Monday, August 3, 2020

IMPACT Chicago’s Culture of Empowerment: A Foundation for Anti-Racism Work

Below I offer an analysis of IMPACT Chicago using the Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture developed by Tema Okun to consider the ways it is (and is not) an empowering culture. This analysis was prompted by recent organizational discussions about if and how to adopt an explicitly anti-racist mission statement. Thank you to Amy Amoroso, Ellyn Bank, Amy Harmon, and Martha Thompson for their helpful input on this analysis. I am writing from my perspective as a long-time volunteer with IMPACT Chicago, not for the organization. [Editor’s note: see below.]

Culture of Improvement (instead of Perfectionism). IMPACT Chicago is forward-focused and seeks to continually improve. In my experience, IMPACT Chicago people routinely adopt a problem-solving mindset, rather than a blaming one. We are an organization that is open to learning and to change. Mistakes as we learn are expected.

Realistic Planning & Solid Decision-Making Processes (instead of Sense of Urgency). In numerous ways, IMPACT does an effective job at planning realistically and making decisions rationally. Examples include:

- Our grant proposals do not over promise and allow the necessary time for partnering with organizations to meet their needs. All of our grant work has been centered on community groups. Their needs have been at the forefront.

- Our training timelines recognize that building the level of quality we need takes repeated experiences and time to internalize, reflect, and redo.

- Also, our shared governance structure (board, instructors, admin) is designed to push us to build consensus, although this can take more time.

In terms of areas for improvement, examples include:

- Filling classes has consistently put pressure on our decision-making and planning. The sense of urgency around filling classes falls disproportionately on the shoulders of our Registration Coordinator. We have shifted work to promote courses much earlier and this is proving helpful.

- Many people feel rushed because we are all doing this work on the margins of our lives. There is no one who has IMPACT as their primary focus.

Call-In Culture (instead of Defensiveness). IMPACT has done well creating a call-in culture through the curriculum, in the following ways:

- the focus is on front-loading principles to our students (e.g. a focus on behavior rather than appearance to communicate an anti-racist stance).

- Feedback to participants is given in a manner that is forward-focused (e.g., what they can do next, rather than what they didn’t quite get).

- The instructor and workshop leader teams regularly review feedback from participants and adapt our programming to address concerns and make improvements.

- Our training process requires those in training to receive large amounts of feedback and incorporate it into their work.

In IMPACT Chicago, behind-the-scenes organizational work is largely done by women. Given our mission this is no surprise, but this pattern holds up across the not-for-profit world. I believe we need to accurately represent who has done the work, particularly when it is routine and unglamorous work. This work should be visible and valued. Pointing this out can be mistaken for defensiveness. In fact, this is an act of calling-in and I believe forms an important part in the fight for equity.

When people propose ideas without learning about what has been done or when people assume something is not being done because they are not aware of it, I have personally experienced defensiveness and have observed it in others. It is a challenge to ask people who volunteer their labor to run the organization to continually educate others about the work that is being done, when they could be keeping up with that information independently (by participating in social media, reading IMPACT’s blog, reading the eNews - to name a few). I have found it demoralizing to hear suggestions to do something a certain way when that is how it is already being done.

IMPACT tries to make invisible work visible so that it can be appreciated. Our current culture is one of appreciation within teams, but I believe we could improve appreciation across teams.

Quality over Quantity (instead of Quantity Over Quality). IMPACT Chicago has consistently chosen quality over quantity in all our programs. Instructor and Workshop Leader Training is rigorous and effective. Conflicts are handled with respect and with an eye toward establishing a high-quality process (e.g., how to fix the process that may be fueling the conflict).

Many Ways of Knowing (instead of Worship of the Written Word). As a largely virtual organization except when courses are taking place, IMPACT Chicago uses written policy, notes, and task tracking to communicate. However, our training recognizes that “doing” is an irreplaceable part of learning and our training is centered on “doing.” Experiences are processed in conversation with feedback.

Democratic (instead of Paternalism). Our organization chart is not hierarchical because we know that each area (admin, board, instructors) has to step up to lead but always in conversation and collaboration with the other parts. We could improve in terms of balancing the workload across the teams. In the recent past, the board has served solely as a sounding board without responsibility for fund-raising, board development, financial oversight or other areas that could rightly sit with them.

Both/And Thinking (instead of Either/Or Thinking). Our problem-solving mindset helps us maintain “both/and thinking.” We seek to understand and deal with complex situations, rather than simplifying or minimizing. We step outside binary thinking in terms of gender, which is important since we primarily are serving people who identify as women and girls . The IMPACT Chicago’s “Yes And” campaign (inspired by improv theater) reflects this approach.

