They are hungry for learning

Interviewed by Valerie Kreutzer

In 2006, a friend gave Steve Cleaves a copy of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. “It sang to my heart,” Steve recalls. “This is the way I want to live,” he thought. He enrolled in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) courses. Four years later Kathleen Macferran, one of his trainers, asked if he would be interested in volunteering in the prisons.

“Initially I felt a resistance,” Steve recalls. “In our culture we have stereotypes about the prison population, but once I decided to enter I learned that they are just like you and me. They have the same feelings, they face similar choices; the difference is that they made choices that did not meet their needs. That’s why they are in prison.”

For the past 3 years, Steve has volunteered at the Monroe prisons.

“I’m not teaching them. I only provide opportunities for them to learn,” he insists. “I urge them to learn from their personal experiences. I’m just amazed how hungry they are for this type of learning. I’m especially moved when they share everyday stories of trying to solve conflicts, by risking their lives or getting beaten up. I’m so grateful to hear how they try to prevent violence by making personal connections.

“The hard part of leading in the prison is the environment. You never know who’s going to show up this week; it’s always a mix of experienced practitioners and newcomers who need a crash course before there is a level of awareness in the room to let us go deeper. And it’s also hard to accomplish much in such a short time. I go in with an agenda and a plan and often I don’t get through the material.”

This year Steve co-facilitates a Wednesday night class; it means leaving the house at 5 pm, returning 4 hours later. He also participates in workshops and leadership training. For a recently retired contractor and newly married man with major family responsibilities, Steve’s involvement in Freedom Project is a major commitment.

What keeps him going? “The men are so extremely grateful to us volunteers; they count on us coming back.”

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