– Episode SEVEN –
College Edition Part Two – Marti McCaleb Interview
About The Empowerment Podcast
In this podcast, created as a platform to teach you everything she knows about self-defense, join host Silvia Smart in this safe space. With over three decades on the frontlines, she’ll give you skills and knowledge for your self-defense toolkit so you can live your most fearless and empowered life. Research proves that empowerment self-defense programs work. Participants are less fearful, more aware of their boundaries, and are able to speak up sooner when faced with manipulative or threatening situations. Furthermore, for those who have experienced trauma in the past, evidence shows that empowerment self-defense training can interrupt the cycle of violence and decrease the likelihood of a future assault.
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This podcast is brought to you by the empowerment project.
Research proves that empowerment self-defense training makes you safer period. I want you to have a great self-defense toolkit so you can create strong boundaries, speak with confidence, and take up all the space that you deserve in the world.
We’ll hear stories from survivors and find out what worked for them and why. We’ll interview leaders in the field and talk about tips, concepts, and really easy things that you can do to make yourself safer and interrupt the cycle of violence.
I’ve taught self-defense classes for over 30 years and I promise to teach you everything I know!
Ultimately, I’m going to want you to get some in-person training, but a great empowerment self-defense class is more than just the physical skills. The list of things I want to teach you is endless, so let’s get to it.
My name is Silvia Smart, and welcome to the empowerment project.
Hi everybody, and welcome back. I’m really excited to be interviewing Marti McCaleb today. She is the Civil Rights and Title Nine Coordinator at Middlebury College in Vermont. Hi, Marti!
Hi, Silvia, how are you?
I’m really good. I’m really excited that you’re here. I would love to have us start by you telling us a little bit about what that means. What is the Civil Rights and Title Nine Coordinator? What does that entail? What are you doing at Middlebury?
Yeah, so my work involves the prevention, education and response to all forms of sexual violence and other discrimination and harassment, based on what we call protected personal characteristics. So race, gender, religion, disability. Anything that involves the world of discrimination and harassment is something that falls into my area.
I’m really impressed that Middlebury has someone doing that. It’s really exciting.
Yeah, you know, it’s exciting. It’s also a legal requirement in a couple of ways. On the title nine side since 2011, the federal government has actually required that there be a dedicated employee on every college campus to focus on issues of sexual violence prevention and response. Not every college creates a separate position within the civil rights department for it but, wherever you’re going to college, there is someone who does something similar to the work that I do.
Got it. One thing that I know about you, Marty is that we have a lot to talk about. There are so many different things and different components that we can talk about. But before we get started, could you tell us a little bit about your Journey like, how did you get here? Where does your story start? What are the forces that impacted you? And what are some of the decisions that you made to bring you to where you are today in this position doing the work that you’re doing?
Yeah, great question. So I joke that I was uniquely bred for this position. I actually started my professional career, I worked my way through college at the University of Alabama as a police dispatcher for the campus police department. I worked midnight shifts. It was a huge party school and I saw a lot of the really ugly painful things that happened on a college campus.
After that, I took a position as a domestic violence and sexual assault prevention educator and victims advocate for the Women’s Resource Center still at the university. And was working with the same officers that I had previously worked with as a dispatcher was working on violence prevention and direct Client Services. It was amazing. Really rewarding work, but it was also exhausting. I was about 23 years old at the time, I was recovering mentally and emotionally from my own sexual assault in college. And I will say as an aside, I do not recommend anyone take on the responsibility of caring for other people’s trauma as the primary method of dealing with their own trauma. There’s a lot of work that goes into being there for other people. But that is how I find my found myself originally doing violence prevention work.
From there, I decided that the most amazing people I’ve ever met were the lawyers that I worked with on my team and that I should go to law school. So I went to law school I moved up to Virginia, and went to law school at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia. Very randomly my second summer of law school I got a position in Seattle, Washington for an internship interning with Legal Voice, which is formerly the Northwest Women’s Law Center. They are the oldest women’s rights impact litigation and legal advocacy service in the country. And I was working mostly on reproductive justice and economic justice for working women.
