Wednesday, January 8, 2014

mind body mama: Is Self-Defense Victim-Blaming?

The smartass part of me says, "Not if you do it right."

The professional part of me points to the National Women's Martial Arts Federation empowerment-model (in which I am certified) and the professional Core Competencies (which I co-authored.)

But my colleague Susan Schorn--author of Smile at Strangers and the Bitchslap column at McSweeneys--goes to the mat on this topic in a gorgeous, impassioned long-form essay at The Hairpin. I'm proud to have been part of the conversation leading up to this great piece and to be quoted throughout on my thoughts about self-defense.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

mindbodymama: Around and about

Hey folks, lest you think I've been lollygagging these last few months here are some linky-links to my recent projects: 

Over at Ms. Fit, Real World Feminist Fitness, I jumped into the feminist fray over Dear Prudence's failure to call out the rape culture vis-a-vis the link between alcohol and sexual assault on college campuses.  If you're a regular here, you've heard my take before.  Self defense is a sensible response to a dangerous world, but there is only ever one person responsible for an act of violence: The perpetrator. 

In the current issue of Ms. Fit I jump on one of my favorite soapboxes: teaching violence prevention skills to our kids in developmentally appropriate ways.  Don't just read what I have to say about Strong Voice, Safe Bodies--practice with your kids and tell your friends. 

Last but not least, head on over to Say Something, a community engagement project of Safe Passage.  I was the lead writer on this initiative and created the Say Something Superhero Field Guide: A Manual for Eliminating Interpersonal Violence:

...a mash-up of the public health evidence-base about what works to create safer communities with the experience of domestic violence service providers, the moral compass of social justice movements and the badassery of feminist empowerment self defense.  It is a guidebook and a workbook designed to support anyone who wants to create more safety, peace and respect in their corner of the world. 
Check it out!  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

