Defend Yourself works to empower people — especially women and others targeted for abuse and assault — to end violence and create a world where they can be fully themselves. Our students learn skills to help them prevent, heal from, and end violence and abuse. We offer more freedom, more confidence, more safety, and more fun!
Defend Yourself works with people of all ages, genders, and walks of life. We have, for example, held classes and workshops at hundreds of D.C.-area schools, faith groups, workplaces, community organizations, and more.
Defend Yourself’s instructors have more than 110 years experience among them! All have training in empowerment self-defense theory, strategies, and techniques; in research on violence; on trauma and recovery; and in teaching skills. Read what people say about our teachers.
Lauren Taylor, founder and director (she/they)
I started working to end gender-based violence 40+ years ago and I’m still passionate and inspired. I honor the skills and experience students bring to being safe. I love teaching, and I teach everybody, specializing in working with women and teen girls, lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans and nonbinary people, people with disabilities, and survivors of abuse and assault. I believe everyone can stand up for themselves verbally, emotionally, and physically. I’m committed to helping people be their authentic selves and will be working to build a better world until my time on earth is done.
Here’s some of the nitty-gritty:
- I’ve taught more than 30,000 people of all ages, genders, and walks of life.
- I have more than 30 years of self-defense teaching experience.
- I publish widely on interpersonal violence: its causes, its effects, and how to prevent and heal from it.
- In partnership with Stop Street Harassment and RAINN, in 2016 we launched a National Street Harassment Hotline.
- In 2013, we founded Safe Bars, which addresses the connection between alcohol and sexual aggression with bystander intervention training for bar, club, and restaurant employees.
- I was a founder of My Sister’s Place, D.C.’s first shelter for abused women and their children.
- I was an organizer of the 1978 March to Stop Violence Against Women (D.C.’s first Take Back the Night march).
AJ Head (he/they)
I began studying martial arts informally with my father at a young age. I began formally in 1996 with tae kwon do. Initially the traditions and the philosophies of the martial arts are what attracted me, but as I began studying in a school that stressed self-defense, that aspect became very important to me as well. I’ve been teaching self-defense in the Washington surrounding area for about 15 years, mostly to women, young people, and the LGBTQ community. I’ve gained a lot by sharing what I’ve learned over the years. I look forward to many more years of teaching and empowering people by showing them their inherent power.
I began my career as a member of AmeriCorps at the DC Rape Crisis Center, where I learned the importance of empowerment self-defense and survivor advocacy. Since then I’ve worked in education and social justice at the University of Maryland’s LGBT Equity Center and Office of Diversity & Inclusion.
I’m honored to work with Defend Yourself helping women, children, trans and gender-non-conforming people gain empowerment self-defense strategies. I’m especially interested in addressing how violence intersects with marginalized identities. When I’m not working with Defend Yourself, I lead environment education and nature-based wellness programs for Montgomery Parks, and facilitate social-identity dialogues at the University of Maryland.
Cathie Reid (she/her/hers)
I began training in tae kwon do in 1995 in a school that also taught self-defense. I fell in love with the art but more importantly I loved the self-defense. I began assisting, then teaching, self-defense in 1996, and the feeling I get by empowering others cannot be explained with mere words. I specialize in teaching children (especially boys) and women. As a survivor of spousal abuse (there was an attempt on my life), I am both honored and humbled to reach out to other women who have also endured this abuse and survived. To share my testimony and then show them how to defend themselves confirms to me my purpose in life.
Cherie Latson (she/her/hers)
I’m a martial arts and self-defense instructor from Washington, D.C. I started training in 1996 and have been teaching since 1998. I trained with the D.C. Self Defense Karate Association, and joined Defend Yourself in 2015.
At first, I sought martial arts and self-defense training primarily for physical reasons, but as time went on, I discovered it was about so much more, such as confidence and inner peace. I continually rediscover that teaching empowerment self-defense to women and girls is just as fulfilling and important as knowing it.
