Boost your safety skills with Defend Yourself’s compassionate, experienced team

The teachers of Defend Yourself jumping

No matter where you are — at home, at work, at school, walking down the street — you deserve to feel safe.

Harassment, abuse, and assault harm our safety and well-being. Women, LGBTQ+ people, and BIPOC experience more violence than most.

Handwritten note: "My voice is powerful."

Many of us live our lives with fear.

We adjust our daily lives to prepare for the worst. For example, having our keys in our hands when walking to our cars at night, not saying what we’re actually thinking in an uncomfortable conversation for fear of backlash, or making ourselves small.

And yet, many of us still feel unsure of what we’d do if faced with violence. Often, the assumption is we have to either stay silent or fight back, with no options in between.

But the truth is, you do have more options.

By gaining mental, emotional, physical, and verbal skills, you can learn to assert yourself and keep yourself safe.

So that you can move through the world with more confidence and less fear.

That’s what Defend Yourself’s workshops and courses are here to help you do.

Group of women smiling at the camera after a Defend Yourself workshop.

Mission

Defend Yourself helps people claim their power, assert their boundaries, and protect themselves.

Vision

We envision a world where people, especially women, LGTBQ+, and people of color, can be fully themselves.

Values

Defend Yourself is rooted in a social-justice understanding of gender-based violence.

It’s never your fault

Harassment, abuse, and assault are never the fault of the person who’s being targeted.

There’s nothing you can do or not do to cause someone to assault you or to make you deserve it. Aggressors are 100% responsible for their behavior.

Personal agency

You decide what to do — or not do — in any given situation.

We offer techniques, knowledge, and strategies to help you make your own decisions about how to handle situations, but we don’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.

A group of students saying "no" and holding their hands up in the "stop" position

Respect

We respect your life experience and know that you’re the expert in your own life.

We respect each person’s decisions about how to handle threatening situations, and we honor whatever survivors have done to survive.

Intersectional and inclusive

We share skills with people of all abilities and identities.

This isn’t martial arts, and you don’t have to be fit or fully able-bodied to use the techniques we teach. Defend Yourself teachers have extensive experience teaching people from all walks of life, including those with disabilities.

We recognize that gender oppression is linked to all forms of oppression and that people live at the intersections. We’re also explicitly anti-racist in our teaching.

What our workshops and courses are like

Gender-based violence can be a difficult topic.

Our approach is positive, empowering, and upbeat: We don’t focus on how scary it is that violence happens, but rather on options we have and ways we can take care of ourselves.

Handwritten note: "I learned that using your voice is one of your best weapons."
All our workshops and courses are:

  • Consent-based spaces where you choose how to participate, learn, and heal
  • Interactive: We involve you in brainstorming, role-playing, and exercises.
  • Focused on concrete skills you can use

In our public workshops, our teachers collaborate with you to find the techniques that work for you.

For organizations, we work with you to tailor our programs to fit your organization’s needs.

Defend Yourself’s story

Message from our founder

Lauren Taylor (she/they)

I grew up pretty scared of sexual assault, and street harassment — starting at age 11 — constantly reminded me of my vulnerability. I always believed that if someone tried to rape me, there would be nothing I could do, because by definition they would be bigger and stronger than I am.

When I was in my late 20s, I took a self-defense class and learned I was wrong: There were things I could do, even if an attacker was bigger and stronger than me, and I could probably even stop a rape attempt.

Lauren Taylor, owner of Defend Yourself, laughing

That realization, and that power, was life-changing. Being less afraid and less defended, I could be vulnerable enough to engage with people. I could take more healthy risks. I could be more myself and live more the life I wanted. I could confront a street harasser, a problematic co-worker. I could set boundaries with a family member … and much more.

That’s what led me to start Defend Yourself. The power of those skills to enable me to live my life with less fear and more confidence motivated me to share them with others.

Handwritten note: Today I learned I have the ability to ask for what I need and create boundaries.
When I — and the rest of the Defend Yourself trainers — offer verbal and physical skills for preventing, stopping, and healing from harassment, abuse, and assault, we get to witness our students create their own transformations in themselves and in the world. It’s an honor to contribute to changing the world — and bringing down the patriarchy — in this way.