mind body mama: The Big Reveal

I approached the decision to pursue the program in Social Innovation at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work with profound care, including deep personal reflection and extensive research.  It is the result of a conscious process of discernment and healing.   
I am applying to Boston College as a critical investment in my professional development and aspirations.  I believe the academic excellence of this program will challenge my intellect in a manner that is unprecedented in my life and for which I am deeply hungry.  I anticipate that the faith-based mission of the institution will nurture my spirit, matching the ways in which my goals are animated by my own faith.  And I believe the program in Social Innovation will expand upon my existing professional competencies, giving me the necessary preparation and credentials to assume greater leadership in the movement to end sexual and gendered violence.
A Diverse Career, Many Options:  I considered a number of career options and academic programs before identifying graduate work in social work as my first choice. Macro practice social work uniquely makes sense of my diverse professional background and prepares me for future professional goals. 
I hold an undergraduate degree in a self-designed dual major of Women’s Studies and English (City University of New York, CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies, 1991; Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa).  I first worked in social justice non-profit administration.  In the 1990s I managed membership, coordinated legislative advocacy efforts, and conducted individual and foundation fundraising for The New York AIDS Coalition, an umbrella organization of HIV/AIDS service providers.  Later I worked at Teacher’s College (Columbia University) and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  These positions gave me experience in community organizing, public policy, event production, fund development, and public relations.  Working among HIV/AIDS service providers in the early days of the epidemic, I learned a great deal about the social service system in New York City.  I also witnessed the powerful forces of inequality, grief, compassion, dignity, and resilience.  Concepts like “harm reduction” and “universal precautions,” which emerged as key principles of HIV/AIDS prevention, deeply influence my current thinking about interpersonal violence prevention.
Following more than a decade as an administrator, I withdrew from the workforce to start a family.   As my daughter grew, I parlayed my avocation as a martial artist and empowerment-based self defense instructor into flexible, meaningful, and reliable work by becoming certified as a personal fitness trainer.  I also sought paid opportunities to teach personal safety skills.
A Call to Service: As I expanded my self-employment over the past five years, anti-violence education and primary prevention work emerged as a driving passion and a call to service.
While in college, I trained as a self-defense instructor at the Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE) in Brooklyn, New York.  CAE was among the first schools to teach defensive fighting skills exclusively to women, to expand upon those skills with awareness, assertiveness, and boundary-setting strategies, and to contextualize violence against women within a feminist and anti-racist analysis.  My self-defense training became the practice to match the feminist and social justice theory I explored in Women’s Studies.  For over ten years, I served CAE as a volunteer, board member and instructor.
I have taught self defense since 1991; anti-violence education has been central to my paid employment since 2010.  Drawing from best practices of allied disciplines such as anti-bias and sexuality education, I utilize experiential teaching methods to cultivate mental, emotional, verbal, postural, and de-escalation skills. I am committed to cultivating a trauma-sensitive classroom.  Recently my work has expanded to include consulting with organizations regarding best practices for prevention of interpersonal violence, including the development of staff-training and bystander-intervention curricula.  I am increasingly sought after as a public speaker and content expert on issues of interpersonal violence, contributing to both local and online media. 
I have come to understand the enthusiastic response to my teaching, writing and speaking not only as personal praise but as a call to service.  I believe that I have a unique voice in the anti-violence movement as well as an unusual ability to synthesize a complex intersectional analysis of violence into comprehensive, actionable steps to create greater safety.  I am humbled to know I have helped countless students achieve a deeper and more accurate understanding of how violence operates in our world and provided concrete skills to protect them and their families.
The transition from anti-violence educator and activist to leader of anti-violence agencies requires administrative and professional skills beyond what I developed in my early career.  Through course and field work, I expect to gain a deeper foundation in theory and an evidence base with which to strengthen my practice.  I am eager to improve my research skills and to achieve greater understanding of program planning, design, and assessment.   My career will be enhanced by an increased ability to analyze public policy and comprehend funding sources.  A social work degree will convey a professional credential appropriate to the level of leadership I wish to assume in public service.
A Process of Discernment: Macro practice social work is consistent with my history and goals, making sense of where I’ve been and opening up new possibilities.  One of the things that most excites me about the social work profession is its flexibility—the way that social work draws in professional opportunities rather than ruling them out. While I have a clear goal in mind, social work encompasses even the most outlying of the possibilities I considered, including counseling, teaching/advising at the college level, or hospital chaplaincy. 
Before identifying social work as the correct next step, I seriously considered attending seminary and pursuing ordination as a Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister.  But I discovered that I do not wish to work as a religious professional.  Rather, I am called to work that expresses my faith and uses my gifts and talents in service of a better world.  The more I learned about the profession of social work, the more deeply I understood the vocation as resonant with my faith.  The central social work concept of understanding people in their environment, and the strong values of compassion and justice reflected in the profession, affirm core UU principles: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” and “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.”  A great part of Boston College’s appeal is the fact that it is a faith-based institution.  I am eager to be part of a diverse mission-driven community of social work students.
A Long Time Coming: Five years ago, my daughter entered kindergarten and I turned 40 in the same month.  At that time, I began a ruthless personal inventory and a period of exploration, growth, and healing.  A critical piece was coming to understand the narrative of my life thus far, to appreciate the blessings of the path I had travelled, to grieve its losses, and to reflect on what the next period of my life might bring.  
For reasons of circumstance, identity and experience, I was not able to pursue professional achievement appropriate to my capacity earlier in my life.  My late adolescence was tumultuous as I navigated being the first person in my blue-collar family to attend college, my emerging lesbian identity and the devastating effects of sexual trauma.  I was fortunate to have a loving, supportive family, but much of my struggle was invisible or incomprehensible to them. 
I devoted a great deal of my energy during my twenties to coming out, recovering from violence, and simply growing up.  Although I was successful in both my non-profit work and my anti-violence avocation, I was not able to pursue greater achievement because these developmental tasks took priority.  It was only in mid-life, having achieved a measure of stability, happiness, and success I could not have envisioned as a young adult, that I began to imagine a bigger place in the world for myself.
I have been blessed by skilled and generous helpers.  During my twenties and the more recent period of growth and discernment, I have been served by MSW-level clinicians who helped me to understand my own experience in the context of my family and culture.  My faith journey is supported by the ministry of religious professionals and lay leaders.  I have been mentored as an anti-violence educator by generous and visionary teachers and colleagues, many of whom are themselves social workers.  I have cultivated a community of friends who provide mutual witness and assistance. 
It is because of the help I have received that I have been able to grow through experiences that might have destroyed me.  I have come to believe that personal vulnerability is the raw material of empathy.   I understand that the ways in which we are humbled by life inform our ability for gratitude, compassion and service.  I believe there is no better way to honor those who have helped me on my path than to work to create a safer world.
I Am Ready: I am a methodical, serious-minded, and risk-averse individual.  I would not consider the tremendous investment of time, energy and money required for a graduate degree if I did not believe wholeheartedly that I had selected a stellar program and could successfully balance my many obligations.  I worked nearly full time throughout most of my undergraduate years while maintaining impeccable grades.  Currently I balance the responsibilities of home and family with self-employment. Over the past five years I built twin professional practices in personal fitness training and anti-violence education while serving as a lay religious leader, volunteering in the community, pursuing professional education, and researching and reflecting upon this next step.
My child is now ten years old and requires less and less hands-on custodial care.  I am blessed to be in a stable, seventeen-year relationship that has weathered many transitions and to receive emotional, logistical and financial support from my spouse.  I anticipate the flexibility of my self-employment will allow me to adjust my paid work around the demands of my classes and fieldwork.  Although it will be a hardship, my family can absorb a period of reduced income if necessary. I hope to finance my education through a combination of institutional support, personal savings, family contributions, and limited borrowing.  Debt is of considerable concern to me as social work is a moderately paid field; it is necessary that this step to contribute to, rather than put at risk, my family’s long-term stability.
The next step in my personal, academic and professional growth will be to earn a graduate degree in social work.  It is my strong belief that the program in Social Innovation Macro Practice at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work is the very best place for me to undertake this exciting, transformative work. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

