A counselor, consultant, and volunteer shares strategies for resolving conflict—behind bars and on campus.
Joan Rinner was naturally nervous her first time in prison. She’d traveled to the Anamosa State Penitentiary as a volunteer with the Alternatives to Violence Project, an international program she helped introduce to the Anamosa facility.
Now three years later, she’s comfortable hearing the doors lock behind her as she commences three-day workshops on affirmation, communication, cooperation, and community building.
“If I tell inmates I work at The University of Iowa, they’re intrigued to find out we have conflict here, too,” says Rinner, a counselor and organizational consultant with Faculty and Staff Services. “Conflict is part of being human and working with diverse people. We’ll always have it, but we can choose how we respond.”
That message runs throughout Rinner’s work, whether she’s guiding University colleagues through their differences, helping couples address relationship issues, or teaching prisoners to respect each other.
“I’m completely Swedish, and in my family you would rarely see conflict emerge,” she says. “It was a very quiet, introverted, structured life on a family farm, so I’m sometimes curious about how I got here.”
An Iowa native, Rinner started out as an English teacher and later enrolled in an MBA program. But business didn’t mesh with her natural strengths, so she shifted to postsecondary student development and eventually to marriage and family counseling.
Rinner joined the University staff in 1992, and today divides her time between one-on-one counseling and consultation with work groups. She heard about the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) from Dorothy Whiston, who was instrumental in bringing the program to Iowa.
“Joan has an incredible willingness to meet each person where they are and discover the best in them,” Whiston says. “We work with some pretty heavy stuff during these sessions. Joan guides people to self-awareness and self-disclosure in a non-threatening way that also shows her sense of humor.”
Founded by prison inmates and Quaker volunteers in New York, AVP has spread across the country and abroad, including to schools, businesses, and community organizations. It fosters nonviolence one individual at a time.
“In prisons, we want inmates to have a chance to open up, share stories, and develop relationships,” Rinner says. “AVP is premised on showing respect for the positive side of each person and building a sense of trust.”
About 15 inmates take part in a typical beginners’ workshop. Over three days, they talk about their lives and learn to harness “transforming power”—the option to pause, talk, listen, laugh, or use whatever other strategy might defuse a conflict.
“It sometimes seems so easy for us as community facilitators,” Rinner says. “All we have to do is listen to them. We help provide a place for them to say out loud things they’ve probably spent hours, maybe even years, thinking about.”
Rinner takes part in three or four prison workshops each year, sometimes with inmates who’ve returned for advanced sessions or to train as facilitators themselves. Her work with the program earned her a UI President’s Award for Public Engagement this year.
The stresses of prison culture can turn a minor conflict violent, whereas campus tensions tend to simmer at much lower heat. Regardless, Rinner says, it’s important to predict and recognize conflict, and to deal with it openly and constructively.
“When someone betrays or hurts us, we sometimes don’t want to let it go. The conflict becomes part of our identity,” she says. “Contemporary research tells us that letting conflict fester hurts us physically, that we improve our emotional and physical health by moving on.”
Rinner says a change of thinking can be good for our bodies, brains, and spirits. One reason she’s embraced work with AVP is the tangible benefits.
“I feel extremely blessed in my life, and I like finding ways to give back,” she says. “Making a contribution leaves me feeling energized.”
Story by Lin Larson; Photo by Tim Schoon
Oct. 1, 2007