Above image: Isabelle teaching a self-defense and assertiveness workshop at the Marin City Boxing Club. Courtesy: Isabelle Khoo-Miller. By Elaine Khoo
Isabelle Khoo-Miller (they/them), 20, a Singaporean-Chinese and Mexican-Jewish college student from the Bay Area in California, has spent the past nine months teaching self-defense and assertiveness workshops and healing circles centered around the experiences of queer, trans, and femme Black, Indigenous, and POC. Khoo-Miller is gender fluid and “super queer in every way.” Their work aims to equip their community, their friends, and some of the most vulnerable people with skills that can protect them from predators and help heal those who have experienced sexual assault.
This June, Khoo-Miller decided to create a men’s accountability and healing circle after the murder of Oluwatoyin Salau, a 19-year-old black activist and prominent voice at her local Black Lives Matter protests in Tallahassee, Florida. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, protests against police brutality and racial injustice have been occurring in cities nationwide every day, for over 60 days. Defunding the police and prison abolition has been at the forefront of the discussion of what change protesters are looking for. In their work, Khoo-Miller aims to help attendees unlearn the “racist, white supremacist, and punishment-based or carceral thinking” and societal norms from what it means for them to feel protected, to heal, and to hold people accountable for sexual assault.
Khoo-Miller began teaching self-defense and assertiveness workshops in October 2019 at their university, The New School, in New York City after they noticed a lot of their friends and peers were experiencing street harassment, assault, and sexual violence.
When the Fall 2019 semester ended, Khoo-Miller returned to their home in the Bay Area and trained with André Salvage and Associates, a self-defense school in San Francisco. There they learned how to use the pads and gear in ways that wouldn’t hurt students, trained blindfolded, and got custom fit padding and a helmet.
In a recent phone call, Khoo-Miller spoke to Women’s Republic about what it is like to teach these classes in 2020, a year dominated by a pandemic, social unrest, and an upcoming presidential election.
They recalled the first moments of teaching self-defense happened after their friend had a frightening experience with a man acting “predatory” to her on the New York City subway. When Khoo-Miller met up with their friend after the incident, they gave a “crash course” lesson on self-defense and thought, “Yo, I really need to just teach this.”
“Especially for women and queer folks of color, there’s really no protection for us, and I was trying to do just that… because there’s a lot of people I know who are going through the same thing”Isabelle Khoo-Miller
Through the spread of flyers across Instagram stories and feeds, the self-defense and assertiveness workshops gained popularity among not just New York City students, but people of different ages and backgrounds, especially queer, trans, and BIPOC.
Khoo-Miller in full self-defense gear. Courtesy: Isabelle Khoo-Miller. By Elaine Khoo
When the Spring 2020 semester started, Khoo-Miller brought the new self-defense gear back to their apartment in the East Village and continued teaching workshops. However, in-person sessions shuttered quickly once the coronavirus pandemic began.
“I quite miss it [being in-person]. It’s so fun for me because you see people really realize that they’re capable of fighting. A lot of people are like, “I’m small. I’m weak. There’s no way I’m going to be able to fight a six-foot, 250-pound man. The self-defense that we do is like, “I don’t care who it is, you can win.”Isabelle Khoo-Miller
Khoo-Miller holds the self-defense and assertiveness workshops almost every other week. On Sundays, they hold an LGBTQ+ and BIPOC centered healing circle, and every Thursday, they hold the men’s accountability and healing circle.
Why Khoo-Miller began the healing circles
Khoo-Miller began the healing circle in tandem with the self-defense and assertiveness workshops because they felt the need to create a space that could help people heal and process the trauma they have experienced. “So much of what would come up during the self-defense classes was trauma. So much trauma came up all the time, especially around sexual violence, by the nature of the class,” Khoo-Miller said.
In a Sunday healing circle on July 26th, Quentin Washington, 21, a senior film student at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, shared he had been carrying guilt from hurting someone close to him by not respecting their boundaries and not realizing he had done so.
Washington, who identifies as a transmasculine person, saw a flyer for Khoo-Miller’s Sunday circle promoted on one of his friend’s Instagram stories and decided to join the session. “I was looking for a support group to just talk to people and get to know new folks and talk about healing in different forms,” Washington said.
In the future, he plans to attend the men’s circle too. “I think that it would be useful to talk to men across the spectrum about their healing for them because often men don’t really talk about healing or feeling,” Washington said.
What does it look like to hold men accountable?
One of Khoo-Miller’s goals when creating the men’s accountability and healing circle was to encourage men to be open and honest with sharing their feelings and experiences. During the circles, they share their stories, guilt, and trauma through a mix of journaling, light meditation, and breath-work. Khoo-Miller breaks down consent and the generational impact of sexual violence and centers the survivor in the accountability work. The goal is to figure out what genuine change and growth – that is not reliant on the survivors – can look like.