mind body mama: Hey, Could You Watch My....

Lately I’ve been writing in the library of the local women’s college, where signs hang on every bulletin board courtesy of public safety warning all to “never leave your belongings unattended.”
(This is an improvement from last year’s signs, which stated “Laptops have been stolen from the library.  All laptops were stolen because they were left unattended.”  Actually, the laptops were stolen because someone was a thief.  The police recommended a risk-reduction strategy of watching your stuff.)
We—the social work students, the undergrads taking summer classes at the big University down the road, the sketchy writers and hangers-on such as myself—slouch into the library burdened by our laptops, our index cards, our messenger bags, our snacks, our water bottles and giant iced coffees.  We spread out on the glossy coffee tables or the tasteful club chairs and ottomans and settle in for the long haul of brain work. 
And sooner or later, we have to pee.
So an informal cultural practice has sprung up.  Mesmerized by the light of my own screen, I’ll catch a hopeful smile gliding into my airspace.  I pull out one ear bud.  “Would you mind,” she says, “watching my laptop?”
This scene repeats over and over all day, each of us taking our turn.  I take my turn, almost every day.
Now, it’s possible that the person whom I approach, supplicant—gesturing at the detritus of my research; my Timbuktu bag that holds a burner cellphone, $4 in cash, and an index card of things I want to talk about in therapy; my aging laptop with its dead battery—is exactly the person who was about to steal all of it when I turned my back.
But in the course of asking, I’ve looked into someone’s eyes and issued an expectation—I expect you to be a safe person with whom to leave my stuff.  I might not know your name, but I know who you are—you’re the social worker with the hipster glasses and the vegan lunch.  I’m the dyke with the tight fade and the bright kicks. If you mean to do me harm by taking my stuff, I’m going to find you.
But because most people are not thieves—most people will not take one another’s stuff, and want their stuff not to be taken—I’m probably not taking much of a risk.  I’m probably just making transparent the truth that we are already in relationship.  The fact that we are not actually strangers but neighbors, with a common interest in maintaining the integrity and ownership of our property.
What if we did this around interpersonal violation and violence?
What if we felt the same right to have our persons held harmless as we do our property?
What if we had the chutzpah to look into another person’s eyes and say, “I expect you to be someone who will honor my bodily integrity and my personal desires?" To say, “I expect you to be someone who will help me be safe.”
What if we had a cultural practice of asking those around us—friends and neighbors—“Hey, could you keep an eye on my boundaries?”
Would it mean our friends and neighbors might feel empowered to take action when they saw someone crossing them?
I think of the countless times the younger me was crowded by some man’s violations in public.  Often, I caught the sad and compassionate eyes of a neighbor who knew exactly how I felt: shamed, silenced, stuck. 
What if those people had spoken up? “Hey, she looks like she doesn’t want to talk to you right now,” she might have said.  Or, “She told you to stop touching her.  You’re not listening.”  Or, “For fuck’s sake, man, no one wants to see your junk.  Put it away.”
I know there are intentional communities where people don’t worry about their stuff, where everyone has covenanted around the safety of property.  We’re not there yet in the wider world, either about property or interpersonal violation. 
The first step is to ask each other for help.  To begin a conversation which, at its core, says, “We all want to be safe.”  The first step is to lift our eyes from our solitude and say to each other “Hey, can you watch my back? I'll watch yours.”