I actively tried to avoid sexual violence at that point. I just needed some time away from that level of work. But I fell in love with Seattle and decided to move back to Seattle after graduation. I spent 10 years and Seattle working in private legal practice as a discrimination attorney and still worked with Legal Voice as a volunteer – worked on their campus violence task force for about six years drafting legislation. We actually helped create the sexual assault protection order that’s available in the state of Washington.
And after about a decade of being in private practice, in the legal profession, working in a big corporate law, firm billing 80-hour weeks and not really remembering why I was doing the work, I decided to step out of private practice and go back to more direct service work. So I started looking at colleges, I obviously had stayed interested and working on college campuses and what violence prevention looked like within the college setting.
I ended up interviewing for the position at Middlebury and the college got a lot of things right. They were looking to make some really significant changes in the way that they responded to sexual assault and the way that they provided services for their students. So on a wing and a prayer about a year ago, I packed up my car and my dogs and drove cross country from Seattle to Vermont, where I am now adjusting to quarantine and a town of 7000 people. So, that is my story in a pretty large nutshell.
That is such a great story and I see why you feel like you’re uniquely qualified to be right where you are right now. But I feel like you also left something out. You trained martial arts!
I do. I do. I spent four years In Seattle training in Kajukenbo at Seven Star Women’s Kung Fu. That’s actually where you and I met, about a year ago at a martial arts camp. And actually, it’s interesting, my martial arts training has a big police piece to play in this story. Actually, I started martial arts the first time when I was in college, shortly after I was sexually assaulted, and it was trying to find a way back into my body and trying to recreate ownership of my life and my story. And the school that I trained at in Alabama was very male-driven, very exclusionary, it was not a welcoming and it was not a safe place. So I gave up after about a year and spent the better part of the next decade mostly focused on yoga and meditation practice. And when I got to Seattle, I heard that there was this amazing concept of an all women’s martial arts school. And while there was a piece of me that thought, “Can a bunch of women really fight?” I decided to take a class and I promptly got schooled that it does not take a big strong dude to be an amazing martial artist. I built a really strong culture in college.
And since moving to Vermont, obviously there’s less of a martial arts presence. So I’ve sort of been dabbling in different things. I’ve dabbled in Aikido, I’m dabbling in Silat and Tai Chi. I’ve taken a couple of Taekwondo classes and I am working on my own experience as a self-defense instructor, which is again something that that I have had various levels of work co-teaching self-defense or teaching independent classes and different styles of self-defense.
That’s so awesome. Right, because you’re working with or looking at the global empowerment self-defense community, right?
Yeah, I work with ESD global. We were actually supposed to be doing a week-long immersive training this summer focusing on higher education professionals. We had a variety of people from student affairs from Title Nine offices like mine, college professors, people with different backgrounds of self-defense and work with empowerment self-defense. Unfortunately, COVID blew that plan out of the water. So I don’t know when we’ll be able to, develop that more fully to really look at what empowerment self-defense has to offer, specifically college setting, but it’s a place that is very near and dear to my heart.
We can talk about that till the cows come home. It’s so important to have self-defense on a college campus! Oh my gosh! But let’s get back to you. And I would love to know, since coming to Middlebury, since you arrived, what do you see as maybe the three most important changes that you can implement to really address these issues of college sexual assault and violence? Like, what are your main, if you had – you probably have 20 main things that you’re working on – but if you had to pick say three, what are you doing? Like, how are you spending your time and what are you most excited about?
Yeah, yes. So I am spending most of my time on training and prevention education right now. I think a lot of people listening to this podcast are probably aware that the Department of Education recently released new regulations dictating what the investigation of sexual harassment and sexual violence cases looks like on college campuses now. So the structure of the response piece of my work the “What do we do when someone has reported an assault” that’s now very prescribed by federal law. But it still leaves us a lot of ability to be proactive rather than reactive to think about changing communities and changing culture. So that ultimately I actually I said this when I interviewed for the position, my goal in this work is to someday put myself out of a job. We want a society that we don’t need people like me doing violence response work on campuses.
