'Marvelous Margy' recognized for bringing peace into New Mexico prisons
Alternatives to Violence Project workshops teach peaceful methods of conflict resolution and help participants build leadership skills
By Cynthia Miller
The Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. — Margaret Willen choked up a little as she recalled the comments she has received from state prison inmates in the nonviolence workshops she has led for years.
"It's so nice to know that we're not forgotten."
"I didn't have to be afraid today."
Willen — known as Marvelous Margy to colleagues and inmates in the all-volunteer Alternatives to Violence Project of Northern New Mexico — offers a series of two-day workshops, most often for women at the Springer Correctional Center, that teach peaceful methods of conflict resolution and help participants build leadership skills. Many inmates in the program are trained to become workshop facilitators, aiding Willen and other AVP volunteers in leading the experiential skill-building exercises.
"We train people who are incarcerated to be our colleagues," Willen said.
She described a "little touch of enthusiasm" she senses from participants as they first walk in to begin their two-day journey. She's considered why the program is successful, she said, and she believes she has the answer: "Number one, we walk in with respect for people who are coming to our workshop. ... It's genuine."
Willen's work with hundreds of New Mexico inmates as co-coordinator of the AVP program has earned her recognition as one of the Santa Fe New Mexican's 10 Who Made a Difference for 2022.
AVP of Northern New Mexico is part of what has become a worldwide violence-reduction program, offered not only in detention centers but also in communities, some shaken with horrific violence. It dates to the 1970s, when inmates at a New York state prison asked local Quakers to help them develop a program for incarcerated youth. National studies show prisons with established AVP programs see lower rates of violence and reduced rates of recidivism when prisoners are released.
Willen, 77, a Quaker for the past 20 years, has been working with New Mexico's program since 2005, when the idea was introduced at a local Quaker meeting. She participated in the program's workshop series and facilitated her first workshop in a state prison in 2006. She has since facilitated the workshops bimonthly.
She's also led workshops in Nepal, training community members to aid sex trafficking victims.
Willen said the work is "a big, big commitment," but she can't give it up.
The inmates aren't the only ones who learn from the experience, Willen said. "We learn more about ourselves after we spend two days with people who are incarcerated."
Emily Hartigan, one of only a handful of non-inmate volunteer AVP facilitators in the state, nominated Willen for the award.
"Having had the privilege of working with her at Springer, I can attest to her deep devotion to the women there and those she has helped to train for the facilitator role themselves," Hartigan wrote in her nomination letter.
Joyce Victor, another facilitator for AVP of Northern New Mexico, described Willen as a "quiet force" for the program. "When the rest of us get tired, Margy keeps working," she said.
"She believes in the women she works with," Victor added. "Again and again, I see her deeply moved by the tendernesses that people show as they work together to deal with violence in their lives. She has skills, but she also has a deep heart."
Spreading peace in prison comes as a sort of second career for Willen, a longtime educator. She and her husband, Richard, worked at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales from 1979 until they retired in 2002. He taught sociology, she said, while she taught French language and literature and women's studies, and then transitioned into administration.
The couple — who have one son and a new grandson born just weeks ago in Baltimore — moved to Santa Fe after their retirement.
Asked about her life before New Mexico, Willen chuckled. "I'm a military brat," she said. "I've lived in many different places." She named Omaha, Neb., Guam and Germany. She went to college in the state of Washington, a place where still has close ties.
She didn't mind moving around for her father's military work. "Parents set the stage," she said, and hers "made it into a great adventure."
Her mother was predominantly a homemaker, caring for Willen and her older brother, she said; she noted her mother also became a newspaper woman in Nebraska and taught school in Guam.
Volunteer work became a priority for Willen and her husband after their move to Santa Fe. Her first gig, she said, was tutoring fourth grade students in math at the old Agua Fría Elementary School.
"It was an eye-opener for me because it really helped introduce me to Northern New Mexico," she said, adding she loved learning about the children and their lives.
Willen also volunteered at the Vista Grande Public Library in Eldorado, where the children's reading program was focused at the time on what she called " Harry Potter mania."
Her work with inmates through AVP was a big leap — one she doesn't regret for a second. She feels privileged to do it.
"It's a privilege to be trusted," she said. "It's a privilege for them to trust that we can help them a little."
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