Friends,I love the photo above because it so vividly expresses such a beautiful dynamic of trust. Trust is generally defined as “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” For trust to truly be dynamic it needs to both be offered and received with a shared faith like the relationship between the boy and the man above. We trust someone or something because we expect to be trusted in return. When we are in a trusting relationship the dynamic between us is more secure and more capable of success because we are better able to solve problems and work together more smoothly and efficiently. And perhaps most importantly, our relationships can be so much more open-hearted and loving when we trust one another.
In contrast to the dynamic of positive and faithful trust described above, my experience in prisons has been the opposite. Because of the pervasive distrust I have experienced working in prisons now over thirty years, I have given considerable thought about the harm done when trust is broken. I am always aware of how little trust there is in our prison system. This is largely because most of the people in prison have broken trust with the wider society in the first place, and that’s the justification for placing them in isolation as a way of punishment. The hardship and resentment of their experience in prison, however, then perpetuates distrust and sets up a systemic dynamic of distrust among their fellow prisoners, guards, the administration and ultimately the general public. When you visit a prison distrust is palpable.
Because of these two experiences of trust and distrust, I have often thought about how the cycle of distrust can be addressed and trust can be restored. When I visited prisons regularly and got to know both prisoners and the prison staff, my main objective in much of my interaction was to find ways to listen carefully enough to build the trust that would then allow me then to work toward some of the issues all were facing.
I, of course, have no foolproof way to restore broken trust except to be the one vulnerable enough to risk initiating or promoting trust building ourselves or with others. I can offer one example, however, that has proven to be consistently successful in rebuilding trust. Years ago the Quakers in New York first developed a program for doing just that in prisons called Alternative to Violence.* Cathy and I, and perhaps some of my readers, have participated in the established weekend long opportunity to join with some twenty prisoners, within the prison itself, in a close communal experience with the primary purpose of providing us with the experience, some for the first time, of being able to trust others as we explore alternatives to violence. Through a scripted program of playing games (most of which are designed for trust building), laughing and eating together, and finally all of us sharing our stories (yes, as facilitators each of must be active participants in the program including our own stories of fear and violence similar to many of the experiences of the prisoners.) I mention the ATV program as a reminder and an encouragement that, even in a prison setting, we can heal from the experience of distrust and violence that often seems so insurmountable.
Whether in personal, social, or work relationships building and maintaining trust is so very essential so that we can work and live together with the confidence that we can rely on the trustworthiness of others. For me trust building is one of the most important foundations for fostering and sustaining nonviolent created change.
*The Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) is a volunteer-run conflict transformation program. Teams of trained AVP facilitators conduct experiential workshops to develop participants' abilities to develop trust and resolve conflicts without resorting to manipulation, coercion, or violence. Typically, each workshop lasts 18–20 hours over a two or three-day period. The workshop events place a strong emphasis on the experiences of the participants and building confidence that everyone contributes something of value to violence prevention. AVP groups and facilitators are active in communities and prisons across the United States and in many other countries.