We call it self-defense because an empowering experience where you find your voice, increase your awareness, discover the power of your body, and build a strong community of women is too long.
Self-defense: It’s a term that conjures up images of mace, karate chops and swift kicks.
But for five women who congregated in the gymnasium at Housing Opportunities for Women (1607 W. Howard) on a warm August morning, self-defense also means voice, awareness, truth and healing.
Those women—along with three assistants from the Rogers Park Community Council—participated in a free workshop hosted by IMPACT Chicago whose mission includes “ending violence and building a non-violent world in which all people can live safely and with dignity.”
It may sound like a tall order, but with the Martha Thompson at the helm, anything is possible. Her goal is to empower women and dispel social and cultural myths about their limitations. “What sets IMPACT apart from other self-defense courses is the opportunity for students to practice full-force strikes in realistic scenarios with padded attackers,” she says. IMPACT’s focus on a woman’s physical and emotional well-being is another element that sets it apart from other programs. Although women invariably find that they share many feelings with other participants, each of their experiences is unique. Emotional reactions to IMPACT training vary tremendously depending on personal history, family environment, social and economic status, ethnicity, cultural origin and other factors.
It was in fact a wish to reach women of diverse backgrounds and persuasions that prompted Thompson to start applying for grants. “While IMPACT is primarily a volunteer-led organization, our operating costs are substantial,” she explains. “Because of the full contact during workshops, we have to have insurance that would pretty much cover a football team. Then we have to run a not-for-profit, pay our instructors, maintain our equipment, do ongoing professional development—it adds up really quickly.” “Depending on the course, fees can reach several hundred dollars,” notes Thompson, “and a lot of women simply don’t have that kind of money.”
Upon analyzing participant demographics, Thompson realized that the organization was serving mostly white women, ages 25 to 40, with middle incomes or higher. “And that meant we were not meeting our mission,” she says. “If we want to reach women, we have to go where women are,” she says. “Not only do we want to train a variety of women, but we want to work with a bigger vision of anti-violence work.”
Expanding that vision means building relationships with other organizations already committed to empowering women. One of those organizations is the Rogers Park Community Council (RPCC). “I found out about IMPACT through a domestic violence training I attended at Jewish Child & Family Services,” says Jennifer Caruso, director of RPCC’s Victim Advocacy & Support Program (VASP).
VASP is one of only two programs in the entire City of Chicago to work directly with law enforcement. “Whenever police make a domestic violence-related call anywhere in the 20th and 24th Districts, we automatically get a referral,” explains Caruso, whose phone call to Thompson ultimately led to a partnership between the two organizations. “I couldn’t be happier about this,” says Caruso. “As a domestic violence advocate, I come into contact with so many clients in desperate need of self-defense skills.”
Some of those skills include eye strikes, groin kicks and palm heels to the nose. At 56, workshop participant Virginia Hester doubted whether she could really enact such skills. “My sister and my cousin both learned martial arts, but I’ve always felt left out because of medical problems,” she explains. In one of her attack scenarios, Hester executed an effective palm heel and knee to the groin. “My instincts took over,” exclaims Hester, who was able to further her training thanks to an IMPACT scholarship. “I couldn’t believe I had it in me!”
But that is exactly what IMPACT is about—dispelling myths about what women can and can’t do. “Women are taught all their lives that they are weak, but that’s just not the case,” says instructor Rob Babcock, who has been involved with IMPACT since 1999. “Men generally have greater upper-body strength, but women’s hips and legs are incredibly strong.”
IMPACT students are taught to make the most of that lower-body strength by “falling” to the ground when an attack is imminent. The legs are coiled in, ready to strike the groin and other vulnerable areas. “We know of at least one situation where an attacker ran away as soon as the woman went to the ground and brought her leg up ready to strike,” says Thompson.
But while the stance alone may be effective— especially when used in tandem with a strong voice and body language—women may find themselves in situations that call for a fight. IMPACT training provides them with the tools they need to win that fight. “I was surprised to learn how effective the techniques really are,” notes one of the class participants who hails from a strict religious background. “Some of the moves are very basic, but they are enough to stop an attacker or prevent a rape.”
RPCC executive director Liz Vitell agrees. “I never imagined I could physically defend myself, but IMPACT showed me that I am capable of it,” she explains. “It also made me aware of my own possibly subconscious belief that if someone attacked me, he would prevail,” she adds.
Vitell, who served as an assistant during a workshop at Rogers Park Community Council, has an extensive background working with victims. In the 1990s, she served as a Cook County prosecutor of domestic violence cases, and later as the Crime Victims Compensation Bureau Chief in the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Before joining RPCC, she worked with the Washington, D.C.-based International Justice Mission, a nonprofit organization working to enforce human rights in Africa, Asia and Latin America. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet survivors from all over the globe,” she says. “If women around the world had the chance to acquire the basic skills that IMPACT teaches, much of the trauma I have seen could have been lessened or avoided,” she says.
Thompson dreams of the day when IMPACT will reach those women. But meanwhile, IMPACT Chicago continues to meet its mission of making its programs accessible to Chicago women of all economic, racial/ethnic, and social groups.
IMPACT Core Program grad
Rogers Park Community Council
Director, Senior Initiatives Program