One of the many things I loved about teaching self-defense at Home Alive was witnessing the generative creativity people tapped into when sharing ideas, stories, visions, and imaginations of fierce, playful and even fun self-defense strategies. It was inspiring and humbling to hold space for people to let go of fear and move into possibility. Play is not something people necessarily associate with a self-defense class. However, play, fun, and curiosity are essential for developing flexible, adaptable and ultimately more practical strategies for safety and community care.
It was not always easy for people to access play in self-defense classes. Participants often came to Home Alive fearful of being hurt, of being hurt again, and terrified of not being able to defend themselves or keep each other safe. One of the ways Home Alive classes’ interrupted fear and embodied play and fun was through exercises that demonstrated the multifaceted and imaginative ways people defend themselves. This approach demystified self-defense and supported notions of community care by highlighting ways people support and take care of one another without any “expert training”.
For example, when a student asked, “What should you do if someone grabs you like this?” teaching an actual grab release was secondary to using the question as an opportunity to expand people’s focus (which was narrow and laser like on the grab), and to engage in curious exploration of opportunities and contexts: Who is doing the grabbing? Where is the grabbling taking place? What is the nature of the relationship? What is the nature of the grab? What is the goal of the person being grabbed? What is the goal of the person grabbing? Are there social factors like power and privilege, access and ability to consider? What else is happening around the people? What other things are going on with their bodies? Faces? Are they sitting or standing, walking or moving? Are there other people around? Are they at work? In a home? On a bus? At a party? In a meeting? If there are other people around, who are they? Friends? Strangers? Coworkers? Team members? Officemates?
Having participants explore the multiplicity of context interrupts the notion that there is one (right) way to defend one’s self. These exercise also expand discussions of self-defense to include social constructs and community engagement. In addition, people were encouraged to generate a wide range of options together demonstrating for one another their creativity, diversity, adaptability and humor, all of which are central to community care.
Community care is about understanding that the way someone protects themselves or sets a boundary may not only be wildly different from the way you would, but may seem unsafe, uncomfortable or even inconceivable. We must support people in their individual approaches to self-defense, boundary setting, safety and self-care, even if we disagree with them. All of us cannot and will not set boundaries in the same way. Not all self-defense strategies are accessible, possible or desirable for every body. Mainstream posits that there are specific and correct ways people should defend themselves, such as checklists and safety tips, are weaponized through victim blaming. In addition, these types of approaches to safety inevitably ignore, or minimize how race, class, gender, ability, and age inform how people navigate the world, how they are perceived, what kinds of violence they are likely to face and what access to social/individual/community resources may be available.
Rather than narrow options, community care endeavors to expand the ranges of options. When we deeply accept that safety, self-defense and even what constitutes violence and abuse will mean different things to different communities at different times, then we create spaciousness and room for all kinds of boundaries. If a self-defense class teaches that calling the police is a good, acceptable, reasonable and safe response to harassment the needs of entire communities who do not experience police presence as safe are ignored. The class also looses out on expanding imaginations about other kinds of responses, such as: community accountability groups, informal support networks, bystander trainings, police/law enforcement accountability projects, education curricula, or public forums.
Another way options are narrowed is by assuming vulnerability is universal. Home Alive held a class where people came dressed in the clothing they wore for a night out on the town. Some participants wore very high heels. There were questions about the choice to wear such shoes and even concerns about me as an instructor “condoning” someone wearing high heel shoes in situations where someone might have to defend themselves. The belief that high heels make someone more vulnerable is a myth. People can and do defend themselves in all kinds of outfits and footwear. This gendered myth rooted in misogyny conflates high heels with vulnerability, is stranger focused, and able-bodied centric, assuming the person will not be able to successfully defend themselves or escape unless they wearing “sensible” shoes.
At it’s best, community care broadens the frame, language and dialogue about safety, offering multiple and sometimes conflicting options for self-defense. Community care interrupts victim blaming and interweaves individual and communal safety. Most importantly community care centers those whom are the most blamed, most shamed, and marginalized, not as victims to be taught how to keep themselves safe, but as leaders who can widen the lens of safety to include their stories and experiences as vibrant, creative as well as playful and fun ways of defending ourselves and defending one another.