On Making My Martial Arts School a “Safe Space”

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog, Kaja(s)words. Kaja Sadowski is an instructor and co-owner at Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly.

A rainbow of boxing wraps at VWMAA

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “safe spaces”. Between constant articles about coddled university students who want to be protected at all costs from the real world, a recent blowup in the online HEMA community about letting Neo-Nazis air their views in martial arts forums, and the needs I’ve seen brought up in my local community in the wake of a disastrous Women’s Self-Defense news segment, there’s been ample opportunity to reflect on how we’ve chosen to mold our own space at Valkyrie WMAA. From the start, we’ve taken a pretty hard line on diversity and discrimination: we’ve got a clear and strict anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy; actively shut down unwelcoming behaviour among students and visitors; and have made serious efforts to make the space accessible and welcoming to everyone, from gender-neutral bathrooms and changerooms, to wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and training areas, to the prominently-placed pride flag in our front window.

It’s easy to ascribe our stance to the fact that co-owner Courtney and I are both women (and one of us a queer woman), or to leftist politics. I mean, we put out faux “feminist propaganda” posters for International Women’s Day, and have been quite vocal in our support of LGBT rights and anti-discrimination initiatives within our community. I’m not going to deny that those things factor into my business choices, but the main reason for wanting to run Valkyrie WMAA the way we do is a simple, pragmatic, and apolitical one: I want my students to learn.

It’s really very straightforward. I’m a martial arts instructor. My job – my calling – is to train my students in my chosen arts. I aim to impart a complex range of technical knowledge that extends from precise motions of the body and blade, to global movements and body awareness, to high-speed tactical decision-making. It’s physically challenging, and mastery demands a lot of the human body. It’s also often psychologically challenging, as it pushes students to deal with their reluctance to harm others, and to negotiate their relationship with violence. This stuff is hard. Very hard. And, as the owner and operator of a school, an integral part of my job is creating an environment in which my students can best learn all of this very hard stuff.

If a female student is worried about whether the guy she’s partnered with is going to hit on her again, or “accidentally” grab her breast, or refuse to hit her in drills, she can’t focus on her training. If an Asian student feels like he has to prove he’s not a bookish stereotype, or has to put up with constant shitty Kung Fu jokes, he can’t focus on his training. If a queer student is anxious about how their fellow students will react when their partner comes to pick them up after class, or a transgender student is stuck worrying they’ll be called out for using the “wrong” bathroom or misgendered by their training partner, they can’t focus on their training. All of these students end up in a position where their learning suffers, because they can’t put 100% of their energy and effort into their training and instead have to deal with the background noise of harassment and discrimination. If I put them in that position, I have failed them as an instructor.

In martial arts in particular, this matters even more, because the vast majority of our training is partnered. Not only do we work together with our fellow students during drilling, but a substantial portion of that drilling involves hitting and being hit by your partner. If you cannot trust them to use force appropriately, and to both keep you safe and take your training needs seriously, you cannot learn. We place an enormous amount of trust in our training partners, and being paired with someone who doesn’t reward that trust can end in serious injury at worst, and a miserable training experience at best.

By actively and aggressively building my school into a safe space for all students, I’m simply ensuring that they can learn. This, at its core, is what “safe spaces” are really about – they are spaces where everyone can cast aside the weight of everyday life (whether that’s poverty, suffering, and discrimination, or the smaller annoyances of bad traffic and irritating co-workers) and focus entirely on the task at hand. In my school, that task is learning physical and mental skills that may well help my students cope with the very real challenges of life outside their training space. They shouldn’t be forced to bring those challenges inside with them.

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