ACEs and The AVP Experience (abridged)

By Roger Kluck

A corps of some 5000 people around the world contribute to and participate in and/or teach the Alternatives to Violence Program (AVP).  Since many of these courses are offered to adolescents and young adults who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), we have been fostering recovery from ACEs and Trauma for over 40 years – long before the ACEs study developed the term. We have served over half a million people worldwide – but almost no one knows we are here.

AVP provides rapid massive healing and recovery in a very short time frame.  Unfortunately, some have dismissed the AVP. For example, a psychiatrist who heads an institute on evidence-based practices, commented: “You understand this flies in the face of everything we have developed here as best practice.”

My own understanding of the work comes from 15 years working with a couple thousand inmates in prisons (where all too many of those high ACE scores end up), 4 years of working with over 500 veterans with PTSD. (all too often I find their PTSD is rooted in childhood sexual and physical abuse and neglect); work in inner-city classrooms where whole classrooms score 5 or higher; work in violence torn Central America; and working with delegations from over 30 countries brought to the U.S. by the State Department

My colleagues are doing this work: in Rwanda with Hutu and Tutsis – the perpetrators, and victims of the genocide; in rape camps in the Congo; with children from Colombian guerilla groups; with trafficked girls in Nepal; to refugee camps in Kenya; with children released by Boko Haram, Honduran domestic violence victims; with women in Afghanistan; with Kurds in Iraq; with child soldiers in Liberia; teens who are involved in violence and with so many others.

We are working the frontlines of ACEs and trauma. In the United States we are working in over 125 prisons and numerous schools, jails, juvenile detention facilities, drug recovery programs, gang intervention work, prison reentry and other programs.

WHO WE ARE:  AVP started as an anti-violence program in prison in 1975. Very quickly, however, we learned that it was about far more than violence. As the old saw says, “Hurt people, hurt people”.) So, in retrospect, it should come as no surprise that the more violent an inmate had been – the more violence, abuse and neglect they had suffered in their lives.

 We learned that the way to reduce violence in the lives of course participants was to heal the suffering and the impacts of this pain. Instead of focusing on anger management, coping mechanisms, and the usual raft of ‘don’t be violent’ “lessons”, we quickly learned the most effective answers lay in addressing the root pain and neglect. This approach often led to healing many of the collateral issues of ACEs, trauma, abuse, and neglect. This approach resulted in reducing suicide, depression, addiction, PTSD, low self-esteem, shame, alienation, isolation, distrust, and anger. And then you realize that nonviolent people also need this healing, and the impacts are far wider than we thought – you might even come to think they are universal.

interventions prove even more effective for younger people closer to the events of their trauma. To paraphrase the old New York adage – if you can do it here, you can do it anywhere. We started working with a traumatized adult population in one of the most challenging and stressful environments, prison.  With over 40 years of fine-tuning and constant reevaluation on the frontlines the program has become ever more effective, till now its results are stunning.

AVP is a facilitated peer circle process done in groups of 10 to 20 participants with teams of 3 to 5 facilitators. Participants are guided through three consecutive days of carefully chosen exercises. Workshops typically range from 18 to 24 hours. The work proves to be exponential, each day building on the previous to reach greater and greater impact.

 Exercises range from childish, light hearted games meant to make participants laugh and relax and find their childish side – to guided personal one on one discussions on curated topics meant to build self-esteem, connection and eventually trust – to group circle activities and discussions that bring forth group experiences, community building, inclusion, learnings, and wisdom from the participants. Mixed in with these can be role plays, grounding exercises and personal reflective exercises. It is a facilitated process – the learning comes from the group (with exercises carefully chosen to guide and deliver).

All through our guided processes we take participants on a tour of feelings, over and over again. Creating empathy, compassion, connection, community, trust and self-esteem. We play the mirror neurons like a harp. How do they do that?

I was telling my colleague, John, that our biggest problem in our work is that people cannot believe the changes we make in people’s neural patterns in just 24 hours over 3 days. “I don’t see why,” he said. “Trauma can totally rewire your brain in five minutes.”

That is certainly true. So maybe it makes sense that three 8-hour days, back to back, with a carefully crafted and ordered series of interpersonal exercises and neural experiences, can change things substantially.

Doing 24 hours in a row like this certainly exceeds what most therapies can accomplish in months and months, or even a year. Most therapy entails a 50-minute hour once or twice a week, and much of that time is trying to get back to the level of safety and vulnerability that was present at the close of the previous session, so there is perhaps 30 minutes of productive time in the hour. A little math then would show our 24 consecutive hours add up to more productive time than a year in standard counseling therapy

BUT WHAT ARE WE DOING IN THIS TIME? WHY IS IT SO EFFECTIVE? The work is extraordinarily deep. Every exercise has multiple purposes and effects, until it seems like peeling an onion – there is always yet another deeper level of purpose and effect. By way of example, let me share just one early first day exercise. We randomly pair individuals and have one speak for two minutes and the other listen. The speaker must speak for two minutes about what they like about themselves. Thus, they must overcome any shyness or humility, overcome shame and inferiority, and think about their better nature and qualities. They have to speak this aloud, to a stranger. This creates real vulnerability. We then switch, and the previous listener speaks about what he likes about herself. Through this mutual sharing, commonalities are found, and there is human connection and mutual empathy. Next, we put two pairs together and ask each individual to introduce their partner. So, each individual hears him or her self-introduced by way of their best traits and better self. This ordinarily builds some self-esteem and pride. Again, common interests and commonalities are found, and friendly feelings of connection start to come forward quickly.

A group debriefing in the large circle of 15 to 20 participants follows exploring how people felt during the exercise and what happened for them. This deepens the experience. Invariably some say they are more comfortable focusing on their negative traits. Others say they have not thought about their better selves in quite some time (especially in the jails and prisons where I work).

AVP CAN LEAD TO – growing self-esteem and affirmation, creating profound connection and community, increasing empathy, trust, vulnerability, and hopefulness.

As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The experiential nature of AVP works through feelings and emotions, which transcribe themselves deep in the brain – in all the numerous areas involved in emotional recall – just like trauma.

It is creating alternative more positive and less stressful neuropathways. It is providing another way to process stress and distress, one that is positive and self-reinforcing. And it is equipping the individual with the tools to recognize the emergence of stress and choose this new route.