Safety Awareness for Women

A unique experience in learning how to protect yourself, no boys allowed.

by Robin Richeson Colter

You’ve done it before.

You are so focused on that project that you barely notice as your co-workers file past you, one by one.  When you finally look up from your computer, it’s 7:15 and you’re all alone in the office.  Cheers to your commitment, but there’s a block and a half – and a whole lot of darkness – between you and your car.  What are you going to do? The trip to the parking deck (Wait, what level are you on anyway?) is filled with all kinds of potential hazards. You have your “known unknowns” like James, the homeless guy who tries to sell you flowers that he’s pulled from the dumpster behind the wholesale florist every day.  He’s probably harmless, but who can be sure?  Then you have your “unknown unknowns” -— which are, well, unknown.  Looks like you are just going to have to put on your big girl panties and hoof it alone. In the dark.  All by yourself.  I hope that you are prepared…

Loni & Alonna

If you’re lucky enough, you’ve had the opportunity at some point to spend a couple of hours with Alonna Payne and  her mother, Loni. These two women are committed to teaching other women how to protect and empower themselves in any dangerous situation.  Loni, a 29-year veteran of law enforcement, has spent years dealing with the aftermath of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.  Her expertise in this field has given her the opportunity to consult for and train other professionals who deal with violence worldwide. She knows that bad things can happen, and she wants you to know it, too.  More than that, she wants to make sure that you’re ready if it happens to you. She, along with daughter Alonna, have developed a program called Safety Awareness for Women (SAW) that can help all women learn to protect themselves when the worst happens

For Alonna, growing up in her home was often like a Law and Order SVU episode.  Her firefighter father and sex-crimes-unit mother made sure that she was prepared for anything and often used her as a test subject for interviewing potential child abuse victims. Her 19 plus years of martial arts training, with a black belt in both Karate and Tae Kwon Do, as well as her abilities in weapons defense, allow her to bring her own expertise to the program. And Loni and Alonna are willing to bring that program to you, wherever you may be.

Alonna explains how to try to get out of bad situations quickly

I was invited to attend a one-night, condensed version of the usually four-week course taught by the mother-daughter team. The class was provided for the women employees of Tom Williams Automotive and sponsored by their BMW store. Our smallish group gathered in a conference room on the second floor of the dealership and chatted nervously as we waited for the instruction to begin.

No matter how safe we each felt when we walked through the door,  the statistics and the horror stories are a dose of reality. It’s not easy stuff. According to Loni, 84 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. 57 percent of sexual assaults occur on dates. 71 percent of rapists plan their assault.  One in four women will be the victim of a sexual assault. Alonna then shares the details of a particularly frightening event that had recently occurred on Birmingham’s Southside, where a young woman was brutally attacked in her own home. It brought the dangers into focus for us.

Once we understood the risk, the next piece of business was to try and wrap our heads around what to do about it.  The element of surprise usually works in your attacker’s favor, and you aren’t going to be going all ninja on his ass if you don’t even see him coming.   So what is self-defense and how should it work?

Loni demonstrates a choking maneuver on Alonna

Loni tells us it’s about avoidance and escape, by whatever means necessary. You just have got to get away from the situation, and that’s that.  But sometimes the first part of the defense equation is never being in that situation to begin with.  Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t be a target. Reconsider talking on the phone or turning the music up quite so loud on your ear buds.  You need to know what is going on around you — and you need to LOOK like you know what’s going on, as well.  A predator is looking for someone who is distracted.  Second, define your boundaries.  Are you made uncomfortable by your setting or by some person in it? Do you have a feeling that something just isn’t right? Well then, move right on to the last part of the defense equation: resistance. What are you going to do to get out of the situation?

Loni takes us through a good bit of material to help us better understand self-defense from an academic standpoint and to better grasp the use of logic and intuition as tools in our own safety. It’s certainly easy to make sense of it when you have it all laid out there right in front of you, but how much of that will you remember when some dude has you on the ground, choking the life out of you? Welcome to the next part of the class.

Alonna asks if any of us have ever been hit really hard in the face. None had.  I wondered (feared) where she was going with this, but she brings up a good point. We may know what violence kind of looks like, but most of us just don’t know what violence actually feels like. Apparently it really “rings your bell” and knocks your world completely off balance. That’s what you have to be prepared for.

Fighting Back

We picked partners and took turns “attacking” one another.  We were given a few basic maneuvers that successfully provided us with a few precious seconds of advantage over our “attackers” — just time enough to get away. Repetition is the key here. Done enough times it can become instinct, and instinct can be the very thing that keeps you alive.   My partner and I choked and fake raped each other over and over it until we both got it.  She was great, and we had our procedures down. But frankly, me and the girl from the Business Development Center were going kind of easy on each other.  Enter the lobster.

The third leg in the Payne clan, father and husband Gary Payne, made his contribution to the program.  Payne, a Viet Nam war veteran and retired captain of the Fort Snelling Fire Department in St. Paul, Minn., also holds a black belt in Karate and takes his role as antagonist seriously. Clad in a shiny, padded suit and mask that would protect him from even the most vicious of us ladies, Payne was a more daunting foe than my partner, Kara, or I had been. He came at each of us in the same fashion as we had all come at each other, but his effect was greater, stronger and more menacing. Though he had been lovely when I met him earlier in the lobby, the suit and mask gave Payne a distinct predatory feel, a “Jason-like” quality.  My pulse quickened, my stomach churned a bit and surely someone had turned up the heat in the room. Even in a controlled environment, the thought of that guy attacking me stirred up a bit of panic.

We each took several turns being the victim. I got out from under him more quickly than I had ever imagined that I could, but not before kicking him square in the face.  It was freaky, to say the least, but I knew what to do — and it worked. Each of us mastered the art of getting away before we left that night. I felt as though we all walked out a little less naïve, significantly more aware of what could happen, and with more confidence in our ability to control it — despite our size or gender.

The  S.A.W. classes are reserved for females only.  The Paynes find that it creates a more relaxed environment where women are free to discuss assault openly with one another.  The topics can be graphic and the talk tough, but the information is crucial for destroying myths about violence, breaking down stereotypes about victims and providing you with real-world strategies for defending yourself in any number of situations.  Your personal safety should be your first priority, and S.A.W. can help you better understand how to achieve that.  For more information about bringing the S.A.W. program to your group or business, visit their website at•

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