Knowing that that’s not going to happen, I’d say the number one most important piece of my work is reporting. If I can’t work myself out of a job, then I say that I need to work myself into needing a staff of six, because we know crimes of sexual violence are severely underreported in the overall populations. Similarly, that doesn’t change when you’re on a college campus. If statistics say that one in four college-aged women are sexually assaulted, using just a couple of the campuses that I’m familiar with, not just my campus, but several of my colleagues who do this work, the average reporting rate on campuses right now seems to run somewhere in the range of six to 10%.
So we know that people are not coming to us. They’re not seeking services. They’re scared either of what’s going to happen if they report to their college that they have them assaulted, or they just don’t know who to go to. So that’s the biggest thing that I am working on is really creating an open channel for reporting and messaging, that the power is still in the hands of the survivor. What we call in the title nine process the “complainant” to make the decision about how you move forward. But the first step to make sure that you’re safe to get services that you need on campus is to stand up and be counted.
So that’s the first thing. The second piece that has been really impactful in doing this work is a change that actually happened before I came to Middlebury. It was part of the creation of my position. They moved Title Nine response out of the office of Risk Management and to the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and that is much more than just a change on paper.
Risk Management is generally where the lawyers live on a college campus. And it’s not saying that anyone who works in Risk Management and does Title Nine response or compliance work, it’s not saying that they don’t care deeply about the issues, but the optics of a student having to go into a Risk Manager’s office to report a sexual assault – as a former victims advocate, that just does not feel like a healthy a good or a safe option for most survivors. So moving the work into diversity, it really tells the story that sexual violence is a real problem. It’s endemic to our society and it creates a serious barrier to equal access to educational opportunities.
We know that students who are sexually assaulted are more likely to drop out of school either temporarily or completely. There are so many collateral consequences of sexual harm, that it’s fundamentally an equity and an access issue. And telling that story and creating that dynamic with our student body has been incredibly valuable in just changing the culture of our campus to a place that the title nine team feels like a resource rather than a stumbling block.
That’s amazing. Just the way that you’re describing that. If I was feeling like I needed to report you’re absolutely right going into a Risk Managers office or you know, a team of people who deal with risk and high-level lawyers versus going into a place where it’s about inclusion, it’s about people feeling seen and welcome. it’s a really different feeling.
Yeah, absolutely. And I’ll say, you know, me and all of my team, everybody on my team has a law degree. None of us are practicing attorneys. None of us use the JD after our name. Because while the law degree helps when we have to evaluate a case and apply the legal standards to the facts of any specific situation. That comes at the end of a case that’s after there’s been a report and an investigation and a hearing and we’re making a determination about what happens.
The first step of that is, is really how do you take care of the person who comes to you needing help, and that person may never choose to move forward with a formal investigation. That’s okay. That that is a step that every individual person needs to be able to make for themselves of what justice looks like, what healing looks like, what supports they need, and how they want to move forward. It’s not my position to tell someone who has been sexually assaulted who has in, you know, sometimes the most violent and graphic ways had their power and their autonomy taken away from them. It’s not my position to further that victimization, to tell them what they can or cannot and must or must not do. So investigations are a big piece of the work of a title nine office, but it’s honestly if it’s the third bucket, it’s the smallest bucket, the prevention and the reporting are far more significant areas of my daily response. abilities.
And that’s such a great segue into my next question for you, which is, if I’m on a college campus, and my friend tells me and shares with me or discloses to me that they were assaulted, as their friend, what do you recommend that I can do for them? Or how could I be most supportive? Like, what are – I love the number three – what are the top three things that I could do to help them feel seen and supported and cared for as a friend?
Yeah, that’s a great question.
And it’s difficult. Every case, every situation is going to look a little different. So what does it mean to be a good friend? This very much depends on what the needs of your friend are. So maybe that’s the first step is identifying what your friend’s needs are and not making the decision yourself. Find out what they need by putting the power back in the hands of the person who has come to you with this information. What do you need? How can I help you?
Fundamentally, what I see is the thing lacking for most people who come to my office, especially in the early aftermath of some type of sexual violence is the lack of control. And anything that your friends can do, to help find that equilibrium to help give that sense of control back is, is really important. Even when someone is struggling and experiencing trauma. Most people can tell you what they need at that moment, they may not be able to make a long term game plan. But if I ask, what do you need from me right now, most people will have a pretty good sense of, of what’s most helpful for them at that moment.