Power Sharing (instead of Power Hoarding). An ongoing struggle is finding people to share the power and the work.

Embracing Constructive Conflict (instead of Fear of Open Conflict). We actively worked on this in the late 1990s and have continued to build our capacity for handling low level conflict in a constructive way. Several prescriptive models (including an adaptation of Rosenberg’s concept of Non-Violent Communication) have been used and help people hold one another accountable for constructively handling conflict when it arises and for reflecting upon what happened if things did not go smoothly.

Collectivism (instead of Individualism). Our work is explicitly not about individuals, but about community. Our instruction goes beyond “personal safety.” We do not talk about sexual assault as a private problem or as something that operates at an individual level. We are focused on violence prevention and community safety. Teamwork is central to our curriculum. Cooperation is valued. We could invest more in learning to work as part of a team following the model set by the Instructor Team.

Sustainable (instead of Progress is Bigger, More). Given that the organization is mostly volunteer-run, progress has been defined as filling our existing programs rather than growing them. Until we are able to offset the costs of our Core Programs, we will not be able to achieve sustainability. To develop greater sustainability, we need to have buy-in from across the organization for programming that is not currently being fulfilled locally or nationally and which does not depend on our expensive and longer length programs. Examples of offerings other than our longer programs include, working with local high schools to deliver their self-defense units or working with organizations serving people with disabilities to regularly offer training to staff and clients.

Subjective/Contextual (instead of Objectivity). We teach tools, not rules and that context matters. Our training emphasizes that a person’s experience is their own and we should not impose our interpretation onto them. We may offer alternative views or provide options for the future while affirming their reality. We are not bothered by being uncomfortable and see it as an important part of growth.

The IMPACT Curriculum has stood up well across cultures, in part due to our structurally- and culturally-situated approach to empowerment-based self-defense. In addition, our programs have been adapted to address different lived experiences (e.g., the IMPACT: Ability curriculum), and we are actively engaged in extending this work (e.g., gender inclusivity). In addition, we collaborate with our workshop clients to ensure we are meeting their needs. The tension here is always that we have limited staff and volunteer capacity.

While we will continue to improve our course content and scrutinize it closely, I believe that our curriculum provides a solid foundation for being both explicitly anti-racist and gender inclusive.

Discomfort (instead of Right to Comfort). As noted above, we value discomfort. In our programs, we encourage participants to embrace the unknown. Our work is not just about safety, it is about freedom. In terms of our teamwork, we often take discomfort as a signal that our process might not be heading us in a direction consistent with our mission, that the task at hand might have to be rethought, or that the interpersonal dynamics need some attention. We are comfortable with the idea that discomfort may be due to a lack of familiarity and does not necessarily need to be fixed.

While IMPACT Chicago has a solid foundation of inclusive practices, there is, and always will be, more work to be done. As with all organizations, the culture needs to be sustained through care and attention to what work gets done and how that work gets done. Yes And!

-- Lisa Amoroso, July 2020

Reference: Okun, Tema, 2001, “White Supremacy Culture,” in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, Eds: Kenneth Jones & Tema Okun,

Editor’s Note: Lisa Amoroso has been a dedicated and effective volunteer for almost thirty years. She has served in all three major leadership areas in IMPACT Chicago (staff, board, and instruction) and in these many leadership positions has been a sounding board and support for Martha Thompson, Director Emeritus and currently Admin Team Co-Leader. Some of Lisa’s many contributions:

  • Admin Team Co-Leader 2012-2020, website, database, development of standards, & so much more.
  • Board Chair and Board member
  • Fund Drive creator and coordinator, 1995-2020
  • Class Assistant and Mat Mover
  • Workshop Leader, 2018-present

Monday, July 27, 2020

Why Yell NO

Photo credit: Daniel Teafoe
 No allows for tightening of the muscles that protect the body from offensive strikes.

2. No activates breathing that enables a defender to maintain consciousness and supplies the body and organs the oxygen necessary for effective self-defense.

3. No allows a defender to strike with full force and speed without restriction.

4. No startles an aggressor.

Most importantly

5. No represents deep compassionate feelings for oneself. "NO"  represents facing whatever force threatens one's well-being.

Bruce Bio, IMPACT Chicago Board Co-Chair and Retired Suited Instructor

From the Archives, an earlier version was published December 5, 2011.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Anti-Racism Dialogue and Action Resources

IMPACT Chicago board members, instructors, staff, and volunteers have been engaging in dialogue about anti-racism. For our first dialogue, we addressed questions about anti-racism, social justice, and organizational priorities based on our varying knowledge of IMPACT Chicago as an organization and our varying activist experiences as part of organizations with explicitly stated anti-racism missions. For our second dialogue after reading, watching, and listening to a common set of materials representing a range of perspectives, we will come together to share what we've learned and to identify and choose specific actions. 

