Alive & Kicking Self Defense was born from two long-standing Bay Area self-defense teaching organizations, Women Defending Ourselves (WDO) and Women’s Safety Project (WSP). WDO was founded as a teaching collective in 1986 by a group of women (some of whom remain affiliated with Alive and Kicking today) at Stanford University, where they were teaching a class called “Issues in Self-Defense for Women” through SWOPSI (Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues). WSP was founded in 1994 by a former member of WDO. In late 2005, women from WDO and WSP began teaching together, and we christened ourselves Alive & Kicking in 2008.
Women Defending Ourselves
The WDO course at Stanford, which was first offered in 1982, was a 10-week class for women, offering academic credit and including reading and discussion about the roots and manifestations of violence against women, as well as verbal and physical self-defense training. It was a hugely popular class from the beginning, with several sections offered every quarter and long waiting lists. Many students described the course as, “the most important class I took at Stanford.”
The first SWOPSI classes were taught with Model Mugging, the original “full-impact” self-defense program using “padded attackers” (a person, usually a man, wearing body armor against whom the participants could fight full-force). The class was taught by various female instructors, some of whom became part of the WDO teaching collective when it formed in 1986. In 1987, WDO disaffiliated from Model Mugging due to a variety of problems ranging from philosophical teaching differences, concern about the impact of the simulated attacks on the psyches of students and “muggers” alike, and finally, the discovery that some of the male instructors had sexually harassed and even sexually assaulted students and teacher trainees. The story of these problems can be found in Mother Jones Magazine (Camille Peri, "Below the Belt", September/October 1990, pp. 44-47, 65-67).
After breaking from Model Mugging, the WDO teaching collective drew on the collective wisdom of feminist self-defense teachers across the country to develop a new approach to full-force self-defense training that avoided use of the padded attacker. We were particularly helped by materials from F.I.S.T. (Feminists in Self-Defense Training) from which we drew heavily in designing our program. The new course was even more popular, and continued to draw many students. The SWOPSI program was discontinued in the early 90s, but “Issues in Self-Defense for Women” was so important that the Stanford Feminist Studies department decided to offer it in their department. At their request, WDO developed a curriculum for a men’s section that included reading and discussions about violence against women, but not the self-defense training.
Despite its continuing popularity, Stanford University cancelled the course in the Fall of 1993 in response to an anonymous complaint from a male student who argued that the course was in violation of Title IX, a regulation passed in 1972 prohibiting sex segregation in schools receiving federal funding. WDO disagreed that the course violated Title IX and organized a movement to save the class, collecting thousands of signatures on a petition and hundreds of letters of support, organizing a rally, and drafting a 50-page legal brief.
Our legal argument was based on provisions in Title IX that permit remedial and affirmative action. WDO argued that because the threat and actuality of sexual violence exist at Stanford, as in society at large, providing a self-defense class for women only would be an appropriate remedy. We also showed how men would not be harmed by exclusion from our class, as there were other classes at Stanford providing self-defense instruction to men and discussion of issues related to violence against women. We submitted our legal brief to Stanford University, and they found our arguments compelling. Stanford agreed to co-submit a request for technical assistance in determining the legality of our class to the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education, (the government entity who received the Title IX complaint against us and who is charged with enforcing Title IX). However, because of the political climate at the time, it was ultimately decided not to seek a finding, because a positive finding might have negative consequences for other issues of import to women (the challenge to male-only military schools was wending its way through the courts at that time).
Interestingly, in 1996 the United States Supreme Court upheld the right to single-sex education in an affirmative action situation, in United States v. Virginia , 518 U.S. 515 (1996). The case involved the exclusion of women from admission to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), and the Court ruled that VMI could not exclude women. However, the Court also left room for single-sex education that serves to remedy discrimination. While ruling out programs that “perpetuate the legal, social, and economic inferiority of women,” it also explicitly ruled that sex classifications are permissible if used “to compensate women for particular economic disabilities they have suffered ... to promote equal employment opportunity ... [and] to advance full development of the talent and capacities of our nation’s people.”
WDO used the discontinuation of Stanford classes as a catalyst for positive change. Our resources had long been divided between providing classes for underserved women and the community at large, and holding classes for Stanford students. Because of the popularity of the Stanford classes, they exhausted most of our limited teaching resources. Not teaching on Stanford campus allowed us to bring many more self-defense classes to a wider variety of women throughout the Bay Area.
WDO incorporated as a non-profit in 1993, and was granted 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status in 1994. We began teaching more community classes throughout the Bay Area, including some community classes offered on the Stanford campus. As a non-profit we structured our bylaws to reflect the collective, consensus-based nature of the organization, and in later years we moved toward calling on the resources of an active board of directors in fundraising and administration, in order to free up the teachers’ energy for curriculum development and teaching.
The Women’s Safety Project
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a former WDO member, Lori Dobeus, began teaching self-defense classes on her own and ultimately founded the Women’s Safety Project as a sole proprietorship in 1994. Drawing on her experience with WDO and extensive personal research, Lori developed a strong self-defense curriculum that was taught by a crew of teachers she trained with the help of another WDO alumna. WSP initially offered introductory workshops and two levels of self-defense training for women (Level One: Defense Against a Single Unarmed Assailant, and Level Two: Defense against Multiple Assailants and Weapons). Like WDO, WSP classes offered a range of options for responding to assaults ranging from emotional or verbal abuse to physical attack and were designed to be sensitive to the diversity of how women’s identities and experiences impact their self-defense choices.
In 1998, WSP developed a special curriculum for teens called Girls Take Charge (GTC). WSP became a California non-profit corporation in 1999, and one of the first grants received was from the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women to offer a Girls Take Charge after-school program for girls ages 13-17. The GTC program was taught at four sites in the Mission, Sunset, Richmond, and Visitation Valley neighborhoods. By collaborating with community centers in these neighborhoods, the SF Unified School District, and the Department of Children, Youth and their Families, WSP was able to reach a diverse group of girls throughout the City. These semester-long GTC classes empowered girls to make better safety choices, improve communication skills, build self esteem and prevent sexual assault.
When Lori Dobeus left WSP, Wendi Deetz took over as Executive Director.
Alive & Kicking Self-Defense
Both WSP and WDO encountered financial challenges beginning in 2003, primarily due to an economic downturn. We mutually decided that joining forces was a positive way to continue offering self-defense programming for women and girls in the Bay Area. Teachers from both groups began working together to offer joint classes in fall 2005 and in 2008, we formally re-named ourselves by amending the name of Women Defending Ourselves, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, to Alive & Kicking Self Defense.
We have had an auspicious beginning. Our first classes filled promptly and drew in a motivated group of women who went on to take our first joint teacher training in 2006. Alive & Kicking continues to teach workshops and classes to women and girls throughout the Bay Area.
Reaching Out Internationally
In 2007, Susannah MacKaye of WDO and Wendi Deetz of WSP were invited by a former student, Lee Sinclair, to help develop yet another self-defense organization, this one in Nairobi, Kenya! Utilizing the resources of her non-profit organization, Manasseh’s Children, Lee founded I’m Worth Defending, ( IWD is a self-defense and rape prevention organization managed and taught by a group of eight Kenyans who were trained in Nairobi by Susannah and Wendi in February 2007. Since its inception IWD has trained thousands of women and girls and also taught vital life skills classes to boys that are helping to change attitudes that contribute to sexual violence. In 2008 Susannah and Lee presented the work of IWD at the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation’s annual self-defense conference, and as a result, other self-defense teachers from around the country are interested in supporting the work of IWD with further advanced training and other resources.
We are excited to see what happens next in our history!