Opinion | Self-defense class teaches us to build safety through community

On my first day of Rape Aggression Defense training years ago, I was an instructor’s nightmare. I knew everything, and was anxious to prove it. I may have implied that I was there only to cover this new self defense class that my local police department was so excited about. And I thought I already knew plenty about protecting myself.

After all, I’d covered several self-defense classes for various papers, read a stack of books on the subject, and pursued, but not attained, a black belt in tae kwon do. I knew some stuff, had some skills, right?

Thanks to me, the first half-hour of RAD class was a struggle for everyone. Then the instructors scared me into a cold sweat.

Sure, the police officers told me, I could probably get away from an attacker  — if I didn’t freeze in terror and forget everything I knew (one aspect of the RAD class is doing the same things over and over to build a sort of muscle memory). Then what, they asked me. Where do I go? What if he follows me? What if he comes back? Worse, what if he doesn’t? What happens to the next innocent person to meet up with this guy?

It had never occurred to me that I was responsible for protecting anyone outside of myself and mine. These career police officers had just told me that I had a role to play—everyone did—in keeping my community safe. That every call we make to the police helps them establish a record of incidents and concerns or a pattern of someone’s activity. That reporting a suspicious person may bring police to a neighborhood before he breaks into my neighbor’s van and steals all her baby shower gifts, or slashes my tires. That the mugger who tried to steal my cash, enraged that I got away, might assault or kill his next victim.

That was my first lesson of the night.

The next bubble to pop, almost as difficult for me, was answering a knock at the door. Don’t do it, the instructors said. Unless you’re expecting someone, there’s no reason in the world for you to open your home to whoever’s outside.

They made me understand that I had no good reasons for opening my door to a stranger—and I had two big dogs then—or even to leave my door unlocked when I was home.

I know we live in a safe place here, and I’m not suggesting we all hide behind our locked doors, suspicious of anyone who reaches out, because reaching out is really where it starts.

By getting to know your neighbors, they get to know you, and you can look out for each other. In the modern RAD sense, that means your neighbors will call the police if they see lights on at your place when they know you’re away.  In the old-fashioned sense, that means your neighbors helped you with the hay harvest, brought food when you were sick, and never kept accounts, because you’d do the same for them.

Our modern Valley residents are launching small, but concerted efforts to keep that spirit alive, through things like Pay It Forward, a week dedicated to committing (and receiving) acts of kindness, then passing them on.

Pay It Forward reflects many of the old fashioned values of the farm communities our towns used to be. Connect. Be kind. Change the world.


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