I identified and organized numerous articles, blog posts, videos, and podcasts that I have found compelling and informative. I've organized the material in categories to remind us of the multiple layers of work to do.
  • shared vocabulary and language
  • dimensions of racism (institutional, structural, interpersonal, and internalized)
  • importance of both dialogue and action. 
Board Member and Workshop Leader Tara Brinkman, Board Member Denise Loyd, and Admin Team Co-Leader and Lead Instructor Martha Thompson also suggested content.  Board Co-Chair and former suited instructor Bruce Brio, Board Member and Workshop Leader Deb Mier, and Martha Thompson helped me winnow down the rich number of available materials to a manageable size for pre-work. I hope you find these resources and their organization useful.
Lisa Amoroso, Coordinator for Dialogues 1 and 2
Admin Team Co-Leader and Workshop Leader

Shared Vocabulary & Language 

  1. What makes something racist?, Ibrahim X. Kendi, vid 6:14

  2. Why you should stop saying All Lives Matter Explained 9 Different Ways, read all or just a few, #3 is hilarious, <15m read/watch

  3. Dismantling the 4 Dimensions of Racism (article can be read in full or read the section titled “The Four Dimensions of Racism,” <8m read)

Dimensions of Racism

Four Dimensions of Racism: Dimension 1 - Institutional

  1. Let's get to the root of racial injustice, Megan Ming Francis, vid 19:37

  2. #OscarsSoWhite and The Legacy of Halle Berry, vid 18:43

  3. When Calling the Po-Po is a No-No, Karen Grigsby Bates, podcast 4:37

Four Dimensions of Racism: Dimension 2 - Structural

  1. You want a Confederate Monument?, Caroline Randall Williams, <7m read

  2. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, Ep. 1, Emmanuel Acho, vid 9:27

Four Dimensions of Racism: Dimension 3 - Interpersonal

  1. What’s Up with Chicks in Science? Neil DeGrasse Tyson responds, vid 3:32

  2. A trip to the Grocery Store, Joy DeGruy, vid 3:56

Four Dimensions of Racism: Dimension 4 - Internalized 

  1. We all have implicit biases. So what can we do about it?, Dushaw Hockett, vid 12:00

  2. How to overcome our biases, Verna Myers, vid 17:37

Anti-Racist Work in Empowerment-based Self-Defense

  1. Black Lives Matter, Martha Thompson, IMPACT Chicago blog, 2017, <3m read 

  2. Addressing Stereotypes and Social Inequality in Self-Defense Priya Nelson, IMPACT Chicago blog, 2020, <7m read

  3. Self Defense in a Racist World, Linda Leu, IMPACT Bay Area blog 2020, <3m read 


o    1619 by the New York Times
o    About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
o    All My Relations hosted by Ma
o    Code Switch by NPR
o    The Diversity Gap hosted by Bethaney Wilkinson
o    Intersectionality Matters! Hosted by Kimberle Crenshaw
o    Lynching in America by the Equal Justice Initiative
o    Momentum: A Race Forward Podcast
o    Seeing White by Scene On Radio
o    Still Processing hosted by Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham
o    #TellBlackStories, extension of Color of Change Hollywood
o    The Stoop hosted by Leila Day and Hana Baba 
o    Witness Black History by BBC World

*added source for podcast 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Should I Yell Fire? A Self-Defense Question

IMPACT Chicago participant setting a boundary
IMPACT Chicago defender setting a boundary

“Should I yell ‘fire’ instead of ‘help’?” I hadn't heard anyone ask that question in years and then in the space of a few weeks, it came up in two self-defense workshops. 

This is a question that has been answered before by Empowerment Self-Defense instructor Lauren Taylor in “Should I Yell Fire,” but because it is still out there as a possible self-defense response to sexual assault, I'm going to address it, too.

Are there circumstances under which yelling “fire” might be an effective self-defense strategy?

Empowerment self-defense training is not memorizing a list of “shoulds;” instead, it involves learning a range of tools and practicing using those tools while assessing situations, the context, and the people involved. In other words, there’s no formula of “if this happens, then do this….” 

So with empowerment self-defense, the question becomes not “should I yell ‘fire’?” but “are there circumstances under which yelling ‘fire’ might be an effective self-defense strategy?” 

It is not common or typical, but there may indeed be circumstances under which yelling “fire” might be an effective self-defense strategy. It would depend upon an individual assessing what's happening, what they want to happen, making a decision about whether yelling is the best strategy in their circumstances, and, if so, what words or phrases will get the response they want. 

