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Notes from the Inside: Namaste


Notes from the Inside features writing by inmates serving time in Iowa prisons. Little Village editors have made only minor adjustments for style.

Photo by Mike Behnken
Photo by Mike Behnken

By José R.

Namaste: a Hindu greeting which loosely translates into, “The good that is in the deepest part of me, greets the good that is in the deepest part of you.” This greeting, this mind state, is the basis upon which Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) is built.

In 1975, a maximum security prison in New York was in the midst of a violent race war. Many men had been killed on all sides with no end in sight, but from that soil of death and despair a miracle was born.

Several older convicts, united by the desire to end the violence, came together and decided that something had to change. They knew that they didn’t have the tools to talk about non-violence so they reached out to a local community of Quakers, and, together, Quaker and convict, they formed a group called the Alternatives to Violence Project. The group began small, as all change does, but in time the idea began to take hold that just because you’ve spent your whole life walking one path doesn’t mean that you can’t choose a different one.

Namaste became a guiding light. Many people have asked how such a simple word in a foreign language could become so impactful in people’s lives. The beauty of the word is not just that we “greet the good in others,” but that we begin to acknowledge the good that exists with ourselves.

An unfortunate fact is that we have hurt many people as a result of the crimes we committed; obviously the victims themselves, but also their families as well. Crime itself is selfish, and, as we chose to engage in a crime or crimes, many people paid the price for our choice and were exposed to a very bad part of us — but only one part. That’s the key.

In acknowledging that good exists with you, you acknowledge that as ugly as your crime was, it’s not all that you are. This isn’t about minimizing the action or justifying it, but it’s the first step in making different choices, taking different paths. If I embrace the idea that good exists within me, then I have no excuse for not letting that be the part of me with which I greet others. The best me.

That group, which began almost 50 years ago as a last ditch effort to save lives in one prison, has since grown to 48 states and several countries around the world, including some very war-torn regions like Rwanda and the Gaza strip. The program itself has also changed.

Initially the workshops were focused almost exclusively on violence itself and why finding alternatives was necessary, but now each workshop is focused on a different theme, from communication and empathy to conflict resolution, trauma and power. Different themes, but all aimed at the same goal and rooted in a fundamental principle of AVP: We are all more than the worst thing we have done. Each workshop is a step in working on what can help each of us discover that best version of ourselves.

The other day I was talking to someone about AVP and they said that they were told the group “doesn’t count” with the parole board. Some of you may also be thinking the same thing, so I’ll tell you what I told them.

AVP is not a group that you will ever be mandated to take. It is not a treatment class and will not satisfy the requirements of parole board treatment recommendations.

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But it counts.

It counts in the way that matters most, and with the people that matter most. All the people who stood with us at so many crucial periods in our lives, and who loved us in spite of the many reasons we gave them not to. It counts with those beautiful women who nurtured us in their wombs for nine months as they dreamed of who we would become, and it counts with the children we brought into this world — the sons and daughters who we’ve left to fend for themselves as we watch them grow up in pictures. The children who miss their daddy and love us anyway. It counts because becoming the best us we can be is the only gift these people have ever wanted.

Change isn’t easy, but nothing worth attaining will ever come without a struggle. The question you must start with is: Are you worth it? I think you are.

Ed. note: The Alternatives to Violence Project sponsors prison, community and school-based groups around the world. Visit their website for information on the Iowa City community group, which meets quarterly. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 204.


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