Karate for the community organizer’s soul


Karate and Community Organizing, they have a bit in common, at least for me.

I’m a martial artist, not a particularly good athlete, but I’ve been doing this for years (off and on), and I’ve dedicated myself to learning how to do this better throughout the entirety of my life, if only on my time and to the best of my own ability (in the words of my Instructor, the only person we need to compare myself to is me).

Similarly, I’m a community organizer. I’m not a particularly good organizer or storyteller, but I’ve dedicated my life to learning how to be a better organizer and storyteller, again even if only to the best of what I’m capable of.

Neither of these things necessarily come naturally to me, but I’m a quick-thinker and my body is good at catching-up, I’m stubborn as all hell, and I’m willing to keep learning. Even after almost 19 years of karate classes and years as an organizer (even before I knew what community organizing was), both have been the kinds of things that make me uncomfortable and nervous and push me as far away from my comfort zone as it’s possible to be.

Two things about both karate and community organizing:

1) According to a classmate of mine, an older woman who has been in karate years and has known me since I was brand new to the sport, when I was little I was so shy that you could look at me and I would go hide in a corner. I don’t remember this but I trust her. I remember thinking in my first ever karate class that I had humiliated myself, when I did a move (a run, jump, sidekick) that ended up with me on my butt, rather than standing up. I ran out of the karate school crying. My parents made me join anyways. I wasn’t very shy for much longer after that and I’ve fallen more times and in more ways that I could count. I’m still learning how to make mistakes gratefully and usefully. This is the most important lesson I ever learned for for community organizing and for everything else.

2) When I began college, I left karate. But it was my experience organizing as a college student that made me need to go back. I’ve always had a short fuse and a quick temper and I was having a lot of trouble turning hot anger into cold anger that I could use. I had lost control of my most powerful weapon. I needed to re-train my body and mind for focus and control if I was going to succeed as an organizer. Karate (under the same instructor I had learned from for years) was the best and only way I knew how to do that.

Organizing gave me a goal and a sense of the future and the beginnings of a plan, but karate gave me the focus to reach it, the discipline to plan for it, the value system (and community) to anchor myself in, and the confident sense of self to make myself uncomfortable in the process. More importantly, in the words of Grand Master John Worley, 10th Degree Black Belt and National Karate co-founder, it taught me to stick to my bush.

It’s made me less scared of the unknowns. This next year of my life is a whole lot of stuff I can’t plan for and a whole lot of stuff I can plan for as much as I want, but can’t really know what to expect. I’ll be organizing and teaching and writing and doing my same work, but I’m be in a new community for several months, where the people I know can be counted on one hand. I’ll be dependent on me and me alone for the very first time, but I’m okay with that. I’ve got the lessons karate taught me, I’ll keep training at karate because that’s the best way I know how to care for myself, it’s what I believe in, it’s how I’ll be a better community organizer, and because I know more than anything that my experience as a student of the martial arts have taught me all that I need is already within me.

This post was NOT in any way a project requested, thought of, or funded by my karate school or the chain of schools it belongs to. They had nothing to do with this post, but for the fact that they have taught me for years. I’m grateful for their guidance and instruction and hope this post reaches their high standards if they ever read it, but this post and the idea for this post are from my own mind.