An Interview with Shailagh Keaney

Talk to us a little about Wen-do.  How did you get involved, and what is your mission?

I took my first course in Wen-Do in 2010 in Sudbury. I had moved back and was studying at Laurentian University doing a project on gendered police violence at the Toronto G20, and much of my undergraduate degree had focused on gendered violence. When I saw a flyer for the Wen-Do course that was happening in Sudbury, I was all about it, and I registered right away. I was expecting a woman-centred and feminist self-defense program, and what I got was that, but also so much more. I had a transformative experience studying with Deb Chard, who is one of the Wen-Do senior instructors. I looked around the room and I realized that I wasn’t the only one, that many women in the room had undergone transformations that weekend.  I realized just how powerful it was, and I wanted to share it with as many women as possible.

When I moved to Guelph in 2011, I started to organize courses through my previous workplace, which is the Guelph Resource Centre for Gender Empowerment and Diversity. From there, I decided that I was going to become an instructor myself. So, that began my journey. It was January 2012, 2013, and I decided that in fact I would become an instructor. I started co-instructing and went through my teacher’s training program and my apprenticeship, and I came out the other end as a Wen-Do instructor.

We're the longest running women’s self-defense organization in Canada. Our first course was in 1972. From there, we've evolved as a feminist self-defense organization, and that's an intersectional feminist self-defense program. We're empowerment-based, trauma informed.  My project, my personal project as a Wen-Do woman’s self-defense instructor, is to challenge the epidemic of violence against women, and I'm not only talking about stranger danger, the stranger who lurks in the shadows, although that is a real experience for some women. I'm talking about the much more common experience of experiencing violence at the hands of people we know. Whether that's a friend, family member, or someone who you are intimately involved with as a partner, that violence can take so many forms. Women and girls have been taught and socialized to be nice, and we've been socialized to be polite. We haven’t been socialized to go after what we want necessarily, and we haven’t necessarily been socialized to say no. In my classes, it’s important to really empower that sense of being able to say no, and to do so with a strong voice.  It is also important to look at how other women and girls in our world and in our societies have pushed back against gendered violence and have used the skills available to them to speak out and fight back against gendered violence.

It's also about so much more than self-defense. It is about an empowerment program and about really engaging in our power and tapping into the ferocious, go-getter women that we have inside of us, the one who doesn't always get a chance to speak out. Sometimes, it does and that's amazing, but sometimes we have to find different ways and different techniques and different modalities to bring it out. So, that's part of what I do.

Did you end up here because of a personal situation?  Where does this passion come from for this cause?

It's something that I'm dedicating my life to. It's one of the most common questions that I get as a Wen-Do instructor: “Have you ever had to use Wen-Do?” Or, “Are you coming to it from personal experience?” I think that every woman and girl has had some experience, either directly or indirectly with gendered violence. So, whether that means me supporting a friend or whether that means me having lost somebody, both situations are true in my case. I lost a friend to gendered violence, and that's not something that I ever want anybody to have to experience. Realistically speaking, in 2015, we lost 36 women in Canada as a result of domestic violence alone.  That doesn't even start to account for the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women, which is a direct result of both patriarchy and colonization. So, I think that if we take an honest look at ourselves, we will see, no matter what our gender is, that gendered violence affects us, and that we all have an investment in it ending.

What exactly do you teach?  What are some of the types of things that somebody would experience if they were to take a course?

In a Wen-Do course, somebody can expect to learn simple, easy-to-integrate self-defense techniques that are designed to be used against physically larger and stronger attackers. That means that our physical techniques are target driven and are simple, yet strong and effective. We do a lot of repetition and a lot of reviews. Half the course is discussion, the other half is physical self-defense. In our discussions, we unpack the realities of gendered violence that shape our world. With that awareness and understanding and the recognition that gendered violence is never our fault, we integrate those understandings as well as an understanding of our own power into our physical self-defense techniques. For me, it's a somatic experience. It's a body experience. Our bodies carry wisdom and our bodies carry our herstories of what we've lived. By remapping an understanding of our own power, we integrate these new learnings into our muscle memory. That's what Wen-Do is. It's a packaged experience of living an empowerment moment, which I trust carries through in women’s lives.

Do you ever have participants who are currently in a violent situation?

Yes, that can definitely happen, which is why we provide resources that are specific to each community that we're teaching in. For an example, I was teaching at a high school in Richmond Hill.  In advance of teaching the course, I went and spoke with the local health unit and sexual assault crisis centre.  I then brought resources with me so that they could know where to reach out after I leave, after the class is over. Some instructors will provide personal phone numbers in case somebody needs to reach out and access more resources. We have connections and relationships with local crisis centres and shelters.  If someone is in crisis, one of the first things that is important for people to experience is being listened to and believed. As an instructor, that’s something I can do, and it’s also something that we train our attendees to do in the context of the class.

We'll build on some basic active listening skills and make sure that the person feels like they're recognized, supported, and believed. Then, we can start to explore our options. If that means referring this person to a shelter, making some calls on their behalf, or at the very least, that they have someone they can go to who could help to make those calls.

If they have access to a computer, our website has a step-by-step guide as to how someone can cover their tracks if they've, for example, searched women’s self-defense. We'll be the first website that will come up, and then somebody can go through the steps of covering their tracks.

We are a small organization, and there's more that could do with more people power and more resources. At the same time, we're modest but mighty in what we accomplish in any given year. Have you heard of the Cut It Out program?  Wouldn’t it be great if our flyers were at every salon or every hairstylist knew that Wen-Do existed? I think that's something that we can work towards, and we're not quite there yet, but this Cut It Out is a program engaging hairstylists across the country, and training them to recognize signs of abuse.

Infiltrating that way is so smart.  Do you do outreach?

We speak at International Women’s Day, at December 6th events, and other events that are designed to end violence against women. A lot of our outreach happens through organizations. We have a fund called the Janet Cluett Memorial Fund. Janet Cluett was an instructor with Wen-Do, and in fact, she took her teacher’s training while she was staying in a shelter escaping an abusive relationship with a man who was intent on killing her. She was living in the shelter with her daughters, and while in the shelter, she trained to become an instructor.  She passed away from cancer just over a year ago, and a fund was set up in her honor.  When you donate to the Janet Cluett Memorial Fund, proceeds provide free Wen-Do training to women who are living in shelters or to organizations that are supporting women who are survivors of violence. That's some of how our outreach works.

On January 21st, there's a march happening - Women March on Washington, just after the inauguration.  If you can’t make it, many other cities, including Toronto, are hosting a march in solidarity.  Women are taking the streets against the rise of the alt-right and hatred based movements.  There will be Wen-Do instructors who will be marshalling the march.

Another thing worth mentioning is that we have the Muslim Women's Fund, which was established by Wen-Do instructor Arij Elmi in 2015, and it is designed to make Wen-Do accessible to more Muslim women in an age of growing Islamophobia.

We hope that our approach is empathically connected enough so that women can know that they can come into our classes without that sense of judgement or victimization. We also know that women who are in abusive situations are not foolish and are not stupid.  We’ve simply been shaped by a world that condones violent behaviour to a certain extent, and it can take a lot of community support and personal support in order for someone to move out of a situation like that. I hope that I can meet women there wherever they're at. That's one of my goals.

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Caela Berry