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

mind body mama: There Are No By-Standers (I): In which we are all perpetrators

Experts in sexual violence prevention will tell you that perpetrators groom their intended victims—isolating them and desensitizing them to progressively more intrusive behavior.

This term “grooming” is used most often with regard to the way that adult perpetrators move in on targeted children.  Since Penn State we are hearing more about these warning signs, and how those responsible for children can maintain best practices that make it unsafe for perpetrators to violate.
If we disallow sexualized behavior by adults in multi-generational spaces; if we are scrupulous about transparency and “two sets of eyes;” if we maintain universal precautions and reject “special” rules for “special” grownups; if we empower our kids with knowledge of their own bodies, with agency to trust their internal “ok-meter” and assertiveness to speak up if they feel uncomfortable—we create a climate where perpetration is harder. Where perps don’t feel safe to pursue their agenda of violation. Where there are too many obstacles to perpetuating sexual violence.
This is a good thing.  No, this is a great thing.
And now, I’d like us to also do this great thing on behalf of women.  
Not because women need to be protected, in the way that safe grown-ups need to protect the kiddos.  But because our culture does a sexual predator who targets women the solid of delivering half of his grooming for him. 
How’s that for helpful?
I was catching up on the podcasts from my gay boyfriend and was thrilled to hear his advice—and his callers’ advice—to a girl who wondered, what to do about the guy who touched her ass at karaoke?
This after the guy had crossed her boundaries in escalating ways through the evening, from unwelcome attention to unconsented touch.
(You should listen to the question and Dan’s answer here and then the thoughtful comments from his listeners over here.)
And now I’d like to say this about that:
If an essential element of perpetration is the isolation of an intended victim, then anyone who watches a guy make a girl uncomfortable through progressively escalating jackassery and says nothing: is a perp.
Anyone who think that what happens between two people engaged in—or on the way towards—a sexual or romantic relationship is so fundamentally private that we’re not allowed to say anything about it, even when it’s obvious jackassery: is a perp.
Anyone who would hold a woman accountable for interrupting everyone’s good time when she tells some jackass to take his hand off her butt—rather than blame the party-interuptus upon the jackass: is a perp.
The folks who perpetuate a culture in which women’s agency over their own bodies is fundamentally distrusted and institutionally undermined (good morning, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina): are perps.
Because when we tell girls and women that their bodies are subject to the control of others rather than promoting women’s bodily integrity and empowering their own agency, we contribute to the grooming process.
When we value girls’ willingness to accommodate others over their ability to assert themselves, we contribute to the grooming process.
When we give creepy men a pass for inappropriate behavior and leave it up to their intended victim to fend for herself, we contribute to the grooming process.
Women feel shame, silence and isolation when they are coerced via social norms to endure unwanted touch.  This is not because epidemic numbers of individual women are neurotic, passive and disconnected.
We feel this way because we live in a culture that tells us our bodies are not our own, that we should not make a scene, that violence against us is our own fault. 
This is not a situational coercion, in which we are not assertive because we want to keep everyone’s goodtime rolling. It is a lifetime of coercion, via our acculturation.
And we know—we know!—that these kinds of boundary violations are a method of desensitizing potential victims.  We know that they are part of a selection process whereby perpetrators identify women they may be able to visit greater violation upon.  We know that this kind of jackassery in a casual encounter does not bode well for jackass’ capacity to honor and respect boundaries in a more intimate relationship.  We know that patterns of power and control in relationship can be foreshadowed by these early warning signs of disrespect and intrusion.
Perps don’t have to isolate women to deliver unwanted attention or inappropriate touch upon them.  They can operate in plain sight and count on the community to isolate her for them.
This is why I say: We are all perps.
But, we can all become superheroes if we try.

