Monday, August 29, 2011

We call it self-defense

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.
Cathie Bazzon
IMPACT Core Program grad
Rogers Park Community Council
Director, Senior Initiatives Program

Monday, August 15, 2011

What Men Can Do Challenge Gender Violence

Brett Stockdill, Northeastern Illinois University 

Women have always challenged gender violence. Globally, too few men have chosen toact as allies to women in this vital struggle. As men, there are many ways that we can confront
violence against women, including:

  • Challenge sexism and promote gender equality.
  • Recognize that rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment are not acceptable, but are violations of basic human rights. Challenge the myth that men have the right to control women sexually, economically, physically or in any way.
  • Support survivors of rape and domestic violence. Actively listen to them. Familiarize yourself with resources and services available to violence survivors (see:;;;;;;
  • Confront sexism wherever you are—at work, in the home, on the playing field or at school—and discuss it with other men. Challenge sexist stereotypes that depict women as weak, unintelligent, incompetent, overly emotional, etc. Speak out against sexist language (calling women “bitch,” “whore”, etc.) and jokes as well as sexual harassment. Challenge the misogynistic practice of feminizing men to disparage them (e.g., calling men “pussy,” “sissy,” etc.). Treat women as equals. Listen to and value women’s ideas and perspectives. Support women’s choices to pursue education and work. 
  • Cultivate equality in all your relationships. Take responsibility for housework and cooking and, if you are a parent, childcare. If you are in an intimate relationship, make important decisions together with your partner. Discuss sex and sexuality openly and honestly with all your sexual partners, women and men. Respect your partners’ decisions: No means no. Teach young people to challenge sexism and gender inequality. 
  • Teach boys, girls and teenagers that rape and domestic violence are unacceptable and that men have a responsibility to speak out against gender violence. Teach boys to respect girls and women and treat them as equals in all areas of life. 
  • Encourage boys and girls to express their emotions and nurture both strength and sensitivity in both boys and girls. Encourage boys and girls to play games and sports together not apart or against each other. Critique the endemic sexism and related glorification of violence in music, films, video games, and television shows. Encourage cooperative, nonviolent games, toys and sports. 
  • Ensure that household chores are shared equally between boys and girls. Promote the academic achievement of girls. Support boys’ interests in teaching, childcare, reading, music and the arts.
  • Teach children that homophobia and transphobia are wrong. Challenge the use of homophobic epithets (e.g., “fag”) as a way to put other boys/men down. Support children and adults who don’t conform to traditional gender roles. Provide safety and support for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people of all ages. Organize collectively against sexism and in support of gender justice. 
  • Integrate gender into all political struggles. Violence against women is rooted in systems of oppression—sexism, racism, homophobia/transphobia, classism and imperialism— that generate violence against marginalized groups. Embracing gender equality and justice strengthens antiracist, labor union, environmental, and other forms of activism. Challenging economic inequality, racism, and militarism/war is intertwined with combating violence against women.
  • Support organizations such as Nuevos Horizontes and IMPACT! Chicago that challenge gender violence and promote gender justice, including reproductive rights. Participate in events promoting the human rights of women such as International Women’s Day (March 8th) and Take Back the Night marches. 
  • Organize men in your community to discuss ways to combat gender violence and advocate for gender equality (see:;;

At the core of taking responsibility for combating gender violence is respecting the lives
of our daughters, sisters, mothers, friends and co-workers. 

When we listen to women, when we reject machismo and patriarchy, we develop our own consciousness and potential more fully. When we, as men, confront violence against women we make a commitment to social justice for girls, women, and ourselves.

For a version in Spanish, please contact

See Brett’s August 8 blog “Men’s Responsibility to Challenge Gender Violence”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Men’s Responsibility to Challenge Gender Violence

Brett Stockdill, Northeastern Illinois University

In both Guatemala and the United States, I have had the honor of learning from, and  being inspired by, courageous and brilliant women who work diligently for gender justice.
In the fall of 2009, I worked as a volunteer with the children of domestic violence survivors and conducted interviews with staff members at the Asociación Hogar Nuevos Horizontes ( in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Women such as those working at Nuevos Horizontes have taught me that as men we have the potential to transform ourselves, our families, our communities, and the world by supporting women’s struggles. Women across the globe continue to mobilize against various forms of gender violence.

