Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Girl World Martial Arts - Week 1

An individual's right to safety should not be limited by their access to training. In Chicago, and perhaps world-wide, those most at-risk for violent victimization are also those with the least access to resources which would make them safer. Police protection, well-lit streets, and low crime environments are only the norm in some of our city's neighborhoods. Others can count on the opposite: The hostility or indifference of law enforcement, deserted evening sidewalks, a high offender population, and the general absence of systems that a wealthier Chicagoan takes as a civil fact. Making matters worse, in neighborhoods where systemic protection is unreliable, personal protection is often outright inaccessible. Self-defense classes are expensive or far away. Gun ownership is illegal or heavily restricted. Neighborhood watch groups are overwhelmed, bullied, or underresourced. In this modern Hobbesian environment, the fundamental right to safety from violent harm becomes a luxury. Or a fantasy.

When I volunteered to teach basic martial art skills to the young women in Alternatives Girl World program, it was to do my part in addressing this state of affairs. Given the age, gender, and experiences of the participants, 10-18 year-old girls growing up in some of Chicago's highest crime neighborhoods, the problem was even more pressing. It is true that we have made historic and global progress towards combating interpersonal violence (Harvard's Stephen Pinker wrote a compelling account of that trend). But women, as a group, still face daily brutality that would be sickening and systemic even by the most Medieval standards. That's as true in such far-off places as Delhi and Nairobi as it is in the United States. My goal in teaching the class to Girl World is to give students the skills they need to either avoid such situations entirely, or to survive them if the worst occurs. Although fitness, fun, and general empowerment through physical activity are also goals, that right to individual safety remains my foremost intention.

I will be teaching Girl World from January through April, and intend to reflect on each session  with my readers. Social workers, martial artists, Chicagoans, academics, and generally concerned citizens will all hopefully find something of interest to themselves reflect and think on.

Warriors should not distinguish themselves in their belts, titles, or physical prowess. Instead, we must try to distinguish ourselves in service. It does not matter whether it is to individuals, communities, or causes, so long as the commitment is made selflessly. In that regard, I admit that I may not be the best "warrior" to teach about violence prevention; I was a stupid and angry young man who did stupid and angry things. Some friends have said that this might ultimately make me better at the job, but that is an observation I neither willing nor able to make. For now, I only say that I have gained some skills that can stop some violence, and I intend on imparting that knowledge where it will best be used. The girls in Girl World are such individuals, their program is such a community, and their situation is such a cause.


Teaching Girl World is humbling. It is not just humbling in the holistic, intangible, and often insincere sense ("Wow, it was really humbling to attend that community rally on MLK Day!! #wearehim #MyLKDay"). Rather, it is humbling in a pointed, somewhat painful, always personal way that compels reflection and contemplation.

When teaching adults and college students, I always thought I was basically competent. I was confident that my skillset of explaining techniques, building motivation, encouraging growth, and similar tools was up to par with any inspirational-sports-movie coach. It's possible I have those skills, but even if I do, they all needed to be revised or thrown out when working with teenage girls. Teaching teenage girls is hard. The most humbling piece of that is I knew my skills were going to be tested and probably tattered, and I tried to enter without bravado or false confidence. Even anticipating it, I was still surprised at just how little I could do right. Phrases like "scoot your hips" or "shoot in your arms" are meaningless even to teenage girls who are paying attention, let alone ones that are poking their friend's ponytail. That said, it was equally surprising to see what did work and what did succeed. Talking about warrior bonds and how a gym is a family often falls on disinterested ears with my adult classes. For the girls, however, it was one of the few moments where everyone was silent and nodding.

I've spent years trying to figure out techniques that work independent of size or strength. If my 5'2", 115 lb fiancee can execute them on our 6'4" 220 lb teacher, then I tend to believe in them. But what I forgot was that, despite her size, she still has the musculature and physicality of a woman. A fit woman, at that. Those techniques that work for her all needed to be modified to work with teenagers who still hadn't fully developed, or even started developing, their adult physicality. On a similar note, I often go into classes assuming that most students have minimal or no actual fighting experience. That's definitely a safe bet at the UChicago Self-Defense Club, where even a single push (or punch!) thrown at a frat party makes you a Bruce Lee amongst your peers. I knew that Girl World would have more experience with violence, but from listening to them and watching them, I wasn't prepared for the depth of that experience. Whether through casual references to assault, jokes made about getting your face punched in, hesitance to even come on the mats, or singular determination to get the move right, it was clear that one need not train as a "fighter" to have a fighter's exposure and experiences.

No matter how much training they receive, social workers are invariably unprepared for the realities of working with underserved populations. It is easy to forget not only those realities, but also that sense of helplessness we feel when finally confronting an abusive family member, a client who has given up, a victim of violence, or a youth so resilient that you can't imagine how else you can help them. Girl World reminded me of that. Most of my time is spent at a desk staring at rows of data. In some abstract quantitative sense, each row does represent a youth somewhere, but no amount of regression analysis will put a story to those P, R, and Beta values. Working directly with the girls converts their numeric image (I knew all of these girls by name, address, and survey score before I met them) into something living. Social work is unique as a profession; we are the only industry that works with people both as a means and as an end product. Stepping away from the order of my spreadsheets to the messy world of 12 girls brings you back to the meaning of our profession.

I want to end today's post with some thoughts on the teaching process. These take the form of advice to myself and others, observations, and random reflections on the experience.
    Adult students are fairly forgiving of instructors who forget names, or ones who are just "bad" with them. That is not true of teens. I've taught younger students a bunch of times now (for teenage girls this is a first), and in this age range, there are few worse teacher sins than not learning names. Youth seem to interpret it as a sign of disinterest ("If you really cared about me you would know my name"), disconnectedness ("If Girl World is a family, why don't you know my name?"), and general incompetence ("All the good teachers at school know my name!"). It's especially important with students of another racial or ethnic group with names that are often outside of a teacher's normal cultural sphere. Nothing shows outside status more than confusing Kiara with Kiandra. That's not to suggest that we shouldn't acknowledge our outsider status as social workers, but we should work to minimize its adverse effects on our clients. Also, in a martial context, you can't invoke the warrior bonds between your class if you don't even know their first names.
    The concept of "safe space" is omnipresent in social work these days, not least at Alternatives. Stated simply, safe space is just a non-judgmental environment in which people can be true to themselves, their identity, their experiences, and their goals without fear of reprisal or hostility from others. Therapeutic interactions revolve around safe space (you wouldn't divulge information to a therapist if you thought they were going to tweet it), which makes it a common feature of most clinical work with youth. From a martial perspective, the concept of a dojo, dojang, gym, or studio is a strong embodiment of that "safe space" idea. Working with the Girl World participants, my goal has not just been to give them martial arts. It has been to turn our makeshift dojo into their own safe space. Given some of the comments that girls have made, and the general atmosphere of the training, it seems that this goal is becoming reality. 
As the semester continues, I will continue to reflect on the experience, although perhaps in more or less detail depending on the day. For now, I conclude by saying that I am so honored for this opportunity and hope that our classes can give these girls something of value, whether martial, personal, or something else entirely.

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