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Self-Defense Instructor Heads Up 'Empower Wyoming'

After moving to Wyoming from Los Angeles three years ago, Francine Russell figured her days of teaching self-defense were pretty much through. She assumed no one in this rural state would be interested. But after reading grim statistics about Native American females—according to the Justice Department, one out of three American Indians will be raped or experience an attempted rape—she says, “That’s when I said, ‘Okay, my self-defense days are not over!’ Doing something about that on the reservation became a definite focus.”

Russell is a nationally acclaimed self-defense instructor who has appeared on CNN and ABC’s 20/20. She now heads Empower Wyoming, an organization that, she says, “strives to end violence through personal safety training.” The Wyoming Community Foundation has recently awarded Russell and her organization, Empower Wyoming, a $10,000 grant to teach self-defense on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Since the majority of women won’t spend years taking self-defense or martial arts classes, Russell has to cram her three-hour workshops with effective measures. “We offer very practical self-defense moves where you must fight, because your safety and life is at risk,” she explains. “We tend to teach a few moves that are easy to execute and learn, and are meant to cause enough harm so you can get away.

“Women have to have the confidence that if it came down to fighting, they know they could take care of themselves. Once they have that confidence and know someone won’t have to rescue them, they’ll set better personal boundaries. Once you answer their ‘What if?’ questions—‘What if they throw me in a car? What if they grab me?’—then they’ll have the confidence to set good boundaries.”

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Russell says that knowing personal boundaries and avoiding dangerous situations are the most important lessons of self-defense. She notes the vast majority of women who take her classes never have to use the moves she teaches them. “I always tell my students that assailants who choose children, teenage girls and women as targets are not the bravest elements of society,” Russell says. “They have chosen a woman or child because they figure they’ve won before it even starts. So when a woman doesn’t behave as they expect and sets a good boundary and doesn’t back down, the assailant will usually back away, because it’s more trouble than they expected or wanted.”