What does a more perfect future for you and the young people in your life look like?
I had the pleasure of discussing this question with Rachel Collins, the owner and founder of SheBegins. SheBegins offers empowerment-based self-defense, personal training and violence-prevention workshops. Approaching their work within an empowerment model means educating and supporting others in choosing how they want to defend themselves.
With much of their work focusing on youth-trainings, this translates to cultivating verbal skills, confidence, self-respect, dialogue about consent and boundaries and bystander intervention.
I first met Collins this fall when considering options for our daughter’s 13th birthday party. As she enters her teenage years, my hope was to incorporate a rite of passage toward a future self-grounded in possibility, confidence and safety.
The stories our daughter shares about school — such as a recent lock down, bullying, updates on crushes and questions about consent — prompt us to talk about safety a lot. So, a month before her birthday, I began exploring options for a teen self-defense class. A quick search led me to Collins, and we scheduled a 90-minute teen empowerment training for 14 girls.
As we entered the dojo, the girls were excited and a bit unsure of what they were in for.
Collins and her co-trainer, Heather Monero, are masterful facilitators. They started with a discussion about the training and transitioned into team building and a playful icebreaker to create a more comfortable space.
When I returned an hour later, I could hardly believe these were the same girls.
The group was in formation, doing knee to abdomen drills on the co-trainers. I watched in awe at the individual and collective power exhibited. I couldn’t help but reflect on how my 13-year-old-self needed access to a space like this.
Following the drill, the girls gathered in a circle to debrief. Collins opened the conversation by reminding the group, “There is no one right way to deal with a dangerous situation. People are going to tell you that you are too small and young. You might even be told that there is nothing you can do. But there is always something we can do.”
She then asked the group to come up with scenarios and questions they had about a situation in which they might feel vulnerable or unsafe.
Hands shot up with questions ranging from “What if you are on the ground?” to “What if someone grabs you from behind, or has you by your hair or ponytail?”
For each scenario, Collins asked the girls to review what they learned. Together they discussed the examples by identifying ways they could leverage tools within their body to respond. Several times they reviewed the slogan: “Think, yell, run, fight, tell.”
When I asked Collins what surprises her about working with youth, she says, “We learn as much from them as they do from us.” The eagerness to talk and engage through dialogue inspires her work.
Collins started SheBegins more than a year ago to respond to a demand in the community. With a background in sexual assault support services and as a former educator at Planned Parenthood, Collins observed that what we call “prevention” is inadequate. This is amplified by the fact that, for vulnerable communities, access to violence prevention is lacking.
Within a year, SheBegins had an array of offerings, including free monthly mini-trainings, a girls’ empowerment training and an in-depth women’s six-week series, which runs Jan. 12 to Feb. 16; co-ed boundaries, and personal safety seminars and school programs.
SheBegins currently offers a 12-week series at Spencer Butte Middle School. Collins hopes to do more work with schools and community organizations. Charges for all the training programs are sliding scale and income-based.
To spread the word in the community, SheBegins has partnered with The Barn Light and The Farmer Union Coffee Roasters for a monthly “Empower Hour” the last Wednesday of every month. At these events, information about local programs and trainings is available. From 4 pm to closing, $1 from every drink purchased goes to support scholarships funding access to empowerment-based self-defense trainings for those in need.
In addition to their trainings and information sessions, Caitlin O’Quinn, SheBegins’ youth program coordinator, is researching the long-term impact of empowerment-based self-defense.
After one training session, participants report profound lasting effects, our daughter included. A month after her training, I asked her what she learned.
“Learning to defend yourself does not have to be heavy and scary. Instead, we learned about different options to defend ourselves and say, ‘No,’” she says. “Before, I would have been more apologetic and worried about saying no.”
Beginning to claim her voice, confidence, agency and self-respect are tools our daughter gained from one workshop with SheBegins.
Considering the need for these skills and awareness, Collins says this: “In a more perfect future there will be multiple options in every town for empowerment-based self-defense and when that happens it will create cultural change.”
To get involved, learn more or request a training session with SheBegins, visit SheBeginsSelfDefense.com.