abstract self-defense illustration
Lizzie Smith

Your heart starts to race as you walk across the mat, knowing that you are about to be attacked from behind. You re-focus on the task at hand as you realize the scenario you’re practicing could happen in real life. The aggressor grabs you, and you swing around to deliver two powerful blows: a palm heel strike and a knee. You quickly drop to the ground yelling “NO,” ready to give a side kick. The aggressor gets flustered and flees the area. You get up, check the scene to make sure you’re safe, and run to safety.

This is what it’s like to take a class with IMPACT Chicago, which teaches self-defense to women, girls, and people with disabilities to provide them with “the tools they need to prevent, minimize, and stop violence,” the organization says in its mission statement. Through its classes, some of which take place on the South Side, IMPACT Chicago seeks to empower people to improve their personal safety, and is “committed to ending violence and building a non-violent world in which all people can live safely and with dignity.”

IMPACT Chicago offers a variety of programs for individuals of all ages and skill levels. Its main course is the twenty-hour Core Program for cis and trans women sixteen and older, which teaches participants verbal and physical self-defense techniques as well as how to set boundaries. IMPACT for Girls is the organization’s eight-hour program for girls ages twelve to fifteen. IMPACT Chicago also offers a variety of shorter workshops that include elements of the programs.

Female instructors support and motivate participants through courses that address boundary violations by strangers, acquaintances, and romantic partners. Male instructors in body armor pretend to be aggressors and attack the participants, grabbing or verbally insulting them to role-play potential real-life scenarios. The lead instructor is right beside the participant every step of the way, providing encouragement and reminders of what to do. The class assistant, a volunteer who has previously taken the course, cheers on each participant and, at the end of the class, demonstrates what fighting off an aggressor should look like—showing participants can achieve it.

IMPACT Chicago got its start with one of its lead instructors and administrative team co-leaders, Martha Thompson. After taking self-defense trainings held by the Personal Empowerment Center in 1988, she began to build the infrastructure for a chapter of the center in Chicago. The Personal Empowerment Center disbanded a year later, however, and in 1991, several chapters came together in Chicago to come up with a new international organization. They agreed to name the organization IMPACT.

“Our goal is to empower women of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds, so that they realize they have options when faced with a threatening situation. I think what makes IMPACT special is the opportunity to work within these realistic scenarios and being able to defend yourself against a potential assailant using full force,” said Aaron “A.C.” Christensen, one of IMPACT Chicago’s instructors.

The organization makes a notable effort to ensure a wide range of people can take its classes. IMPACT Chicago prides itself on holding classes in a variety of Chicago neighborhoods; it is always looking for ways to collaborate with different organizations and businesses to use their spaces and extend its outreach.

“We don’t have one location that we’re always working out of. We try our best to move throughout the city to different locations, because we know that not everybody is going to be able to get to certain locations and certain places,” said Courtney Henderson, one of IMPACT Chicago’s board members and a class assistant.

IMPACT Chicago also offers several options for payment, to help make sure no one is turned away because they can’t afford to take a class.

“When you register on our website, you are able to select sliding scale, and then based on your self-reported income, we reduce the tuition for the Core Program. We also offer payment plans for people,” said Katie Skibbe, an IMPACT instructor and treasurer of IMPACT Chicago’s board. “If even a payment plan is not an option, we look at scholarships,”

In the most recent IMPACT Chicago Core Program, participant Chelsea Baer was able to take advantage of the sliding scale option.

“I wish this class could be accessible for everyone. When I found out [a sliding scale fee] was an option, and they let you pick out the salary price points and what works for you…I appreciated that, that was something that was flexible, and so it wasn’t just this hard set cost that would deter people from coming,” Baer said.

Located right off the 51st Street Green Line stop, The Bronzeville Incubator hosted the Core Program last month for a third consecutive year. This beautiful space supports local entrepreneurs and businesses by offering flex or co-working spaces and training sessions to help them build capacity.

The collaboration between the organizations began with a conversation between friends Lisa Amoroso, co-chair of the IMPACT Chicago administrative team, and Denise Lewin Loyd, the spouse of Bernard Loyd, founder of The Bronzeville Incubator.

Serving the needs of the community is a high priority for The Bronzeville Incubator—as it is for IMPACT Chicago. Rachel Gadson, The Bronzeville Incubator’s managing director, said, “Making sure that people have access to things that aren’t readily available in underserved neighborhoods is very important to us. You won’t find many self-defense courses or classes for women on the South Side, and quite frankly it’s very alarming.”

“The ultimate goal is for us to create and provide space that fosters connection, community, collaboration among folks,” Gadson said.

IMPACT Chicago hopes to expand its outreach across other Chicago communities, along with offering more courses such as IMPACT: Ability, which helps people with disabilities build their skills at protecting and advocating for themselves. Some instructors from the Chicago chapter were able to train for this new program in Boston.

IMPACT Chicago also encourages men to get involved and show their support.

“It’s important that men take an active role [in] making the world a safer place for their sisters, mothers, daughters, co-workers, family, and friends,” Christensen explained. “If you consider yourself a male ally, it’s imperative that you ask the women in your life what you can do to help, and then follow through…. Not just liking someone’s post on social media, but actual, real-world actions and deeds.”

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Maple Joy is a contributor to the Weekly. She has taken an IMPACT class herself and contributed to IMPACT Chicago’s blog. Maple is from Cleveland but has lived in the Chicago area for over six years. She is obsessed with Chicago food. In her spare time, you can find her biking on one of the Chicago trails or hanging out at a Chicago event or festival.

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