Next: There Are No By-Standers (II): In which we are all superheroes.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

mind body mama: Falling Practice (II)

A long time ago, in a place called Prospect Park, I saved myself and my date from assault by a gang of young men.

We were sitting on the wide veranda of the boathouse, looking at the water, getting to know each other.  She was a hockey player turned shortstop, just home from the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver.  I was a baby karateka.   We had wandered off from the softball diamond where our friends were playing.

We didn’t hear them come up behind us, or maybe we did.  I was vaguely aware that people were about.  The dark fell faster than we expected, the days were getting shorter.  One of them walked with a cane; he was the leader.

I was in the park with a pretty girl, a girl with a sad heart and a strong body, a girl who liked me.  Maybe I let myself get lost in her stories.  Maybe I held her hand.  Maybe I told her something true.

Maybe I kissed her.

The one with the cane yelled, “Get ‘em.”

We ran.

We were up  as one body, sudden and fast.  Aching around the endless edge of that enormous building, fighting for the path.  We heard them on our heels. We never turned to see them.   Our feet took the grade to the bridge.   I saw the incalculable distance between where we were and where our friends were, where we could get help.

Who was in front, who was behind?  What did we say to each other?  How did we decide where to run? 

How did the terror bloom its mushroom cloud inside us?

I stumbled. 

First my feet were on the path, and then my hands and one knee, and then my feet again, as if the stumble was just part of one long and complicated stride, as if my gait included falling on the ground and getting up again.  I stumbled but I did not stop, seamless as a wheel.

And all the time, I yelled. 

I opened my lungs and my mouth and bellowed.  The yell I had only heard before in the training hall echoed through the park.  I yelled as loud and as long as I could, a foghorn, a siren, an ear shattering alarm.  I called to cover the distance I feared  I could not run.  I shouted for help.  I yelled for my life.

The one with the cane called the others off.

The footsteps stilled behind us.  We ran until our breath was ragged, dropped on the ground when we got safe.  Touched each other’s hands and knees for comfort, leaned into each other.

Here on the epic journey, I feel myself falling to one knee sometimes.  My hands are strafed by gravel, my knee bleeds into the dirt.  The breath is knocked out of me, my body seizes with the effort to get it back. 

I feel the horror baying behind me, the pounding footsteps of terror.  I fear I cannot outrun it. I feel the ground offering itself to me: A place to fall down, or something to push off.  I feel my heart pounding in my ears.  I wonder if I will ever breathe easy again.

All around me I hear a wild inchoate bellow, a beast howling its own survival. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

mind body mama: Prayer Practice

Reflection delivered at Our House of Worship, Sunday May 26, 2013.

It has been said—by me—that nature is a place where other people go while I sit on the porch drinking a glass of wine and wait for them to come back.

So imagine my discomfort when I found myself embedded in this company, tasked to create worship among peers whose practice celebrates the natural world.  Their reverence and attention, their pull towards ritual rooted in the stuff of earth – messy and sensual – intimidated me.

And yet:

On Monday night, I woke in the dark with the thorn heavier than lead weighing on my soul. It was an old and grievous hurt that pulled on me, that drove me from my bed.

My first instinct was to burst out the back door into the soft night, to put my aching heart under the wide dark sky.  I thought of that poem by Billy Collins, where the poet gazes on the full moon and thinks of:

…that poem by Coleridge
where he carries his year-old son
into the orchard behind the cottage
and turns the baby's face to the sky
to see for the first time
the earth's bright companion,
something amazing to make his crying seem small.

But there was no moon that night.  And there are reasons why I avoid nature, like the fact that my flesh is uniquely delicious to all biting insects.  I am allergic to everything.  I knew the grass would be wet, and the lawn littered with sticks and rocks and broken shards of Nerf darts run through the lawnmower.