I started working to end gender-based violence 40+ years ago and I’m still passionate and inspired. I honor the skills, creativity, courage, and experience students bring to being safe and creating the lives they want.

I love teaching, and 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.

I’ve presented at national conferences, including: Creating Change (The National LGBTQ Task Force); National Conference of College Women Leaders (American Association of University Women); National Sexual Assault Conference; and National Center for Victims of Crime’s national training institute.

I earned a black belt in tae kwon do in 1995 and was certified as a self-defense instructor by the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation in 2000.

My self-defense expertise is bolstered by experience in related fields, including as a staffer at a women’s reproductive health clinic; a founder of My Sister’s Place (DC’s first shelter for abused women and their children); the education coordinator of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund; and as one of the organizers of the 1978 March to Stop Violence Against Women (DC’s first Take Back the Night March).

Lauren Taylor, owner of Defend Yourself, wearing a pink dress and smiling.

Our trainers

Together, our trainers have more than 130 years’ experience teaching empowerment + self-defense. 

They’re skilled in creating caring spaces where you can learn, grow, and heal. And our students love them!  

AJ Head
AJ Head (he/they)

I studied 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. I’ve been teaching self-defense in the Washington area for 25 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.

Farah Fosse
Farah Fosse (she/her/hers)

I started teaching with Defend Yourself after taking a 10-week class with the organization in 2005. I also work as a community organizer, affordable-housing consultant, and social worker. I’m passionate about supporting people in developing tools to take control of their lives and fight back against oppression. I especially enjoy bringing assertiveness and de-escalation skills to people working with the public to create safe and inclusive spaces.

I’ve received self-defense instructor training (and offered trainings) through the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation.

Miya Upshur-Williams
Miya Upshur-Williams (they/them/she/her)

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.

Stephania Mahdi
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, where 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 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 enjoy volunteering in my community and attending the theater.

Cherie Latson
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.

Helen Taylor
Helen Taylor (she/her/hers)

Despite nearly 15 years of advancing human rights in non-U.S. contexts, I came to Defend Yourself with limited recognition of how to set personal boundaries or advocate for myself. After training with Defend Yourself, I gained a deep appreciation for the thorough and practical strategies provided to empower individuals toward fuller, safer lives. I love the collective wisdom shared among participants in class and the moment of self-recognition when they realize they are stronger and more capable than previously imagined. In my free time, I enjoy spending time with my family, reading, traveling, and finding new ways to utilize my Defend Yourself skills in personal and community settings.

Nasreen Alkhateeb
Nasreen Alkhateeb (she/her/hers)

The ability to be free in your personal, professional, and public life is your right. Occupying a safe environment is not only your right, it is crucial for your growth in all situations. 

As a filmmaker who illuminates BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, immigrant, survivor experiences, I understand the power stories hold. Helping to normalize intersectional realities by encouraging others to become the authors of their own stories happens daily, hour to hour.

Empowering women, girls, and LGBTQ+ people to hone their own ability to carve out safe spaces is the most gratifying energy I can share.

Xitlalli Velazquez
Xitlalli Velazquez (she/ella)

I live in Los Angeles, Tongva Land, having spent the past eight years living in the DMV, Piscataway Land. I come to Defend Yourself with a background in housing/tenant organizing. I am committed to loving and caring for myself and my communities. I am honored to be able to teach with Defend Yourself and bring community solutions to community problems, and learn from each other about ways to keep us safe. I strongly believe that intervening in harmful situations instead of relying on policing is a path toward abolition and reinvesting in life-giving institutions.

Em Morrison
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.

Hind Essayegh
Hind Essayegh (she/her/hers)

I have a diverse background as a 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.

Samia Lalani
Sahim Lalani (he/they)

I’m a facilitator, advocate, and organizer of spreadsheets, passionate about doing whatever I can to support queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and people of color (QTBIPOC) surviving and thriving in this world. With Defend Yourself, I focus on giving QTBIPOC 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 and transformative justice as a tool for liberation, sharing food and thoughts with loved ones, and creating art.

Founding trainers

Sarah Trembeth
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. 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.

Mary Duke
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 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.