USC Engemann's Trojan Conference Room is probably the last place anyone would expect to go for a self-defense class. One would expect a gym or a boxing class – any place involving dummies and fists. Instead, it’s a drab room painted floor-to-ceiling in beige, with projector screens lining the room instead of punching bags.

But then again, the trauma-informed self-defense class that took place on Friday was all about breaking boundaries. I realized that the moment I arrived to a circle of girls chatting away and a table overflowing with consent-themed laptop stickers and badges. Even the instructors caught me by surprise.

"I'm a goofball by nature," said Department of Public Safety (DPS) Officer Roy White as he introduced himself to the class. Goofy, perhaps– but he’s also a certified self-defense instructor and has been a DPS officer for over 20 years.

White, along with Guadalupe Meija of USC's Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services (RSVP), led the class.

"This is the first time DPS and RSVP have collaborated in a self-defense classroom setting," Meija said. "It's really exciting that we can teach self-defense in a way that's sensitive to where people come from."

Meija (left) and White practice pushing away from someone.
Meija (left) and White practice pushing away from someone.

Investing more in trauma-informed self-defense might be worthwhile for USC, a school where nearly 1 in 5 undergraduate students reported being sexually assaulted in 2019. That poll, conducted by USC as a climate survey, also showed that 55% of undergraduate and 23% of graduate students reported experiencing sexual harassment.

I came into this class as a reporter concerned about these findings, and interested in seeing how our school could find an exciting way to approach self-defense. I was struck by how accommodating it was to people with different backgrounds, experiences and sensitivities.

The class didn’t begin in the traditional sense with practicing fighting stances or pepper spray techniques. There weren’t even any dummies. Instead, we started by talking about something else entirely – the California Penal Code, which forms the basis for the application of criminal law in California.

A guide to self-defense, according to the California Penal Code.
A guide to self-defense, according to the California Penal Code.

“With self-defense, there’s this mentality of ‘oh, someone started it so I can finish [the fight],’ and that is just so, so wrong,” White said. “You need to learn if you’re legally in the right when you try to defend yourself physically.”

"My three-step model is awareness, assertiveness and then physical defense. Not the other way around," Meija said.

Almost an hour-and-a half into the session, we became some kind of self-defense focus group, sharing our personal tips on how to stop unwanted contact everywhere from the subway to a dark alleyway. Our group was mostly women, but everyone was encouraged to speak up and share their story.

An exercise from the session where students practiced speaking up in response to unwanted touch.
An exercise from the session where students practiced speaking up in response to unwanted touch.

We started our session sitting in a large, loose circle of chairs, but as time went on I could see our group becoming – quite literally – more tight-knit. Maybe that’s because instead of using our fists, we were learning how to yell with our diaphragms, assert ourselves, and become more comfortable with each other.

It was a radically supportive environment. Sitting in that room, I got the sense that nothing was off-limits. And some of our group members felt the same way.

"I really liked this self-defense session because it met people where they were,” said Jess O’Connor, a senior at USC. “Someone shouldn't feel like they weren't adequately fighting back because they didn't get violent."

O’Connor is a member of VOICE, a peer outreach program that trains students on how to respond to sexual assault.

“In other classes I've taken, there's no room to acknowledge that someone might not want to be assertive and that freezing is natural,” she said.

According to Meija, this was intentional.

"This initiative was all about educating people about what options there are,” she said. “If you're uncomfortable throwing a punch because of whatever history you might have, we teach you how to adjust techniques.”

“There is a way to combine trauma and empowerment and bring those worlds together," said Meija.

At the tail end of our session, the dummies finally came out. But even as we worked on our hammer punches and battle stances, our trauma-informed class remained true to its name – at several points in the session, we were offered the opportunity to excuse ourselves or sit out of exercises. No judgment whatsoever.

Even though some of us had never met before today, the sense of kinship throughout the room only grew with time that afternoon. It was so much easier to throw punches and yell with my diaphragm when I knew that there wouldn’t be any judgment for excusing myself out or saying I didn’t want to do something. As the session wound down and we started cleaning up, I realized how much more willing I’d become to actually stand up to someone, even if it was to protect a stranger.

My session partner and I (with the chipped nails) practicing breaking out of grips.
My session partner and I (with the chipped nails) practicing breaking out of grips.

For now, the format of these trauma-focused sessions is experimental. Whether or not USC will expand these programs is up in the air.

"We're still in the process of figuring out our schedules, especially with Officer White, so for now you can expect bimonthly sessions," Meija said. "If we had more resources, it'd be a lot easier.”

Whether or not these sessions continue, there will certainly be an audience for them.

"Would I come back? Definitely,” O’Connor said. “At the end of our session, I just wanted more time. I could’ve done that for ten hours.”

Trauma-Informed Self-Defense meets bimonthly for free at the Engemann Student Health Center. Contact ehscrsvp@usc.edu for more information on upcoming events. For those looking for more intensive self-defense certification programs, sign up for DPS’ RAD program, a 12-hour course (free for USC community members) that teaches you realistic self-defense tactics and techniques.