But just joining the group for a few sessions and then “giving yourself a pat on the back” is not the point of the circle, Khoo-Miller emphasized. The work is neither easy nor comfortable.“This is lifelong work,” Khoo-Miller said.
In the men’s circle, Khoo-Miller works with the men to deconstruct and unlearn patriarchal and white supremacist thought and competitive thinking. As a group, they look to find where toxic masculinity “manifests in our behavior, thoughts, and actions, and we try to uproot it, get rid of it, and fill it with something better.”
To respect the privacy and space that the men’s circle holds, Women’s Republic did not attend the men’s accountability and healing circle per Khoo-Miller’s request.
Khoo-Miller created the men’s circle with the intention of working with men of color after Oluwatoyin Salau was sexually assaulted and murdered. After the incident, Khoo-Miller noticed frustration among friends who were dealing with the violence inflicted by men of color, while acknowledging the trauma caused by racism, white supremacy, and the carceral system.
According to the NAACP, one out of every three Black boys and one out of every six Latino boys can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared to one out of every 17 white boys. Additionally, Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people, while at the same time, white men face less severe sentences for the convictions of the same crimes. The Black Lives Matter movement has illuminated the brutality and racism ingrained in the police and prison. The current momentum has pushed some to want a country without police as well as the abolishment of prisons.
Khoo-Miller realized there was a need to protect men of color from police and prisons, and created the men’s accountability and healing circle to address that need.
“Sending them to prison or calling the police is completely useless,” Khoo-Miller said. “On the off chance that anything does happen for a sexual violence case, sending them to prison is just going to put them through ten times more trauma, more violence. Then if they come back, they’re coming back with all of that, it makes no sense. That alone is super genocidal.”
In a June 21st Instagram post to their account, Khoo-Miller wrote: “If we don’t imagine new ways to deal with these problems, we’ll become susceptible to reuse prison-thinking in an attempt to banish select perpetrators of patriarchy and sexual violence without going further.”
Some of the men who attend the circle have been called out on social media for being perpetrators of sexual violence or assault, or didn’t know that their actions had harmed another person, Khoo-Miller said. And after being vilified and bashed over social media, there is nowhere to turn for growth.
“If there’s no space for healing, and there’s no space for growth, what happened will keep repeating itself, and that is what I’m not cool with,” Khoo-Miller said.
Khoo-Miller teaching students self-defense moves and techniques at Marin City Boxing Club. Courtesy: Isabelle Khoo-Miller. By Elaine Khoo
Gentleness is key
In a recent men’s circle, Khoo-Miller facilitated an inner child meditation, where one visualizes themself at a young age and comforts that child. During the meditation, the men acknowledged everything that the child was going through, their feelings, and their needs. Then the men spoke aloud to that child, letting them know: “Everything is going to be okay” and “I’m here. I love you.” At the end of the meditation, the men hold their inner child in a tight hug.
Some of the men cried during or after the meditation, said Khoo-Miller. One attendee that stuck out to them was a man, who they guessed was in his 40’s, that told them about being beaten up by an adult as a child. Khoo-Miller got chills while recalling what the man said to them in tears, “That child needed to be held so much. Thank you.”
“It is definitely a space that needs to be held. I think it’s really important that it is held with a lot of love,” Khoo-Miller said. “And that’s something that [attendees] expressed have really supported them being able to do this work, that it’s a non-judgmental love.”
It can be hard to listen to the men discuss stories of sexual assault, especially when a story being told is similar to their own experience, Khoo-Miller said. “I don’t hold [the stories] in me. I try to let them pass so that I’m not holding on to that weight and that trauma, and just maintain my commitment to, as Bell Hooks would say, a love ethic,” Khoo-Miller said.
Gentleness is an essential part of the work, Khoo-Miller said.
“Especially around healing and around unlearning racist or, white supremacist, or like punishment-based or carceral thinking… We’ve got to be really gentle and kind of figure out and see what it means to learn without violence.”Isabelle Khoo-Miller
Although the end of the coronavirus pandemic is nowhere in sight, Khoo-Miller doesn’t find Zoom or the computer to be a barrier for the “energetic exchange” that occurs at the typically three-hour-long healing circles. Khoo-Miller plans to get more training around knives and guns, group attacks, conflict resolution, and de-escalation from their teachers back home in the Bay Area. Khoo-Miller hopes to keep running the workshops and circles, growing their community, making healing accessible for everyone, and they are currently working on a website. Information about the workshops and healing circles can be found on Khoo-Miller’s Instagram account, @isabelle227.
When describing what it felt like to attend his first Sunday healing circle, Quentin Washington said, “It felt like going to the park and seeing the sun through the trees and it felt very warm.”