prison discussions and exercises she finds so rewarding. “I’m excited to see everybody again,” Reinharz says of her return. “It’s very meaningful, rewarding and rich work.”