Continuing Education

An Emphasis on Empowerment: Talking with Joanne Factor About Women’s Self-Defense

Veteran women’s self-defense instructor Joanne Factor began her teaching career over 20 years ago as a student with the Feminist Karate Union. “We would occasionally teach Imagecommunity self-defense classes,” she recalls. “I got my start helping my teachers at these classes.  Then I looked into an opportunity for us to teach at the UW Women’s Center (this was in the mid-1990s), and my teacher suggested I lead the class. GULP!”

Factor says teaching self-defense had its own challenges, different from teaching Karate, but no less rewarding.  “I began teaching more extensively at end of 2003, when I worked with women veterans who were suffering chronic PTSD as a result of sexual assault while they were in military service.  I expanded my class offerings to more venues, and tailored classes specific to different groups (children, teen girls, girls off to college, adult women, workplaces, ECT).” Indeed, Factor’s Seattle College's Continuing Education classes have ranged from one-day workshops like Street-Smart Safety for Women on the Go to longer courses like Self Defense for Women 101.

In order to better support her growing community of students, Factor founded Strategic Living, LLC in 2003, which lead her into an entirely new area of discovery for her as an entrepreneur. “The biggest challenge was that I didn’t know anything about business,” she Imagerecalls. “Fortunately, I got help over the years from friends who knew how to run a business.  The next challenge was marketing — how to reach those who would be looking for my classes.  It’s a constant project. I began with some good SEO (Search Engine Optimization) which put me at the top of Google searches, and since then it has been paying off with some great word-of-mouth recommendations.” Her efforts have paid off with students regularly being drawn to her classes, media notoriety and garnering her the title of Seattle's Best Feminist Butt-Kicker in 2007 by The Seattle Weekly.

The challenges put to a business owner aside; Factor’s work always goes back to establishing a safe space for her students. “Because this is an ‘emPOWERment’ self-defense class, we focus mostly on what students can look to assess and what they can do,” she says. “We emphasize that nobody ever asks for an assault, and the person(s) responsible for attack is the one(s) who made the bad choice to commit an attack.  I also note that persons who were assaulted in the past may experience some anxiety, and emphasize that they should seek support from professionals outside of class to most productively continue.”

Factor says the first steps toward protecting oneself begin with a mindfulness of your surroundings. “One’s safety is in recognizing one’s own boundaries and taking them seriously.  Knowing your limits, being able to articulate them, and asking for what you want are probably your best awareness tactics.” She points out that self-defense in not always about physical engagement. “Self-defense also covers recognizing the ‘red flags’ that someone means harm, your ‘exit strategy’ of using your voice, body language, and feet to express boundaries and if necessary leave, and self-care to help ameliorate the emotional after-effects of traumatic events. The vast majority of self-defense should be the first two; physical skills are skills of last resort.”

As Factor has expanded her teaching efforts into different schools and environments, her Imagestudents have taught her a great deal about what they need from her experience. “Over time I’ve learned to assess what concerns students have, and sometimes balance them with more likely risks. For instance, most students are more concerned with street assault and ‘stranger danger.’  Most students also know they are most likely to be assaulted by someone they know.  The trick is to balance the stranger assault concerns with the scenarios they are much more likely to encounter, and how to approach that is a lot of what I’ve learned.”

Factor’s goal is for students is they take away a greater sense of independence and confidence. “(I hope) that they feel more comfortable engaging in activities and in public because they have better skills to assess risk and do something about it.”

Learn more about Self-Defense for Women 101.