Em Morrison (she/her/hers)
I’ve been facilitating and teaching art and peacemaking for more than 13 years. I’m now thrilled to also be empowering others through self-defense, and I feel blessed to have learned from Defend Yourself. I’m passionate about finding ways to reduce the fear, trauma, and conflict in my community and find ways to deepen connection with myself and others in the process.
Farah Fosse (she/her/hers)
I studied self-defense with Wendo in Argentina and then with Defend Yourself starting in 2005. I’ve also studied martial arts and received self-defense instructor training with the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation. I especially enjoy supporting women and girls in finding their voices and becoming more assertive. I’m passionate about supporting people in developing tools to take control of their lives, fight back against oppression, and create spaces based on consent and cooperation. (Farah teaches in English and in Spanish.)
Kolenge Fonge (she/her/hers)
I come to Defend Yourself with a background in racial and gender justice organizing, lobbying, and litigation. After working as a paralegal for several years fighting mass incarceration and workplace discrimination, I turned to community organizing to bolster my efforts with the culture and policy shifts necessary to sustain change. I teach with Defend Yourself to make sure women and non-binary folks have the skills and agency necessary to keep ourselves safe amid our sometimes-violent realities. When I’m not working to dismantle state-sanctioned systems of oppression against black femmes, I can be found at a coffee shop near you making what might be the tastiest cappuccino to grace your taste buds; I make no promises of latte art. “Drink coffee, dropkick the patriarchy.”
Mary Duke Smith (she/her/hers)
I began studying self-defense in the early 1990s with DC IMPACT and was so moved and inspired by the experience that I went through a lengthy training process and became an instructor. In the almost 30 years since then, I’ve continued to expand my skills through continuing education and teaching experiences. One of the things I love about self-defense is that it is a creative and collaborative process. I bring what I know and students bring what they know and we create something new together in every class. When I’m not teaching for Defend Yourself, I work full time as a personal trainer and wellness educator.
Hind Essayegh (she/her/hers)
I have a diverse background as linguist, educator, martial artist, women’s rights advocate, and organizer.
My passion is to help women and girls find and use their power to stand up for themselves and their communities against gender- and hate-based violence. Following this passion, I worked at Karamah Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights. I now work with Defend Yourself and Malikah teaching empowerment self-defense and bystander intervention within the Muslim community and to the general public in the D.C. area.
I also train in Tang Soo Do karate and help teach kids’ classes at Kicks Karate in Maryland.
I’m a third generation, native Washingtonian with more than eight years’ experience facilitating workshops, teach-ins, talks, and gatherings on an array of topics. I love loud lipstick and Octavia Butler, am devoted to tenderness, and currently hold a profound interest in upholding my own boundaries. I am excited and honored to be working with Defend Yourself.
Nasreen Alkhateeb (she/her/hers)
Engaging women and girls to find their voices, and helping to facilitating gender-based violence education is the most gratifying energy I can give. It’s not only your right to exist in a safe living and working environment, it is crucial for survival and growth. In addition to empowering students at Defend Yourself, I enable digital strategy by creating original content for social outreach.
Samia Lalani (any pronoun)
I’m passionate about doing whatever I can to support queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) surviving and thriving in this world. With Defend Yourself I focus on giving QTPOC the tools to defend ourselves against street harassment, violence, and other harm. When I’m not teaching empowerment self-defense, you can find me advocating for healing justice as a tool of liberation work, sharing food and thoughts with loved ones, and creating art.
Stephania Mahdi (she/her/hers)
In my work as an equal opportunity practitioner, I train management and employees on ways to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. So I see the struggles that women and gender non-conforming folks have in not feeling empowered to say “STOP!” I’m also a member of the DC Anti-Violence Project — we support survivors of all types of violence in the LGBTQ community. Being part of the Defend Yourself team is a natural extension of that work. Defend Yourself classes have empowered me to be more assertive and to create healthy, respectful boundaries in almost all my personal relationships. What inspires me the most about Defend Yourself is providing tools to women (cis/trans) and non-binary/queer folks to feel empowered in all aspects of their day-to-day life. In my spare time, I enjoying volunteering in my community and attending the theater.