The other things that are Important would be to listen. Not necessarily ask questions. You don’t have to investigate the facts of what someone’s telling you. This is your friend and you’re trying to support this person, you don’t have to question their experience, you don’t have to name their experience. That’s actually something I think that’s really important. There are so many people in the aftermath of some type of sexual violence that are not ready to name what has happened to them. They may not be ready to use the word rape they may not be comfortable using the word sexual assault, they may not be ready to, acknowledge many pieces of that and that’s okay. There are plenty of survivors who never use the word rape to describe their experience and that’s valid. That is their experience. It’s not your job as a friend to name what someone else has experienced.
Marti, that is really helpful. So, if I have a friend who’s experienced something, and they’re telling me about it, the main thing is to remember, they’ve just had their power just completely taken away. Their sense of control is on very shaky ground. So as a friend, what I can do is listen, and empathize. And then what do I do? If I’m concerned about them, because maybe I feel like they’re having this trauma and maybe they’re not naming it, but maybe I see something and have some concerns about them going forward. How do I talk with them about that and maybe, counsel, or is that my place? Is it mostly just to listen, or, does that make sense?
It does make sense. I generally recommend that friends are there to listen, counselors are there to counsel. Sure, that makes sense. It’s, it’s very rare that sitting in the position of a friend that you will have all of the knowledge of the resources and the skills to be fully aware of everything that you’re saying to someone, you certainly can empathize and be there for them. But in terms of recommending resources and responses, if you don’t know every service that your college is providing and where to go to seek those services, then it’s really easy to give bad advice. So counseling is something you know, I recommend, offer to help someone getting access to counseling.
Honestly, you know, again, most of my friend’s position is is that is playing that facilitation role between different supports and resources. Talk to your friends say there are people on campus who do this work who support people in this situation. I think we should talk to someone. Take the time to learn what resources are available at your institution.
For my campus, we’re pretty small campus about 2600 residential students. But we have a 24/7 trained victims advocate support hotline. It is staffed by students anytime classes are in session. They are trained, confidential advocates. They learn all of the information about what supports are available in the area on-campus counseling in the community counseling and can help walk people through the different resources if someone is in the aftermath of an assault and needs medical care where you go for, say an exam – sexual assault examination, where do you go for contraceptive care? Who’s someone that you can talk to there? There is almost certainly an office on your campus that has access to those resources so that you don’t have to do it alone.
As a friend, you don’t have to feel like you have to know everything. And as the survivor, you also don’t have to do it alone. There are places and people on campus whose primary responsibility is to get you the help and the support you need, whether it’s medical or emotional care or academic or residential supports. I say that because it’s common, especially as I said, I’m on a residential campus. It’s common that you are involved in some type of sexual violent relationship with someone who is in your dorm or someone who you go to class with. There are ways to address that too, to have students relocated to have class schedule changes. They’re things that we call supportive measures that really can run the gamut of whatever someone needs to restore their sense of safety and their access their ability to move about their college environment.
So you’re segueing right into my next question, which is, say, I have done some looking at my college campus. I’ve looked at what the policies are, what the support system is for survivors, how it’s all handled, and say, I feel like it could be better. So, if I wanted to impact that if I wanted to make a change on my campus that’s not something I feel like as a student, one student, I could do all by myself. And I feel like you’re in a great position to give some advice. If I want to make a change on a campus, what organizations could I get hooked up with? What people do I need to talk with? How do I go about building a team of people who would help me to impact change regarding sexual assault and sexual violence on my college campus? What would your advice be? Who or what would your “go to’s” be for that for me as a student?
Silvia, I think just the way you framed that question, is, is a large part of the answer to begin with. It really is, to me a question of your coalition Who are your partners who are the people that can help you advocate for change? You’re absolutely right. This is really hard work for one person to do. In a vacuum, it’s exhausting and colleges, while every institution I have been a part of cares deeply about its students and wants our students to be safe and happy and healthy. They’re still institutions are a large behemoth of bureaucracy and it takes many people working at many levels to make systemic changes in institutions that large.
