Nation of Islam uses self-defense training to steer Milwaukee youth to positive paths

·4 min read

Isaiah Jones spent a lot of time watching TV and playing video games. That’s until Jones’ stepdad got him involved in boxing and martial arts to get him active and off the couch.

Jones, 13, now spends his time practicing his katas, a series of choreographed movements needed to master Tae Kwon Do.

“As I learned Tae Kwon Do, in a couple of weeks I started getting better at both,” said the Eastbrook Academy student. Jones has been doing martial arts since last year and is a low purple belt.

Jones picked up a few extra moves during the last weekend in July. He participated in a self-defense and anti-bullying workshop as part of the 27th annual United Schools of Survival (USOS) International Training Conference at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. He learned a variety of self-defense techniques, including the palm strike, back and side kicks and knee strikes.

The biggest take away for Jones was learning conflict resolution and self-confidence.

“I used to be scared if someone messes with me, but now I feel confident in myself that I can fight back if they fight me first,” said Jones, who attends Anvil Martial Arts in Milwaukee.

Often held in Chicago, the Nation of Islam's four-day martial arts conference offered both youth and adult programming on self-defense, mental health, and wellness.

Kyra Beckley, 3, middle, does jumping jacks prior to the martial arts and self-defense training for youth at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee.
Kyra Beckley, 3, middle, does jumping jacks prior to the martial arts and self-defense training for youth at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee.

The conference, held in Milwaukee for the first time, included demonstrations on a variety of martial arts styles, including V.S.K. Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Tang Soo Do.

Those in attendance learned practical lifesaving methods such as how to stop a bleeding gunshot wound, recognizing the signs of stroke and how to perform CPR.

“Martial arts is one of those things that strengthens the mind and makes a person confident and comfortable with who they are so they don’t get involved with peer pressure,” said Daniel Muhammad, 34, a fourth-degree black belt and martial arts trainer.

Youths deal with a lot from cyberbullying to peer pressure.  They want to fit in and sometimes go along with negative behavior. Youths, Muhammad said, need to be in the right frame of mind to say "no" with authority and to stand by that assertion.

“I never been the biggest guy, but because I have martial arts in me, I was able to avoid a lot of situations,” Muhammad said. “I had the skill sets that made my words come out a lot more powerful to get people to leave me alone or to go about their business.”

Using martial arts should be a last resort.

“Once they’ve exhausted all other options, then we equip them with the skills necessary to defend themselves,” said Muhammad, of Lion’s Paw Karate and Chess Academy in Chicago.

"We are talking to them about how much to use in certain situations," said Abdul Azziz Muhammad, who founded last month's conference and also is a 10th-degree red belt in V.S.K. jiu jitsu. "Everything that happens doesn’t require (martial arts) because you have the upper hand. Only use this if your life is in jeopardy.”

Darren Stacks bows following his self-defense techniques he showed the youth during the martial arts and self-defense training at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee.
Darren Stacks bows following his self-defense techniques he showed the youth during the martial arts and self-defense training at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee.

Frederick Coleman runs Studio69, a Milwaukee-based center that teaches martial arts, boxing and yoga.

He has been practicing martial arts for 30 years, and said he believes the combat sport combines the physical and the psychological, which can help young men grasp the concepts of self-worth and self-love.

Coleman teaches his students that martial arts has more to do with discipline and self-control than fighting. Coleman believes that philosophy is particularly essential for young Black men, many of whom he said aren't taught how to handle their emotions or come from stressful family environments.

“We are building self-awareness, confidence and discipline," Coleman said. "That right now is the most important thing we need with young Black men.”

Shavar Jones is just a beginner, a white belt, in Coleman's classes, but already has seen a difference in himself, especially in school.

Jones, 10, said he used to be the class clown and acted out in school. Taking both martial arts and a separate boxing classes he says have allowed him to control his anger and has kept him out of fights.

“I don’t get in trouble anymore and I get good grades,” he said,

Jones, a student at La Escuela Fratney, encouraged other kids to consider martial arts as a way to both get a handle on their emotions and to be safe.

“He needed that guidance that I couldn’t give him,” said Jones’ grandmother Benedetta Wright. She enrolled both Shavar and his brother in martial arts classes. “He (Shavar) needed that guidance and discipline that a man can give to a young man.”

She said it was wonderful to see her grandson evolve into the person he is now.

“It was a tremendous change,” Wright said.

La Risa Lynch is a community affairs reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email her at llynch@gannett.com

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Nation of Islam reaches Milwaukee youth through self-defense training