On April 11th, I attended an event called OpenHeart Dialogues: How Men Can Help End Violence Against Women, hosted by OpenMat owner, Elliott Bayev. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was excited to engage with a new group of people. I am always curious how men feel about being allies, how they get there and how they perceive violence against women issues. The panel was diverse and informative. I was really touched by Elliott’s efforts to make a difference and by his program to empower young girls and educate boys about gender based violence. Here’s a short interview showcasing his journey:
1. How did OpenMat come about, were you always into martial arts?
OpenMat actually grew out of my first school, kimonogirl, a women-only Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) academy I started with a friend in 2004. I was in corporate sales at the time and, after learning about social inequity in my twenties (I grew up fairly sheltered and privileged), I decided I wanted to make a difference. I quit my job, cashed in my life savings and started the school. After about five years, the demand for co-ed training had grown and OpenMat launched in 2008. I’ve been in martial arts since I was 9, but was introduced to BJJ at 16 and have studied it ever since.
2. What inspired you to become an advocate for gender equality?
Different forms of violence played a role in my family growing up and I’ve always wanted to “make things better” – originally at home, but as I learned about injustice, that sentiment extended everywhere else. In 2012, I took a few of my coaches to see Jeff Perera of The White Ribbon Campaign speak on how men can help end violence against women (VAW). He asked some incredibly compassionate questions that made me think about violence in new ways, which in turn sparked new ideas for how we might actually impact or even end VAW. Fight Like A Girl launched a few months later.
3. What are you hoping your programs Fight Like A Girl and Fight Like A Man will accomplish?
While it originally started as a free women’s self-defence workshop, the goal of Fight Like A Girl has become to make self-defence classes accessible to every woman in the world by 2030. While this is a great mission, the question remains, even if every woman in the world knew how to defend herself, why would we accept a world in which she had to? Given that men are committing most of the violence, it’s vital that we engage boys and men, so we launched Fight Like A Man. Through this program we go to schools, universities and corporations to engage males of all ages in dialogue around “manhood”, power, boundaries and social change. The ultimate goal is to create a massive online movement of boys and young men fighting for social change, specifically around ending gender-based violence. Fight Like A Girl has since adopted a similar model and both are part of a larger project, Future Leaders, which has the goal of connecting children globally, empowering them to fight for broad, massive social change.
4. How do you think small businesses can make a positive difference in the communities where they reside?
In a number of ways:
– By enhancing the lives of the people within their community – their customers.
– By fostering a culture that welcomes inclusiveness – both internally and externally through their marketing and the organizations they support.
– By using their position to give back, whether it be through supporting existing social programs or by starting their own community-based initiatives (cooking lessons for underprivileged kids, providing a space for town hall styled discussions, providing tools, resources and mentorship for marginalized groups, etc).
– By forming networks of other like-minded businesses to share ideas and resources, supporting each other in affecting change. Imagine an “army” of millions of small businesses all working for social change.
5. Can you describe a humbling moment in your journey thus far and the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
One result of growing up privileged was that I’d developed both an ignorance and an arrogance which ultimately was just hurtful to people I cared about. Despite thinking of myself as a good guy, realizing I had hurt people was a hard pill to swallow. Having also grown up with a “if you’ve done wrong, you are wrong” mentality, I struggled to come to terms with these things. I had no way to “make things right”.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you need to be compassionate towards yourself. What makes humans unique is our ability to transmute – to take one thing and turn it into something else. I realized that I could take the ignorance, pain and shame and turn it into motivation to strive to be a better person. If you’ve caused harm, you can honour the people you’ve hurt by learning from it and not only becoming someone who wouldn’t do that again, but by becoming someone who strives to help others learn those same lessons too.