So the people that I see on my campus as the partners in this work, about the same time that I was hired, our health and wellness education team hired the college’s first full-time violence prevention educator. So we immediately had a really strong team between the title nine office which of course is housed in the diversity area of our campus and health and wellness, which lives both within the Division of Student Life, and the college health system. All of those people in terms of administrators are really critical partners in the buy-in. Certainly, Student Affairs, Student Life professionals. These are the people who have the most direct contact and in many ways, the most vested interest in the well being and student success.
Obviously campus security is going to have a different vantage point on many of these issues and can be a great advocate and a great partner. Also, someone to think about and work carefully with on training both for students and for security personnel. How do we respond to these cases? How do we handle or assaults and reports in a sensitive, compassionate trauma-informed way. Parents! Parents honestly have an amazing ability to push for changes at their institutions. So if you have a strong parent or a strong alumni base as well, outside stakeholders who want to see the college doing more or want more information, also play a role, big places where students have social power. And I say that broadly because students’ social power can vary greatly, campus to campus.
The Student Government Association in some locations is an incredibly powerful body and at other colleges, it may be a smaller political body. So it depends on your campus. But my campus has been the driving force to support me and many changes that I don’t think I could have made in my first year, just advocating by myself. If I didn’t have strong and loud backing by the voices of our student leaders, I don’t know that I would have gotten as much progress. Other places where, where social and political capital live on campus. If you’re at a college that has a strong Greek life culture, having Greek involvement is really important. Same thing with athletics, the power, and the social respect that come with being involved in collegiate athletics. People have a lot of ability to use their voice and advocate for change.
For my campus, we actually don’t have Greek life on our campus, but athletics is a major piece of the experience that many Middlebury students, almost 50% of my campus, participate in some type of collegiate athletics. And they are our number one supporter with our bystander intervention training program. We use a standardized curriculum at Middlebury. But the number one partner we have with that is athletic coaches and teams are required to participate in our bystander intervention training. And it does begin to move the needle when you have so many different groups on campus working for the same types of changes.
Yeah, and as I’m listening to you talk, it’s very inspiring because everybody can be part of it. It’s like everyone can be and could be. Creativity is important here like really thinking outside the box is what I’m hearing you saying and like getting everyone’s engagement.
Yeah, sexual assault is an everyone issue. And it’s not only women are victims and men are perpetrators. It really crosses cis and transgender narratives, heteronormative narratives. It really is these issues that impact every single person on our campus. Anybody can experience sexual assault. Anybody can perpetrate sexual assault. There’s not one person who is the victim or one person who is clearly the perpetrator and creating a culture where everyone is working to prevent and to create a respectful community. That is the place where I see the most change and it can really be everyone on campus.
I’m gonna throw in a little plug here to our Facebook community, “The Empowerment Community” because this is a resource for anyone who’s on a college campus who wants to create change. Come on to our Facebook group. And Marti is there, I’m there, and there are a lot of self-defense instructors there and people who are all about this change. Ask questions, ask for support, ask for advice. Just come to “The Empowerment Project” on Facebook, just join the group. And we’ll we’d love to see you there and can give you support or even just be your biggest cheerleader. If this is something that you want to take on. We’re with you. We’re all standing with you. Um, Marti, this has been really, really great. And as just a little wrap-up, can we do a little plug for empowerment self-defense on college campuses? Can we talk about that for a sec?
Yes, yes, please. Oh wow, Silvia, there is such a history, such a fraught history with self-defense on college campuses. So again, I started my career in law enforcement. When I went to the Women’s Resource Center, my college had just started looking at offering RAD classes. It was incredibly empowering for me when I began taking a “train the trainer” program and RAD when I started teaching self-defense. To learn to use my body in many ways as a weapon, especially in the aftermath of experiencing sexual violence, to feel any sense of power in my body, was something that was really helpful for me.
