ESD Is A Movement


I stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle of about forty women. Some were smiling and some were solemn as we passed a colorful ball of cord from one to another, each woman wrapping a length around one wrist before handing the ball to her neighbor. When the circle was wholly entwined, each woman forming a link in the chain, one spoke.

“Whatever happens now, let there be no doubt that we’re part of a movement,” she said.

The speaker was Yehudit (Yudit) Zicklin-Sidikman, the founder and President of ESD Global. Each woman in our circle had gathered to spend a week in Huguenot New York, in the Summer of 2019, to participate in an intensive training program for Empowerment Self Defense (ESD) instructors.

Founded in 2017, ESD Global has made huge strides toward uniting and strengthening existing ESD practitioners, creating new ESD instructors and advocates, and building collective power among ESD supporters all over the world.

Many of us had met each other for the first time just one week earlier. We represented various ages, languages, and backgrounds, hailing from 17 different countries, from Germany to Nepal to the United States, and yet in some ways, we were already as familiar as old friends. Over that week together we would speak and sing, write and laugh, fight and dance, work and play, agree and disagree. We would do all of this together for a vision that, despite our many differences, we all share:

To make the benefits of empowerment self defense techniques and principles accessible to all who need them.

Yudit’s words expressed the root of what made that week profound for me, and for so many others. We are part of a movement. Here’s how we know:

Movements honor their histories

Women in the United States began organizing collectively as a movement toward Empowerment Self Defense access in the 1970’s, with antecedents reaching far further back into history all over the world. Many early participants in the movement were martial artists, which is still true today, but ESD is often defined in contrast to martial arts-based self defense concepts, which were largely created by men, for the ways men commonly fight.

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In contrast, ESD prioritizes awareness of the traumas common to many women’s specific experiences, includes verbal skills in order to address realistic situations women face, and centers a celebration of women’s strength and collective solidarity rather than competition. What we recognize today as ESD has been wrought from the effort and brilliance of women who have devoted their lives to building this movement.

A central figure in another social movement, the decades-long movement for women’s suffrage in Britain, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote in 1914 of her two young daughters’ “youthful confidence” that the movement’s success was certain.

“How long you women have been trying for the vote,” Pankhurst quotes her daughter Christabel as declaring. “For my part, I mean to get it.” (2) Pankhurst the elder goes on to quote a French proverb: “If youth could know, if age could do.”

Luckily for us (and for the suffrage movement, for that matter) effective movements draw power from both, and plan strategically for work and for change that will extend beyond any of our individual lifetimes.

Our circle included many young women and newcomers to the movement alongside women who have devoted years to this work. While many women in the room were new as practitioners of ESD, our circle of forty took decades to build. Change can and often does take time, and we’re in it for the long haul.

Movements are about action

Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that more than a third of women have experienced physical or sexual violence (1), but as women and as advocates, we know that the story is bigger than this or any statistic. Physical violence occurs for women on a spectrum that also includes verbal abuse, coercion, sexual harassment, reproductive control, economic marginalization, sexualization, objectification - all the way from everyday disrespect and sexism to trafficking and exploitation.

Knowledge of the trauma women experience across the world, with each of these factors interlinked to maintain a global system of inequality, is part of what drives us to action.

But our movement is also driven by the clear and compelling evidence that our actions can bring another, different world into being. My journey as an ESD instructor and advocate began when, as a sexual assault and domestic violence crisis counselor and educator, I discovered ESD via a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health from No Means No Worldwide, a global rape prevention organization based in Nairobi. The study found that the incidence of sexual assault significantly decreased from the baseline measure for girls who were trained in a six week course in an empowerment-based self defense skills.

The discovery of this study would change the course of my life because it presented evidence that significant impact is possible toward preventing assault and abuse, and toward stemming the onslaught of trauma that I saw women fighting every day to survive. Switching the focus to effective prevention, and feeling some real hope that it could work, was a revelation for me. This study is just one example in a growing body of research that supports what ESD trainers and participants know from practice, and what I would come to believe with conviction over the next several years of work teaching ESD: it works. Movements organize to counter despair with action, and ours has a lot of work to do.

Movements celebrate our differences

Participants in effective movements share a willingness to work toward shared goals, as well as a willingness to work with those who are different than they are. The ESD movement, like many effective movements, has clear through lines defining our shared priorities. Commonality on goals and principles is essential for forward momentum, but differences among movement participants are as essential as they are inevitable.

Our circle included grade school teachers, athletes, students, mothers, international relations experts, crisis counselors, youth group leaders, entrepreneurs, feminist activists, and martial artists of various disciplines, ranging from black belts to the greenest of beginners. We came from different regions of the world, with different class, religious, and political backgrounds, and different languages. Effective movements operate with the knowledge that our strength is not in spite of our variation, but because of it.

One organization does not a movement make, and no movement in history has been without its share of internal debates and differences of opinion. Homogeneity fails because humans are diverse and unique, and it fails to move social movements forward because without constructive conflict, new ideas cannot be generated. Embracing difference means embracing the capacity to experience change, to grow, and to learn - even, and perhaps especially, when doing so is uncomfortable. Movements for change demand growth from society, and we must hold ourselves to the same standard.

Forty different hands were linked in our circle that day, belonging to forty very different women. As we worked and played and learned together over the course of that week, we were already growing to appreciate the challenge and the value of those differences, while also drawing strength from our shared priorities.

Movements draw power from the collective

I’ve considered myself lucky in life to have been part of many circles of women. In my work as an ESD instructor, sometimes these circles are full of raucous encouragement, as one woman in the center uses her brain, her body, and the techniques we’ve learned to fight her way free. Just as often, I am part of circles filled with quiet solidarity, as one woman (then another, then another) tells her story - not only stories of trauma, but also stories of resistance, stories of growth, stories of forward movement against forces arrayed to hold us back. Always, these circles foster collective support. Yes, I too have felt this pain. Yes, I believe you. Yes, you are worth defending. Me too.

Truth telling builds movements. Contrary to popular misconceptions, self defense - real self defense - is not just about defending yourself as an isolated individual, one against the world. It’s about creating communities of support and organizing to achieve shared goals. This, too, is self defense, and our movement is greater than the sum of its individual participants. What we can achieve as a group, with all the differences and challenges that come along with that collectivity, is worth the work of movement building.

After a week together doing that work, it was time for our circle to disband, but the connections we built are not going anywhere. As a volunteer moved around the circle from one link to the next, cutting the cord that bound us together, each of us tied our piece into a bracelet for the journey home. Forty of us walked away from the circle, but we each carry our piece of its collective power back with us into our lives and our work.

Let there be no doubt - we are part of a movement.

Rachel Collins has been an empowerment-based self-defense trainer and organizer for ESD access since 2014. Her teaching draws from both her experience as a rape/domestic violence crisis advocate and from her expertise in Krav Maga techniques. She passed the highest student rank at RMA Martial Arts in December 2017, and is currently an amateur Muay Thai competitor as well as an enthusiastic beginner in Jiu Jitsu. She gained Level One Certification through ESD Global in August 2019. She currently offers group and individual training in ESD and martial arts via SHE BEGINS Self-Defense.

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