Terence Nicholson (he/him/his)
I began studying traditional Chinese Martial Arts in 1994. I teach Northern Style Chinese Wushu, Neija (internal martial arts), Chin Na (joint seizing and locking techniques) and self-protection. I’ve taught martial arts, self-protection, and anti-bullying workshops in public and charter schools, at youth programs, to the White House staff, at the World Bank, and at other government agencies. Having developed my own strategies for being safe as a young black man, I want to help empower others and serve the community.
Teachers who are retired or on sabbatical
Sarah Trembath, consultant + senior instructor emeritus (she/her/hers)
I’ve been teaching self-defense since 1995. My own training, which began in 1993, includes tae kwon do, full-contact self-defense, conflict-resolution, and tai chi. Thus my teaching is a blend of hard-style, soft-style, and emotion-regulation techniques. I especially enjoy working with young people in urban environments. I believe that personal safety and nonviolent living are basic human rights that, once attained, free us to reach our true God-given potential.
- He Too: What Happens in the Arts When the Innovators Fall?, Culture Rant
- “4 Things adults can do to address child victimization,” Everyday Feminism
- “How to Defend Yourself: 9 videos,” MonkeySee
Dienna Howard (she/her/hers)
I deal with frequent street harassment as a woman of color, and I want to empower other women to not feel afraid of standing up to harassers, so I joined Defend Yourself. I also want women to realize that they are not to blame when street harassment happens, and it is never their fault. As a square peg that never fit into round holes and has long given up trying, I’m constantly studying forms of expression through art, acting, writing, movement, meditative thought, and video. Through Arlington Independent Media, I produced a documentary on street harassment, which Defend Yourself is featured in.
Ivonne Martinez (she/her/hers)
I’ve held many jobs in my 50+ years, but the most meaningful work I’ve done is teaching women how to defend themselves. It gives me a sense of pride to teach something that women can use in real-life situations. I lived in Washington, D.C., for many years and studied martial arts for 10 of them. I’ve done triathlons and one marathon, and I’m a master swimmer. Now I live in Davis, W.Va., with my husband Keith and our dogs, Cooper and Tuck. (Ivonne teaches in English and in Spanish.)
Kaira Jewel Lingo (she/her/hers)
I teach Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and compassion internationally, with a focus on children, families, and young people. An ordained nun of 15 years in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, I’m is now a lay Dharma teacher, leading retreats around the country and offering mindfulness programs in schools. I editedPlanting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, andlead regular retreats for people of color, activists, and artists. I love to explore the interweaving of art, play, ecology, and spiritual practice and I’m a certified yoga teacher and InterPlay leader. I also spent many years playing capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art.
Lena Amick (she/her/hers)
I’ve been Defending Myself even before I started karate at the age of 10. I trained at Valley Women’s Martial Arts, an all-women’s martial arts studio in Easthampton, Mass., and received a black belt when I was 18 years old. From my teachers — poets, educators, and warrior women — I learned to tap into the well of love and energy that each person has inside, and I’m still working on it! At Oberlin College, I taught self-defense to other students through the Experimental College program. I’m loved teaching in D.C. with Defend Yourself, and am off to get a teaching degree in Michigan.
Shenandoah Sowash (she/her/hers)
Teaching self-defense is the most concrete form of activism I’ve found. I’m an abuse survivor, and I took a class with Defend Yourself in 2013 and found self-defense transformative: It enabled me to walk without fear in the world. I’m especially passionate about teaching techniques to address street harassment and intimate partner violence. In late 2014, I was mugged outside my home and kept myself safe by using my self-defense training. I encourage everyone I meet to learn self-defense, and I love watching students become confident and fierce! In addition to self-defense, I teach communications, creative writing, and literature.