Men have a responsibility to be allies in this struggle. Men commit the vast majority of rapes,
domestic violence, sexual harassment and femicides—the murder of a woman or girl because  of her gender. In various ways, even men who do not perpetrate violence against women and girls promote and condone it. One way is by remaining silent, sitting on the sidelines while women organize collectively. We must take responsibility to educate each other, speak out, and take action. Our own humanity is intertwined with the human rights of our sisters.

Every year millions of men rape and beat their wives, girlfriends, daughters and other
female relatives and acquaintances. The most dangerous place for many girls and women is the home, and domestic violence is the most common form of femicide. Violence against women has tragic consequences in Guatemala, the United States, and other nations.

Survivors of gender violence experience physical and psychological wounds that can be
long term, particularly if they are blamed for the violence and encounter disbelief from men and women in their lives. This re-victimization is often perpetrated by the criminal justice system when police officers, lawyers and judges fail to take rape and domestic violence seriously. For these and other reasons, many girls and women never tell anyone that they have been raped,
beaten or tortured.

Gender violence is associated with sexually transmitted infections, reproductive health
issues, and various mental health problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Domestic violence has a negative impact on the psychological and educational development of children, both girls and boys. Unless we intervene to break the cycle of violence, when children who have experienced domestic violence become adults they replicate what they have learned, with girls often becoming victims, and boys often becoming abusers. Because gender violence hinders women’s ability to get an education, to work outside the home and to participate in culture and politics, it stunts community and national development.

Rape and domestic violence are not merely individual problems: they are social problems
generated by systemic inequalities. Sexism, racism and classism constrain and dehumanize
girls and women. Patriarchal gender relations lay the groundwork for gender violence. Within
families, boys are socialized to be superior to girls/women. Girls are socialized to be subservient to boys/men. Schools, sports, churches, the workplace and the mass media promote the dangerous notions that women should serve and obey men and that men should be tough and hyper-masculine at all times. Systemic poverty and racism make poor women and women of color more vulnerable to myriad forms of violence. Homophobia and transphobia heighten the violence experienced by lesbians, bisexual women and transgender women—and people in general who do not conform to traditional sexual and gender norms. War always generates more gender violence. Women’s lack of legal, political and economic equality makes them more vulnerable to violence and less likely to get justice.

For a version of this blog in Spanish, please contact

See Brett’s upcoming blog on August 15, 2011: “What Men Can Do to Challenge Gender

Monday, August 1, 2011

I can face the world

Amy Voege graduated from IMPACT Chicago’s Core Program in May of 2010, and completed the two advanced courses – Defense against Multiple Assailants and Defense against an Armed Rapist – in December 2010 and April 2011, respectively. She joined IMPACT Chicago’s Board of Directors in September of 2010. “Finding IMPACT was a turning point in my life,” she says. “I learned that I didn’t have to live as a victim; that I could choose to face the world as a strong, competent, assertive woman. And I volunteer for IMPACT because I want other women to have the same opportunity.”

Both as a Board member and as a class assistant, Amy enjoys supporting other women as they find their voices, face their fears, and tap their inner strength. “The sense of solidarity and connectedness that develops in each class is amazing. Watching a group of women grow together into empowerment is a beautiful thing.”

In addition to her work with IMPACT Chicago, Amy is actively engaged in human rights advocacy and in animal rescue. She and her four cats – Beebs, Ajax, Achilles, and Subcomandante Marcos -- own a used-book store in rural Michigan, and have embarked on a campaign to spay/neuter and vaccinate their village’s entire population of nearly two hundred feral cats.

Amy says that IMPACT has taught her a great deal about the importance of “on-the-ground” work in changing the world:

“IMPACT Chicago is doing the grueling work of building a culture in which sexual assault and other forms of violence against women and girls are taboo. I believe the IMPACT model of empowering women, one at a time, while enlisting men as allies and supporters, is the way to bring about lasting change. It’s slow, hard work; but eventually it will change the world. And, in the meantime, each woman touched by IMPACT Chicago is a woman whose life is changed for the better.”