And also there was the truth that my body wanted more than anything to be resting, to be comfortable, to be asleep.

I remembered that earlier in the day, Elizabeth had given me a rock to ground me through the last moments of anxiety as we created this service.  I went downstairs to get it.  It was the perfect size.  It was smaller than an apple.  It was bigger than a seed.   It was easy in my hand.  It was heavy and solid—it was the stuff of earth—it was a ballast to the heaviness in my heart. 

I took it back to my bed.  And then, in my clumsy way, I prayed.

This story is a map of my spiritual practice, in miniature.  It starts with awe at that which is bigger than me, that which I do not comprehend—which includes, of course, the abundant and gorgeous and messy and sometimes itchy natural world. 

It includes being present to the truth of my body, which is, in fact, the wildest and most incomprehensible natural landscape I can imagine. 

It includes being grounded to the earth somehow: attending to my breath, holding a rock against my palm.

It includes poetry, which has long served as a bridge between my consciousness of what I believe and my desire to experience that belief. 

And now, finally, it includes prayer.  I pray clumsily, haltingly. Sometimes guiltily, self-consciously, understanding that it is a strange and possibly ridiculous action to take as a self-proclaimed atheist.  Or even as a church lady of this church.

And yet:

Prayer is the practice by which I demonstrate to myself what I believe. It is the method by which I act into my faith. 

It is one thing to remind myself—that I believe in a “creativity and a connection that we do not control, in a universe that is always larger, more intricate, and more astonishing than we imagine.”  These are the words of Rev. Kendyll Gibbons, which some of you know I will quote at the drop of hat.

But prayer is different than thinking or reading about what I believe.  Prayer calls upon me to address the mystery—to say in effect, “Hey, Creative Connection Beyond my Control!  You there, Large, Intricate, Astonishing Universe!  Whatever you’ve got—lay it on me.”

Prayer requires me to act as if I am in relationship with all that I do not understand.  When you are in relationship with something or someone – be it a beloved, a being, or the stuff of the earth—a rock, a feather, a thorn—you listen sometimes.  You talk sometimes.  You know it with your body sometimes.

And prayer is not only a balm for the heavy heart.  It can also be a reframe of any personal triumph into a celebration of even greater abundance.  I read an article recently about Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, the climber who was the first woman to summit all 14 8,000-meter peaks without oxygen. 

This is not an ambition that has any resonance for me. 

But this story spoke to me:

The journalist described how someone had made a video from the footage of Gerlinde’s ascent of K2.  In the first version, the final frame was a close-up of the climber with her arms raised in that universal sign of victory. 

Gerlinde didn’t like it. 

But in the second draft,

“The flow of photographs … had been altered so that the crescendo of the music did not proclaim the glory of one mountaineer that sundown hour on the summit of K2 but of the great world she could see all around her, transfigured in golden light.”

This is also something prayer can give me: It can affirm that whatever wonderful and amazing thing is happening for me, is happening in a context of limitless wonder and amazement.  That goodness is not finite, that it is in me and around me all my days.

Please pray with me now. 

Begin by finding your body around you.  Listen to how it would most like to be arrayed.  Feel whatever is touching it—the seat, the floor, the air, the stuff of earth.  Make space in your body for your breath. 


Let us pray:

That which is beyond our understanding,
Thank you for the amazing abundant world we are privileged to inhabit.
Thank you for the beauty of the earth,
and the wonder of our perfect, fallible human bodies.

Help us to discover that however amazing and abundant we know this world to be,
it is even more so.

In the dark night, when we are lonely and frightened,
help us to remember that we are not alone.
Hold us in love: The unearned love that has been called grace,
and the personal love we have from and for one another,
our fellow travelers.

Help us to remember to ask for help.
Help us to remember that help will be forthcoming.

In the moments of our most awesome triumphs,
help us to draw back to the wider view
to know that there is even more awesomeness within us and around us
than we will ever know.

Forgive us our mistakes by allowing us to learn from them
to rise every new day into a world recreated,
into a prayer heard and answered.

May it be so.

Sources: Everybody Needs a Rock.