And yet at the same time, many of those standard trainings still perpetuate the myth of the stranger danger attack. The training center around a big guy wearing a padded suit jumping out at you and what do you do? And one, it was traumatizing in many ways to sort of be put in a situation that felt intentionally risky and violative under the guise of teaching you to defend yourself, but it also just didn’t feel good. Apart from knowing that your body could move, it just felt wrong somehow. And at the time, I was working on a volunteer grant project. The Violence Against Women Act provides three-year grants to colleges working on different types of sexual assault and primary prevention, programming and we looked at whether or not self-defense could be a prevention strategy within the grant funding program and schedule. And it was very clear at that time, the mindset that self-defense is not primary prevention, primary prevention are strategies that change culture and prevent violence from occurring to change sort of the systemic ways and cultural norms that lead to a rape culture society. And I absolutely agree with that, that learning to defend yourself from someone who jumps out and tries to pull you into a car is not primary prevention. It’s secondary, maybe even tertiary prevention of “Oh man, this thing is happening. How do I stay alive?”
As I progressed as a martial artist, as I was introduced to ESD global and the concept of empowerment self-defense, it’s is a very different model of how to protect yourself. Yes, there is physical work and you will learn that your body is strong and your voice is your most powerful weapon. But going beyond that, it teaches enough assertiveness and situational awareness that in my mind is primary prevention because it begins to change fundamentally, who you are, and how you experience the world to create cultural change. Not just “I can defend myself against one person who tries to attack me”, but “I can change the way I move through society” and we can change the way that other people engage in a way that padded suits and attackers jumping out behind bushes just doesn’t do.
Well, exactly. And that’s the whole premise behind empowerment self-defense is to give us our power back, to take our power back. And I’m really excited because Martha Thompson has agreed to an interview here. And she’s done a lot of research about this exact piece. What is empowerment self-defense and what makes it different than like RAD or some other types of self-defense and she runs Impact Chicago – and there’s an Impact in Boston and one in the Bay Area and all around, but they do use the guy in the padded suit. But that is, after all this other prevention, looking at our own power, how do we walk through the world? How do we talk with other people? How do we stand and take up our own space. And what’s cool about – you might like to look into this – what’s cool about their padded attackers, what I understand is that they’re not there just to do the physical, but they’re also there to so that I as a participant could practice what it feels like to stand and hold my own space even in the face of just verbal intimidation, for example. So anyway, empowerment self-defense on college campus. Yes, please!
Yeah, definitely. I am working on trying to put together a a self-defense workshop for our students but again, colleges have spent so many years looking at self-defense programs that are based on more that stranger approach and and that very reactive model that honestly I think most colleges are scared of teaching self-defense. Certainly what you don’t want to be teaching is you don’t want to teach that it is on the potential victims of sexual harm to to prevent assault, you know the old saying, yeah teach rapists not to rape. I don’t say any of this to to take away from that very real truth that we should not live in a world that every person has to walk around thinking what do I do today to not get raped. But at the same time, there just is something fundamentally different and worldview shifting about having the skills both physically in your body and verbally to be proactive in the way you walk through the world. I am a big fan of empowerment self-defense, and I will continue to be doing my work on my campus advocating for what people think they know about self-defense is not necessarily what they actually know. So we’ve got our work to do!
We this has been a great hour with you, Marty, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your self, your compassion, your smarts, your hard work, your effort, all to make the world a better place. Thank you so much.
It’s affirmation time. This is how I end every self-defense class. It’s kind of cheesy, but it’s very cool. And this is how it works. We’re going to do like a little call and response. If you can say this out loud. If you can repeat after me, do it because it’s important, I think, for you to hear your own voice. But if you can’t, like if you’re on a crowded subway or someplace where It’s embarrassing, don’t worry, you can also just say it inside your head. Okay, so I’m going to say something and you’re going to repeat it after me. I’m going to give you space to do that. And at the end, we’re going to say “YES”! Here we go.
Repeat after me.
I am worth protecting.
I love myself.
I deserve to take up space on planet Earth.
I am a strong and powerful person.
And hey, as a wrap up, will you do me a favor? Will you do all the things that you do when there’s a podcast like, will you tell your friends, will you subscribe? Will you come back each week? Communicate with me? Review this podcast? Will you please do all the things to help get more bandwidth, help more people find out about this podcast? That would be super awesome!
Take a deep breath. You are amazing. Thank you for being with me. See you next time.