It’s important to note that, no matter which tools you choose to use or not use, no matter what, you are not responsible for another person’s behavior: if they violate your boundaries, they are responsible. 

Why yelling “fire” is not typically a tool offered in an Empowerment Self-Defense program

Voice is one of the most versatile tools presented in empowerment self-defense programs. An important facet of that tool is specific messaging: communicating to the person attacking you, others, and/or yourself your assessment of what is happening and/or what you want. 

Yelling “fire” if you are experiencing sexual violence does not communicate to the person attacking you, others, and/or yourself your assessment of what is happening and/or what you want. However, there are words or phrases you can use that say what you want, don't want, or name the violence, such as:


Leave me alone!

That is harassment! Stop!

What you are doing is assault! Don't touch me again!

Another facet of voice is volume. People are most likely to sexually assault someone they know, and their aggression often begins with minor boundary violations and then increases. Likewise, your response to these violations may begin quietly, then grow louder. So I recommend a message that is not only specific, but will work at any level of violation and at any volume. Saying “fire” softly is unlikely to convey the message that a behavior is unacceptable, whereas statements like “No;” “leave me alone;” “that is harassment, stop;” or “what you are doing is assault, don't touch me again,” whether said soft or loud, send a clear message.

Martha Thompson
IMPACT Chicago
Lead Instructor and Admin Team Co-Leader

Thank you to Amy Harmon for her editing of an earlier version of this post.

Monday, July 6, 2020

IMPACT Chicago Response to Coronavirus, Update: July 2020

We continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 and are keeping a close eye on official information and guidance from the CDC, the State of Illinois, and the City of Chicago. We will fully comply with Governor Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan for re-opening, as well as any requirements issued by the City of Chicago's COVID-19 Recovery Task Force. We are committed to providing a safe space for participants and staff in our programs. 

As of now, in-person IMPACT programs and workshops have been canceled through July 31. We are currently exploring online options, as well as a possible return to in-person programming at outdoor venues only. As official information and guidelines are updated and affect our program offerings, we will send updates to program participants and to our entire community via email, on our website, and through our Facebook page.
If you have any questions, please contact us at or send us a message via Facebook  and your inquiry will be routed to the best person to answer your question.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Student Philanthropy Initiative Funds IMPACT Chicago Project

The Student Philanthropy Initiative (SPI) at Latin School has awarded IMPACT Chicago a grant to collaborate with existing organizations to bring our programs to people in Uptown who are moving from one life circumstance to another. Our priorities are people who identify as women or girls and are moving into middle school, high school, college, or the workforce; people who identify as women or girls and have experienced violence and human rights violations; and people of all genders with intellectual/developmental disabilities who are moving into independent living and/or the workforce. 

Once we are again offering unrestricted in-person programs, a staff member or client/participant from an Uptown Center organization will take the Core Program or IMPACT for Girls and then assist with on-site workshops we will offer to staff, clients, and volunteers. In the meantime, we are developing a plan for alternative ways to offer programs before we return to unrestricted in-person programs. 

Thank you, Student Philanthropy Initiative!


Monday, June 22, 2020

Get to Safety: Alternatives to 911

IMPACT Chicago teaches a verbal shorthand to defenders as a way to navigate the moments after the mock aggressor is knocked out but before leaving the situation.


In the early days of IMPACT Chicago, we encouraged defenders to check out the larger environment ("Look"), make sure the aggressor remained knocked out ("Assess"), shake off adrenaline with a loud "NO," and then get to safety and get support ("911"). 


One way in which IMPACT Chicago has since examined our biases and revised our approach is changing the way we handle getting to safety after an attack.  Yelling "911" was based on good intentions but didn't reflect the experiences of people of color, people with disabilities, transgender, and gender non-conforming people with the police. In particular, the guiding principles of Black Lives Matter, Mariame Kaba No Selves to Defend, and a multitude of deaths and injuries of Black people in police custody underscored the necessity of revising our shorthand.  As a result, several years ago we changed “911” to "Get to Safety" or "Walk to Safety."


The change to "Get to Safety" is consistent with our commitment to expanding people's choices and not offering a formulaic approach to self-defense.  Everyone has benefited from this change because it places the emphasis on defenders making choices based on their assessment of themselves, their relationship with the person(s) targeting them, and their knowledge of the situation they are in – and not on assumptions about what safety is for all.

The decision chart "Steps to Ask Yourself Before Calling the Police" is a helpful guide for questions to ask to assess what is best for yours and others' safety.

Martha Thompson
IMPACT Chicago
Lead Instructor
Admin Team Co-Chair