Two participants in a self-defense class practice striking a mitt

How to Empower Yourself to Survive and Thrive

Former UO instructor authors book on self-defense and success in a sexist world

By Julia Moore and Holly Pruett Photo courtesy the Register-Guard February 26, 2024

4 min read 

When Nadia Telsey walked into a New York thrift store one day fifty years ago to buy a pair of jeans, she didn’t expect it to change her life. But she left the store “filled with self-hate,” she wrote years later. An employee had touched her inappropriately while she was trying on jeans. She felt it was her fault. 

Telsey has shared that experience, and what she did about it, with generations of students during decades of teaching self-defense in New York and Oregon, as well as in places as far away as Mongolia and Siberia. That includes seventeen years at the University of Oregon from 1990 to 2007, when Telsey was a frequent speaker in women’s and gender studies and served as faculty advisor to a student-run service learning program.

The story is at the heart of Get Empowered: A Practical Guide to Thrive, Heal, and Embrace Your Confidence in a Sexist World, recently published by Telsey and coauthor Lauren R. Taylor, an author, speaker, and self-defense teacher. 

The book is based on Empowerment Self-Defense, an innovative form of taking back control that stemmed from Telsey’s experience in the thrift store. Empowerment Self-Defense affirms the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ people to be safe and to speak up for themselves. “It was a fundamental change in self-defense,” Telsey remembers, “to give women the tools without judgment and shift responsibility for the assaults to the assailants.” 

“It’s a groundbreaking approach,” says UO sociology professor Jocelyn Hollander, who has studied Telsey’s work. “Research shows women who have taken Empowerment Self-Defense are about 50 percent less likely to experience violence in the year following. It changes people’s understanding of themselves.”

A focus on martial arts and innovative self-defense

Nadia Telsey
Nadia Telsey

Telsey joined a martial arts class after the thrift store attack. Soon she and other female classmates started a school of their own, bringing a feminist and anti-racist focus to their founding of Brooklyn Women’s Martial Arts in 1974.

In this milieu, Telsey reflected on the shame and humiliation that lingered from that assault. She shared the incident with friends and discovered that many of them had similar stories and similar feelings of shame and guilt. Together they confronted the attacker and the store owner.

The mindset of self-assertion and holding the perpetrator accountable is as important as physical training, Telsey and her friends learned. The martial arts school they founded has become the Center for Anti-Violence Education, which teaches skills to understand, prevent, and heal from harassment and violence in all aspects of life.

Telsey and her martial arts colleagues saw gender-based violence as connected to other forms of violently enforced bias, including racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and homophobia. Their classes helped women address and heal from the bias they faced due to their socioeconomic class, body size, citizenship status, and physical and developmental disabilities. They took a stand with women of color who were disproportionately incarcerated for fighting back against attackers. Telsey began antibias community education programs that continue to this day.

Says Telsey: “I often find myself in the role of seeing an unaddressed need and helping to generate a response in the community.”

Self-defense tools and shifting blame to the attacker

After moving to Eugene in 1981, Telsey worked with the Rape Crisis Network, the Oregon attorney general’s sexual assault task force, and the UO. It was in her university classes that she documented her approach in a workbook, Self-Defense from the Inside Out. It has been distributed to thousands of students, empowering them and women around the world to stand up for themselves, understand the roots of gender-based violence, release self-blame, and heal from traumas.

Get Empowered: A Practical Guide to Thrive, Heal, and Embrace Your Confidence in a Sexist World

Now updated as Get Empowered, the stories, questions for reflection, and interactive exercises equip readers with skills to combat gender-based violence at work, home, and in social situations. The book gives the reader tools for dealing with a wide array of gender-based violence, impressing on victims that it’s not their fault and that they can develop skills to stop verbal and physical attacks.

Get Empowered details the stages of assaults, the origin of gender-based violence, and how victims can shift blame from themselves to the perpetrator.

Telsey’s teaching has reached those who witness attacks, as well. She developed “bystander upstander” intervention training to address the confusion and paralysis that keeps others from stepping in when witnessing harassment. A bystander who speaks up eliminates the misconception that they condone the harasser’s actions, she says.

It’s what Telsey learned to tell herself, as a young woman. Through finding her own voice, she has helped countless others experiencing gender-based violence to find theirs.

“We need to go to the person being hurt and acknowledge their pain and trauma,” Telsey says. “Tell them, ‘I saw that. You didn’t deserve that.’”

Julia Moore, BA ’90 (magazine), is a creative director, graphic designer, and copywriter in Eugene.

Holly Pruett was executive director of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence from 1988 to 1994.

Top photo Shaay Gallagher-Starr and her daughter, Ananda Gallagher-Starr, practice palm strikes and slapping at the Warrior Sisters self-defense class.

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