CW: Mentions of violence and implied sexual assault
Deborah Weaver’s life has been guided by an inspiration: “How strong and powerful women can be … if they figure out how to use the things that are already in them.” Here at Wellesley, Weaver has spent 35 years as a self-defense instructor, supplying students with the needed tools to find those ‘things.’
Before Wellesley, Weaver trained in London in the world of performing arts, where she grew particularly interested in contemporary dance and the “bringing [of] women’s stories to light through dance.” She then found herself as a teacher, helping children develop dance and theatre as “a communication tool for their important lives and important issues.”
With the expression of the physical body as her tool for communication, Weaver then dabbled in a plethora of various defense and expression techniques. “I got introduced to martial arts through dance … and [then] I became very involved in tai chi … then a form of Philipino stick fighting … and then got interested in women’s safety,” she says.
It was at Wellesley 37 years ago when a student of hers started the self defense class using her background in martial arts. Weaver was asked to take over the class and created a basic curriculum for what the self defense class taught here at Wellesley looks like, which includes some very real scenarios some students may encounter.
“I eventually spent the summer working with [a student] and figuring out how to deal with escaping somebody, being grabbed from the rear, fighting from the back and then fighting from the floor. And so when I got here, I started teaching [self defense] classes with those three things kind of as the tools of self defense,” she noted.
Self defense, however, is more than just escaping, as there are more parts involved than just that of the victim. Weaver elaborates “It became very clear that in order for students to learn they have to experience some amount of stress … because they need to know whether or not they are able to fight through fight or flight response. And so besides them learning how to escape, they also end up playing the part of the bully and part of the attacker. Also eventually learn to use the physical equipment so that the other students can actually hit or kick something without holding back.”
With this academic year being her last, Weaver is currently training another instructor who worked with her at Simmons University to take over the class.
On top of teaching self defense classes at Wellesley, Weaver also founded the Cambridge-based non-profit LEaP Self Defense, Inc. whose mission is to empower girls and young women to value and champion their own safety and well-being, according to their website.
Weaver established this self defense based curriculum taught by women for girls ages eight to 18 when her city, Cambridge, experienced an uptick in crime.
“In the middle 1990s … there was a spike in violence against women … in particular in the neighborhood that I lived there were two home invasions within three weeks of each other in which a woman was assaulted in her home by a complete stranger. [After this] the women’s community started meeting … a small group of us, we really wanted to focus on a solution, we wanted to do something positive.”
She also had a conversation with one of her Wellesley students after class, who had asked, in plain terms, “What are you going to do for the girls?” LEaP Self Defense, Inc. became that answer, and has been dedicated to providing girls the tools to be safe and secure, “both physically and emotionally” since 1997.
“I have always been fundamentally interested in the fact that women’s experience of their bodies is often not positive, not self-empowered and not under their control. I think that those are fundamental rights that people have to enjoy themselves, to feel safe, to be able to be expressive and to be authentic. Those are really hard things to experience if your society says ‘you need to be objectified,’ ‘you need to be looked at,’ ‘you need to be beautiful,’ … none of those things are fulfilling,” she said, touching on more of her inspiration for the classes and for how she’s lived her life.
Weaver shared one particular experience she felt resonated with her as a girl while growing up in Maine.
“I would run. We called it ‘running on the rocks,’ where I would run as fast as I could just leaping from rock to rock … and it was so fun and so joyful and I felt so at ease with myself. I think that that’s a characteristic a lot of women don’t ever have. There’s a freedom to it and a liberation that’s really powerful,” Weaver elaborated. It is this sense of freedom and liberation that she has tried to help other girls and women experience in a world where they are not always encouraged to.
Weaver stepped down as executive director from LEaP Self Defense, Inc. in 2012, and is retiring from Wellesley this year. Weaver still holds a full time job in an environmental protection group in Westport, Mass., where she plans to stay a few more years. The group works on things like water testing, salt marsh loss and currently has an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant on oyster studies. Weaver also noted that the group aims at “helping kids to feel more involved and more interested in stewardship of the environment.”
As for leaving her classes behind, she hopes that the “integrity and type of teaching continue … [which] includes personal, introspective learning as well as physical learning in order to promote the social and emotional growth of women that ties together with physical empowerment.”