CLARA PORTER, 50
Prevention. Action. Change. For Clara Porter, these are words to live by, the very essence of the self-defense efforts she has been trained to teach for nearly two decades.
In 2004, Porter put those words to official use, establishing her empowerment self-defense organization by the same name. Today, Porter, plus four other part-time instructors, reaches a broad range of individuals and organizations, all in the interest of personal safety.
“Empowerment self-defense is very different from what people think of when they think of self-defense,” Porter says. “We do teach physical skills, but it’s much more about building awareness of the root causes of violence in the first place.”
Fostering that awareness, plus developing verbal skills, can reduce the risk of assault and can also interrupt incidents once they have started, Porter says. These skills are useful not only for women wary of random street attacks, but also for the more likely occurrence of assault by someone a woman actually knows, she says.
“It’s incredibly important for young women to have the skills to recognize what is happening,” Porter says of sexual violence.
Women must understand that assault “is not their fault. That’s just huge,” Porter says. Equally essential is women’s understanding that freezing when in danger is a biological response.
“It’s not a choice. It’s incredibly smart on our bodies’ part,” as a way of reducing the risk of harm, she says.
“Empowerment self-defense doesn’t mean fight every time,” Porter says. But it does mean teaching women “how and where to seek help.”
Porter’s educational efforts extend to a variety of populations, including middle and high school students, as well as members of the LGBT community, and individuals with disabilities – two categories of people at increased risk of violence. Porter also has extensive experience with safety issues on college campuses. Most recently, she has begun taking her instruction into organizations in an effort to teach employees more about overcoming barriers to a safe work environment. This work often focuses on assertive communication, de-escalation techniques and team-building exercises, Porter says.
“It’s similar to a self-defense class, but through a very different lens,” she said.
A trained social worker, Porter began her current career trajectory when she took a karate class in Brooklyn prior to moving to Maine in 1999.
“Training in self-defense gave me a whole new perspective,” she says. “It is so empowering and so based on people’s own experience, and the power and resilience we all have. It really resonated with me.
“I was always uncomfortable with the aspect of social work tied to power,” Porter says.
She created her organization, called Prevention. Action. Change., in 2004 as “a way to bring all the work together under one roof and bring together people to teach,” she says.
Porter says her courses often take the form of half-day or full-day workshops. They are like “Vegas,” she says: “what happens there stays there.”
Workshops often begin with a discussion of gender messages – “messages about your ability to take care of yourself and your safety,” she says. Participants also learn that “there are no ‘right’ answers in self-defense.”
“We do tons of work around boundaries,” she says.
Much of the work “looks at aspects of how [participants] move through the world,” Porter says. “We look at how they treat themselves, and how others treat them. It’s not necessarily something someone coming into a self-defense class would think they’d explore,” she says.
Classes also comprise physical instruction, and teach skills that are applicable regardless of individuals’ level of fitness.
“We have an equation,” she says. “What’s soft and vulnerable on your attacker’s body, what’s hard and sharp on your body, add power,” she says.
Participants are not taught specific martial arts techniques, Porter says. “It’s very accessible to people with physical limitations,” she says.
Much of what participants learn has to do with confidence, Porter says. “Whatever makes you project yourself with confidence will reduce your risk and increase your safety.”
Porter says the most gratifying aspect of the work is “seeing that it works for people.”
“I see women inhabit this work in their lives and take up more space,” she said. “It’s really great.”