Dominque Wade, Maya Wade, and Jordaan Brown watch as instructors Donnie Ali-McClendon and Crystal McClendon demonstrate self-defense moves.
BY TYLER GILLESPIE, Neighborhood News Bureau
ST. PETERSBURG — Last month at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, high school girls had an opportunity to learn self-defense. The class was part of a daylong empowerment workshop that focused on public safety for girls ages 8 to 19.
The young ladies watched black belt instructor Donnie Ali-McClendon break a chokehold. He showed them what to do if they are knocked to the ground, and explained that knowing the right move could one day save their lives.
“So we grow up our whole lives learning: don’t quit, don’t quit, don’t quit. Just keep struggling. Fight, fight, fight,” said Ali-McClendon. “Listen, if she just would have known how to do it, she could have been out.”
The workshop started as a mother-daughter conversation. Stephanie Lawson, a teacher in Pinellas County, had recently become aware of the area’s human trafficking issue.
Instructor Al Foddrell shows Hannah Andrews how to get away if someone grabs her wrist.
Pinellas County defines human trafficking as exploiting individuals for commercial sex or forced labor. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in 2016 Florida had a reported 550 human trafficking cases. And over 1,600 Floridians called the hotline.
“I never thought that this area had that type of activity going on,” said Lawson. “So we figured it might be something that we would want to share with young ladies to make them aware of it and mitigate the risk.”
Lawson’s daughter Alexis Peterson wanted to address the needs of her peers, so the high school senior created C.O.L.O.R.S., which stands for Courage to Overcome Life’s Obstacles Regardless of my Situations.
The one-day empowerment workshop included building self-worth, learning self-defense and a portion where girls could talk about anything on their minds.
C.O.L.O.R.S. received a grant from the MLK Day of Service Advisory Board and St. Petersburg College. This year, the collaboration awarded nearly $200,000 for local projects connected to the MLK Day of Service.
About 60 girls attended C.O.L.O.R.S. They were split by age group, and the workshops were geared to match each group’s specific needs.
“There’s so much peer pressure I think for young ladies to look a certain way and have a certain type of body type – with social media and everything just defining what’s attractive,” said Lawson. “It’s important for girls to learn to love who they are and learn how to take care of themselves.”
The high school portion of the workshop titled “Love the Skin You’re in” touched on a range of topics from eyelashes to alcohol use. Khana Rebman led the discussion as the girls analyzed magazines.
Sixteen-year-old Dominque Wade came to the workshop with her cousin. Wade liked that the day was just for girls, because it allowed them to talk openly away from boys about subjects they might not otherwise feel comfortable with.
“One of them that I said about the light skins and the brown skins and the darker skin girls,” said Wade. “People will put a label on the lighter skin girls — like they’re bad and bougie. The darker skin girls, they’re not beautiful or anything like that. I could relate to that, because my sister’s brown skin and I’m light skin.”
Rebman sees these types of conversations as vital to her community. They help young girls develop self-esteem and they learn ways to protect themselves.
“Always be willing to take what it is we’ve been given and give it to someone else,” said Rebman. “Paying it forward and just being supportive of one another, and knowing that it doesn’t take away from who you are to be supportive of someone else.”