With Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” playing in the background, affirmations filled the air — “You got this!” and “Come on, girl!” — as women raced to make it into hula hoops scattered around a room Monday at a Columbus hotel.
It was all part of a new empowerment self-defense program targeting women of color, with this particular exercise teaching the concept of removing one’s self from a difficult situation.
Called We Are Worth Defending, the training was offered to 15 women this week by IMPACT Safety, a program of social services organization LifeCare Alliance. Participants in the course, which ends Friday, then will be expected to offer similar lessons in the community.
“This training is important to us because we need more women-of-color instructors to be able to go into their community and be able to teach young girls, women, boys and people of all genders how to defend themselves and live violence-free lives,” said Kendall Trelegan, U.S. and Canada regional manager for ESD Global, which partnered with IMPACT Safety to conduct the trainings.
According to the National Coalition on Domestic Violence, 45% of Black women have experienced intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence and/or intimate partner stalking.
“Black women have, because of historic trauma and the way that self-defense gets played out in our communities, a very complicated relationship with what self-defense means,” Julie Harmon, director of IMPACT Safety, said. “This is an opportunity to explore what’s underneath that and to see how people want to move forward.”
Empowerment self-defense is a specialized self-defense that helps participants develop skills such as boundary-setting, assertiveness and being aware of one’s surroundings.
Harmon said there are very few empowerment self-defense instructors who are women of color, not only in Columbus but nationwide.
Participants in Monday’s training at Hampton Inn & Suites Columbus-Easton represented many occupations. Those present included a nurse, yoga instructor, personal trainer and fashion designer. There were physical exercises involving an attack dummy and discussions about disrupting violence and setting boundaries.
LifeCare Alliance fundraisers and ESD Global helped to offset the costs of the $2,500 training through stipends and scholarships. Out of the 15 women who took part, only one paid the full cost, according to Harmon.
Participants’ relationship with the program doesn’t end with this week’s training, though. Harmon said there is a requirement that each person pay it forward.
“They owe ESD Global 30 hours of free or low-cost empowerment self-defense training over the next few years to give to their community,” she said.
Erica Russell-Averette, 41, a participant from Canal Winchester, said her criminal justice background as a former probation officer made this training particularly meaningful for her. (She currently works as an instructor in professional communication for the Supreme Court of Ohio.)
“I went into criminal justice because I didn’t want to hurt people or put people away, I wanted to help people,” she explained. “It was more of a counselor role to help people get on the right path and on the right track, and this is kind of the same way — just empowering people.”
Stephanie Sparrow-Hughes, 54, corporate and community engagement manager for LifeCare Alliance who also participated in the class, called it “an opportunity to be heard, to be listened to, to share our stories and to empower other women that their lives matter, that we are worth defending and we want to spread that message to other Black women.”
The training session was the result of seven months of planning by Venica Miller, 54, of the East Side, program manager for We Are Worth Defending. Miller, who took part in the training, called it a particularly good fit for Columbus.
“I am inspired, and I feel like we’re all ready for a moment like this,” Miller said. “There’s so much going on in the community today. Like in Columbus right now, you know the crime rate is so high — you know, murders every other day — but we can stop some of that before it even happens.”
Lead instructor Dani Lizano, 33, of Costa Rica, said the trainings also have been lessons in camaraderie for many of the women.
“One of the things I really enjoyed here is how this group, they don’t know each other, but after the second –– and this is the third day –– it feels like a really good chemistry with each other,” Lizano said. “It feels like a community.”