Around 6:30 p.m. a couple weeks ago, art teacher Karin Walen and language arts teacher Meggan Atkins were leading a group of excitable teenagers in a self-defense class at Issaquah High school. It’s not in the school’s curriculum and the teachers don’t get paid, but after learning that one in three women are subject to sexual assault, it’s just something that Karin thought was really important to do.
“It just kind of became really obvious that we needed to teach our high school girls about life and specifically about self defense and sexual assault.”
“There was a lot of violent crime in Seattle, so we were looking at a group of people, particularly women, that were afraid,” Brandi said from the sidelines of the self-defense class. “So a group of us got together with the police department, and a whole bunch of other really influential folks, and put together the Fight the Fear campaign. For a year we taught self-defense courses to women in under-served communities.”
Fight the Fear was inspired by one crime in particular. An unbelievably gruesome crime that scared women throughout the region. In July 2009, Jennifer Hopper was two months away from being married to her partner, Teresa Butz, who she shared a home with in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood.
“We were having 100 degree weather so we had our windows open,” Jennifer said. “About 1:30 in the morning a man, his name was Isaiah Kalebu, he climbed through the bathroom window. He was naked with a knife.”
He told the women that if they did what he asked, he would spare them. He lied. Isaiah raped them.
“He slashed my throat four times and then turned towards my heart and, somehow in the struggle, he missed and cut my arm instead. At one point in time I decided to just pretend I was dead or dying, thinking maybe, just maybe, he’ll stop cutting me. It was actually at that moment that Teresa started actually fighting for her life. She managed to kick him off the bed but he was able to stab her in the heart. However, with a stab wound, she found a way to bash through a window and get halfway across the street and that’s what got him to run and me able to get out the front door.”
Teresa died in the street that night and her memorial service took place on September 11th, the same day the couple was set to have their commitment ceremony. Soon after, Jennifer was approached by a new friend, Brandi Carlile, about bringing something positive to this horribly negative situation and they came up with Fight the Fear.
“When I realized I was going to live I was like, I’m not just going to breathe,” said Jennifer. “I survived, my partner died, life as I knew it is over, right? So I have to create something new and I was committed to that. Even though it was hard to sleep and hard to just feel safe and nighttime was not my favorite time. They gave me the opportunity to be part of something new and to make a difference, allowed me to step into something bigger than what had happened to me. My life is really good, even though it happened.”
After attending a Fight the Fear event, teachers Karin and Meggan educated themselves on self-defense and now independently teach four classes a year.
Melinda Johnson, executive director of Fight the Fear, self defense instructor and owner of a kung fu studio wants more teachers to do the same. She’s offering a teacher training on May 3rd.
“We’re hoping to have 50 teachers there,” Melinda said. “We’re asking women who work with girls, either in the capacity of teachers, mentors, counselors. Women who can take this and present it to more girls who can hopefully benefit from that training.”
And the girls did benefit.
“At first I was a little quiet and I felt a little uncomfortable yelling,” said Issaquah High student Lauren Alkan. “But I just really got into it and I felt really empowered and that rush of I can do this, I can lift a car, I can do anything that comes at me!”
That sort of strength is what Brandi hopes for; it’s why she loves observing these self defense seminars.
“How many of these assaults can be avoided just by teaching a girl that she doesn’t have to be nice or cute?” Brandi asked. “And that the parts of femininity that society has reverence for, sometimes aren’t the parts of femininity that keep women safe.”
Friends and family of Teresa Butz also started Angel Band Project, offering music as therapy for survivors of sexual violence. Jennifer will be singing at an upcoming concert, which is the first time she’s publicly performing since the attack 5 years ago.
“You know, honestly, I wasn’t quite sure about the world I lived in, after all of this happened,” Jennifer said. “And I feel really hopeful about this world. We can be extraordinary if we choose to.