Punching Up Accessibility with Portland DSA
Making self-defense open & inclusive
When I made the 50-mile move from Salem to Portland, Oregon, I had just come out of a long and ugly depressive episode. The move was spurred by a fantastic opportunity to work for the labor union I was previously a member of, and it allowed me to return to the path of feeling like me again, as I was only minimally and sporadically involved in activism since dropping out of university. While my new job was fulfilling in ways that felt totally out of reach a year before, I found myself feeling capable of and wanting more. A friend repeatedly told me about the empowerment she found in dedicating time and energy to causes she cares about, without the need to make rent and put food on the table restricting her actions within the organization. Her words rang true, so the hunt was on to get more deeply involved in my community.
I was fortunate enough to come across a self-defense class held by Portland DSA. Great! Their support for the Burgerville Workers Union, as well as their opposition to police brutality indicated that their values likely aligned with mine. This would be the perfect opportunity to scope out the organization’s culture AND learn defense skills to raise my confidence in going out and about alone in a new city, so I signed up. A few weeks later I found myself in a kettlebell club waiting for class to start.
The first sign that I was in the right place was a conspicuous lack of cis men in the class. The class prioritized women and trans people gaining this valuable skill, indicating a true understanding of equity for marginalized groups. During introductions, everyone was encouraged to share their pronouns, which made me as a genderqueer person feel seen and included. Later, as someone who was picked last and paired with the teacher all too often as a kid, my nervousness when it came time to partner up proved unnecessary: the DSA had cultivated an environment where everyone was welcomed and other participants ensured no one was excluded. Learning to kick the tar out of an attacker was the icing on the cake! I may well have found my people, I realized.
On the whole, the class was highly accommodating and accessible. However, I found myself unable to continue the class, due to the nature of being dependent on public transit. Portland is divided into the East and West sides by the Willamette River, and travel time to and from the class over the river pushed 3 hours. This is a hurdle I’ve found to be common among Portlanders who do not have the privilege of owning and driving a personal vehicle. My experience in class made me feel safe to approach the organizer and express that while this event was inaccessible to me, I wanted to get involved further and needed to know about DSA activities on the West side. She was incredibly gracious, respected my personal constraints, and introduced me to the folks building the Washington County branch on my side of the river.
Within a week I got coffee with a member and learned how I could attend the next meeting. Once the meeting came, I knew I made the right choice: other members supported what I had to contribute and offered all attendants carpools to future events. My experience goes to show that in order to build strong movements, we are only better when we foster a culture of inclusion and strive towards accessibility for all. To paraphrase a beloved quote: If it is not accessible to the poor, to POC, to immigrants and refugees, to the disabled, or any other marginalized group... it is not revolutionary.