Founder-director Lauren R. Taylor honored by DC Commission on Human Rights

The teachers of Defend Yourself jumping

We’re thrilled to let you know that the DC Commission on Human Rights has bestowed the Neil Alexander Humanitarian Award on our founder-director, Lauren R. Taylor. The award “celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of individuals who have made significant contributions in the field of human or civil rights and to improving the quality of life in the District of Columbia.” This year the award was given to Celebrat[e] Exceptional Leadership at the Crossroads of Gender and Human Rights.

Thank you,  for recognizing our work and the crucial need to address gender-based violence! 

Here you can see the video shown about Lauren’s work, read the bio that ran in the program, and read her speech. 

Click on this to read Lauren’s bio and learn more about the award

With DC Human Rights Commission members and other honorees, including Emerging Leaders Addison Rose, David Burick, and Taylor Dumpson

With David Van Taylor and Defend Yourself deputy Elizabeth Sternberg

With Larry Villegas-Perez of the DC Office of Human Rights

With Hind Essayegh, Defend Yourself trainer

Gender equality M&Ms!

A few of the friends and supporters who came out

Lauren R. Taylor’s Cornelius R. “Neil” Alexander Humanitarian Award acceptance speech, December 6, 2022

Thank you, Judge Pierson. I’m grateful to the commission for choosing me for this unexpected honor, and for the work you do to help DC be better for all its people. And to Neil Alexander, whom I never knew, for his commitment to human rights and for setting a standard for others to aspire to. Thank you with my whole heart to Paula Branter, who nominated me without my knowing, and to my brother David, who created that fantastic video. I thank all of you for the work you do and for joining me to celebrate.

I’m enormously grateful to everyone who’s done this work with me. I’m part of a bunch of teams and networks who’re passionate about ending gender-based violence and the ways it intersects violence borne from other systems of oppression. We choose empowerment training as a way of making change. Some of those people are here tonight (wave your hands).

Let me tell you how I got here.

I grew up in DC, where, like in all big cities, street harassment was pretty much a daily experience – sometimes happening several times a day. It started when I was 11 – which is when it usually starts for girls in this country. It’s a constant reminder of the threat of rape, and I was afraid a lot. I believed that if anyone ever tried to rape me, there’d be nothing I could do — because by definition they’d be bigger and stronger than I was.

The threat of sexual assault limited my life. It compromised my access to the public sphere and my freedom of movement. Many people think street harassment is no big deal, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg of how human rights are abrogated based on gender. Can you imagine a world without the threat of sexual violence? It’s hard, right? That should tell you how pervasive it is, and how we’ve been conditioned see it as normal.

I was 28 when I took my first self-defense class. It was life-changing, because I learned that it didn’t matter if an attacker was bigger and stronger, there were things I could do to protect myself. I learned that I did have options, I did have power — and in fact I could probably stop a rape attempt.

That affected more than my fear of rape. It showed me that I could move toward the life I wanted, I could spend less energy being vigilant, I could repair some of the damage rape culture had done to me. I could take risks to be more authentic, more my whole self, and I could take up space in my own life and in the world.

This experience was so transformative that I wanted more. I took all the self-defense classes I could, and I became a teacher. I wanted to offer the skills I had learned and create the space for others to change their own lives.

The organization I founded, Defend Yourself, empowers people — especially women and LGBTQIA+ people — to end violence and create a world where they can be fully themselves. We focus on dealing with people who push our boundaries every day, like the problematic co-worker or the intrusive family member. Witnessing people transform their lives with the skills Defend Yourself offers is an honor.

After 44 years working to end gender-based violence, there are six things I know:

  • You have a right to say “no.”
  • You deserve to be safe. Bodily integrity, safety, and autonomy are fundamental. (Looking at you, Supreme Court.)
  • It is never your fault. There is absolutely nothing you could do or not do to make you deserve to be harassed, abused, or assaulted. If I went around this room right now and asked each one of you whose fault it is, everyone would say it’s the aggressor’s fault. But because of rape culture and victim-blaming, understanding that in our minds and truly holding it in our hearts are two different things. I invite you to bring that understanding into your heart.
  • We know aggressors are 100% responsible for the harassment, abuse, and assault they carry out. It’s also true that those of us most at risk of gender-based violence can take action to increase our own safety.
  • I respect and honor whatever you did or didn’t do to survive, to get through.
  • Interpersonal violence is so harmful in part because it betrays and violates the human connection. Healing happens in connection, in community.

The empowerment approach changed my life, and it’s what our students find so transformative. And I co-wrote a book that’s coming out soon called Get Empowered — because I want you and everyone who may never take a class with us to have tools to have a bigger, safer, more confident lives – to change the power of gender-based violence.

I’m very fortunate to have work I’m passionate about. My greatest gratitude is for every person who’s been brave enough or scared enough or both to come through the door, who’s brave enough or scared enough or both to want to make change in their own lives and in the world.

Thank you so much for this honor.