Last Thursday night, the corridors in the basement of the UTM Davis building reverberated with cheers coming from Spigel Hall. After five classes throughout the semester, the women’s self-defense course, Wen-Do, was celebrating the completion of the course’s second run at UTM, and saying goodbye to women graduating from the course in 2017.
“This is our second year. The first one was last year and we were able to get some funding and support to do it again this year, and we’ve had a great response,” says Bobbi-jo Duff, corporal at UTM’s Campus Police. With approximately 30 women registered, classes took place on Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
With her second time spearheading this project at UTM, Duff says, “My passion since I’ve been working here with campus police has been women’s safety and women’s safety issues, and getting the community involved in learning about prevention and self-defense.” After learning about the community safety office’s support for Wen-Do, with Deb Parent as the instructor, Duff began planning this initiative. “I just reached out to her and I asked my managers and the administration for the funding, and to see if they would support it and they were all for it,” says Duff, who adds, “And just to be able to educate and promote and give awareness to women about safety on campus, and safety off campus is a valuable tool for knowledge and confidence. I see a need for it [and] I’d like to see more of it.”
Duff was also able to get the program approved for notation on the Co-Curricular Record for participating students. “It was a long process and it was so new to me […] but along with that, we did the social media campaign and we had it on the RAWC gym handouts, emailed the women and gender studies department and residence—and just word of mouth got around,” she says.
When asked about how she manages time between her responsibilities at Campus Police and organizing the course, the corporal says, “It’s part of the job. And I take it as part of my responsibility as campus police and being a big advocate for women’s safety, especially on campus. This is what I love to do and I enjoy doing at work.”
The instructor for the course, Deb Parent, as mentioned on Wen-Do’s official website, has taught Wen-Do to thousands of girls and women since 1987. Parent’s biography states that “she pioneered Dyke and Trans self-defense courses and is a senior instructor and board member with Wen-Do.” Parent has also been on staff with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre from 1980 to 2001, is the recipient of the 2007 City of Toronto Pride award, and the 2016 Inspire lifetime achievement award.
A typical class begins with a sit-down, community discussion, asking participants to share their stories and experiences. Later on in the class, participants form a circle and the instructor initiates a review of moves learnt so far by asking every student for their favourite moves, carrying the moves out, and adding on suggestions. When demonstrating a sideways elbow hit, Parent suggests to the class, “No matter where the attacker is, beside you, in front of you or behind you, you may not have all the targets, but you’ll have some of those targets and you’re going to make great use of them.”
Speaking to The Medium, Parent says her experience with instructing the course at UTM has been “incredible […]. The response has been so overwhelming. Bobbi-jo has done a fantastic job of promoting it, word-of-mouth has gotten out from last year’s class, women who attended our three-hour workshop in the winter left wanting to do something more and this class was a great way to continue.”
Parent, who teaches Wen-Do at other U of T campuses and other universities, says “no other place has the CCR credit, and why not, right? I mean women are doing the work and what would benefit them, they should definitely get.”
The 60-year-old self-defense instructor and DJ originally from Ottawa, who was also part of a small group of organizers behind Toronto’s women’s march held at Nathan Phillip’s square in September 2017, says, “I think self-defense has always been important. I mean Wen-Do is celebrating 45 years this year so it’s a very mixed feeling; Yay that we’re still the grandmother of all women’s self-defense, but damn we’re still here after 45 years.”
Parent also adds, “I think, given what we’re seeing on social media and women finding their voice online, I think it makes a lot of sense that women are also here finding their voice in person and I think for many, many women in the room, this is the biggest gift and challenge, that this course is giving them the room to yell and speak up for themselves in some way.”
Antonia Schulz, a third year student studying psychology, says the current stories exposed in the media have alerted her to the idea that, “This could happen anytime […] and in this class, we share examples of what we have heard from friends and what we have personally seen, and we realized this could happen at any moment.” Schulz says that although the first class was an experience speckled with uncertainty and self-consciousness, she adds, “The course has been an opportunity to learn how to defend myself and to build confidence.”
The self-defense instructor emphasizes, “I think for many of us as women, the challenge is choosing ourselves, and so if women walk away feeling like they’re worth choosing, they’re worth defending, and they have the capacity to defend themselves. They can do so with their voice as well as their bodies, then I think we’ve done our job.”