Self-Defense as Social Justice -- Spotlight on Jay O'Shea


We’ve talked before about the “power of one,” and how one woman can have an impact on one community that can then go on to impact the entire world.

Janet (Jay) O’Shea, a professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA, an accomplished martial artist, and ESD Global Camp 2017 participant, is a perfect example of that power.

O’Shea’s journey into the world of empowerment self-defense began in 2015, when a debate on campus erupted in which self-defense was portrayed as victim blaming.

In response, O’Shea, who had participated in empowerment self-defense training through NWMAF, organized a panel of self-defense experts including Lisa Gaeta, director of the Southern California branch of IMPACT Personal Safety, and Susan (George) Schorn, author of Smile at Strangers who entered into conversation with campus activists from Bruin Consent Coalition and a representative from Campus Assault Resources and Education.

The goal of the event, which took place on the UCLA campus, was to clear up misconceptions about ESD and raise awareness of its many values and benefits.

“There’s a widespread assumption that self-defense is victim blaming. The problem comes about because self-defense is paradoxical: only an aggressor is responsible for an assault but defenders can and do make choices. The point of this event is to consider this issue as it relates to the role of self-defense in the movement to end campus sexual assault.” O’Shea explained to the audience.

The panelists went on to talk about framing ESD training as conscious choice, as a way of dispensing with the restrictions sexist societies place on women, and as something that can allow women and non-binaries to be more confident in their lives more generally. ESD, the panelists suggested, is less about requiring women to take responsibility for violence and more about women and other marginalized people reclaiming the right to self-determination.

Soon after the event, Susan Schorn returned to UCLA to offer an ESD workshop, during which she suggested that O’Shea expand her teaching.

ESD Camp, Pedagogy, and Meta Analysis of ESD Exercises

Not long after O’Shea had developed a solid interest in ESD, she heard about ESD Global’s instructor bootcamp, and thought attending would be a good way to “get the ball rolling” and “move things forward” at UCLA.

At camp, she was “really quite delighted by the opportunity to experience the drills and the game at the same time that we were learning teaching methodologies and getting content for our teaching.”

One activity that particularly resonated with her was the “traffic light” exercise, in which students use the colors of a traffic light to help develop awareness of their personal boundaries.

A focus on pedagogy, O’Shea believes, is what makes ESD different from more hierarchical forms of self-defense. Rather than telling students how dangerous the world is and claiming that they are the experts, she points out that ESD practitioners help students discover their own views about safety and figure out which techniques work best for them.

After camp, O’Shea returned to UCLA with a variety of tools in her teaching toolbox, including techniques for structuring a solid lesson plan.

ESD Training at UCLA

Thanks to a UCLA program called “Fiat Lux,” professors have the opportunity to teach a one unit, limited enrollment class on a subject of their choice. Through this program, O’Shea has been able to teach a ten-hour pass / fail ESD course once a year.

The course gives students a chance to work closely with professors, as opposed to TAs, and be exposed to opportunities they might not otherwise have.

The goal is for students to walk out of her classes empowered with a skill set that will change their lives without requiring lifelong work and dedication.

With the help of a grant from ESD Global, the training includes special sessions provided by IMPACT Personal Safety, in which students have the opportunity to participate in full-contact, live training with mock assailants.

As O’Shea told Femmagazine, “I want students to remember that you are worth fighting for. No one has the right to hurt you no matter what decisions you make.”

Judging by the feedback that she’s received, O’Shea is making that a reality:

"As a queer male, there were so many instances where I constantly thought about mine and my partner's personal safety... ESD allowed me to be empowered and more confident in my skills and abilities and I am very thankful for that."

"I've learned concepts I can take with me and implement in numerous ways/situations. Thank you!"

"I really loved this class! It made me feel prepared for many situations that I unfortunately trust that I'll face. I especially enjoyed the practice with verbal tactics."

"Classes like these help you realize how powerful you are. You learn that both physically and vocally you are a strong person and it is very empowering."

"Loved the experience."

"Most fun course ever."

The Next Steps -- Turning Students Into Advocates

Now that she has momentum going, O’Shea has plans to expand ESD training on the UCLA campus. In order to turn her plans into a reality, she feels she needs to get students “fired up” about ESD so that they will ask the administration to make ESD training available to all students, ideally free of charge.

The first step in getting students excited and turning them into advocates is holding a screening of Ellen Snortland’s documentary “Beauty Bites Beast” at the end of October.

O’Shea also hopes that the university will provide funding to bring in outside groups like Girls Fight Back and IMPACT Personal Safety.

And based on the success of a course she designed for public health students, O’Shea hopes to encourage other departments to incorporate ESD into their curricula.

Another goal, which is particularly close to her heart, is to start a conversation among ESD practitioners about methodologies that addresses race, gender fluidity, sexuality, and socio-economic issues.

O’Shea believes that, “ESD is not so much women’s self-defense, but a self-defense system that views violence as a form of social control. I see empowerment self-defense as a form of social justice, which is why I think including queer, non-binary, and transgender people and accounting for different experiences on the basis of race and class are really important.”

But overall, O’Shea’s most important goal is is find ways to make ESD training accessible to all of the communities in which it’s needed.

We have no doubt that she has the power to help make that happen.

Janet (Jay) O’Shea, author of Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts Training, is a Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. She is also an assistant instructor with IMPACT Personal Safety and is currently pursuing an instructorship in Empowerment Self-Defense.

A practitioner of martial arts such as Jeet Kune Do, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Filipino Martial Arts, O’Shea is the author of Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts Training and At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage, and is co-editor of the Routledge Dance Studies Reader (second edition). A recipient of a Transdisciplinary Seed Grant to study the cognitive benefits of Filipino Martial Arts, O’Shea has also published general non-fiction, dance journalism, and short fiction.

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