national Women's
Martial Arts Federation

Member Spotlight

ESD Instructor Brigit McCallum


NWMAF Wonder Women: Our Origin Stories in Our Own Words

This month, we’re shining a spotlight on member Brigit McCallum, part of the team at Prevention. Action. Change. in Portland, Maine. The following is a personal essay about her journey from peace activist to Empowerment Self-Defense instructor.

I have been a teacher, from pre-K to PhD, and a coach of a variety of sports during my lifetime. I have had some exposure to self-defense techniques over the years, from short-session aikido and tai chi classes, to a women’s self-defense program in Central Square Cambridge, all during grad school years. This expanded into what I would now call Bystander Training along with the verbal and self-defense physical skills we received in the late 80’s Boston-Area Peace Movement as many of us were prepared to engage in civil disobedience during non-violent protests against US interventions in Central America. We trained for confrontations with opposition protesters as well as horse-mounted police in the streets and the recruiting centers of Boston and Cambridge. Thirteen of us later put this all into practice in a CD Action connected to the Atlantic Life Community at the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in September 1987, spending three days in jail there and appearing in hearings with both Honduran military and US Embassy officials before being deported. That was intense.

It was thirty years later, in the fall of 2018, as the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings were blasting us from every direction, that I had an entirely different kind of intense experience, and this time it came from within. A past I had buried deep exploded into awareness with my realization of the similarity of the accusations Christine Blasey Ford leveled at Kavanaugh and my own experience as a young adult. I knew I needed help to deal with the immensity of the newly unearthed and unprocessed trauma I found myself swimming in. My first thought was to find a self-defense class to help me find some power in my life to balance the unbearable sense of vulnerability and powerlessness I felt. I searched for classes in southern Maine where I live and all I could find were various schools of martial arts and the RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) Program offered at the Portland Police Department. I felt much too fragile to show up at a dojo where I knew no one and nothing about the different traditions, and as the daughter of a sometimes-violent police officer, the police station and possible male instructors did not inspire confidence in me.

The experience I was seeking to heal from was rape, by someone I knew, and who I had believed cared about me. This had occurred well before the concept of date rape was known, and I had sealed it all away deep inside me for more than 50 years. So I decided to call the Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine (SARSSM) for assistance and they immediately put me in touch with Clara Porter and Prevention. Action. Change. Clara and her co-facilitator had just begun a multi-session Healing through Empowerment Class, and thankfully allowed me to join the group that had already completed their first session. It was quickly apparent to me that I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 years older than everyone else there, but I lost any sense of awkwardness about that by the end of the first session; this because each of us, no matter our age, was bravely working to confront injustices and violence we had experienced. Week by week, I began to remember who I was, and recover strengths that both the trauma I had buried and my own internalized ageism had replaced with a sense of powerlessness and lack of purpose.

Learning more about the work that PAC did, I then jumped into Empowerment Self-Defense and Bystander Training classes, and quickly realized, “I want to do this work!” I’ve been training and teaching with Clara for over two years now and she made possible the incredible opportunity for me to attend the 2019 NWMAF Special Training where I met so many inspiring people who I now consider part of my wider community, (and where I got one honest strike on Champ Heather Turnbull in my first-ever Escrima sparring match!)

While I know everyone can benefit from the carefully crafted tools of awareness, verbal skills, physical skills and healing that Empowerment Self-Defense offers, I have a particular interest in working with other older adults who desire to live the fullest lives we can. As we continue to grow as we age, we can all use the skills of ESD to stand up against whatever additional burden ageism, our own internalized and that thrown at us by others, adds to the other ways we may have had to stand up against marginalization in the past. As I stand on the cusp of 80, this and other ESD work is in my future!

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