From Mad Men to #MeToo: Self-Defense and Personal Safety Then and Now

Hello everyone. I am very excited about sharing a conversation I had recently with my friend and guest, Sensei Janet Nelson. In many ways, Janet exemplifies what it means to be a courageous woman.

You can listen to our podcast or read the transcribed text below. Thank you so much Janet!

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Welcome to Courageously Go! where we will venture to places we’ve been afraid to go. Women of the world, we are going to start a movement, a movement towards courage. Hello everybody, I am Debbie DiPietro, your host of Courageously Go! For many years, I was challenged with social anxiety and being shy, and keeping myself on the sidelines a lot. Since my 50th birthday, I have decided that it all starts with courage. The more we choose courage and follow our hearts by choosing courage, the life of our dreams and a better world for all are truly possible, no matter our age or circumstances. We never need to feel stuck or alone.

I’m really excited that all of you are out there. I have a very accomplished guest that I’m excited about introducing you all to. Her name is Janet Nelson. Combining over 40 years training and teaching in the martial arts with her experience in the Master of the Social Work program at Florida State University, Janet Nelson has developed a unique approach to personal safety awareness that stresses mind body training in psychosocial issues.

A fourth degree black belt in Cuong Nhu Martial Arts, Sensei Nelson is an experienced instructor of women, men, youth, the aged, and the physically challenged. Janet began her martial arts training in Gainesville, Florida in 1974, training directly under founder Dong Ngo for over 10 years.

Originally from Oak Park, Illinois, Janet is a 1977+6 graduate of the University of Florida. After beginning her social work career in 1978, she attained her MSW from Florida State University in 1994. Credentialed in the Academy of Certified Social Workers by the National Association of Social Workers, and as a licensed clinical social worker in the State of Florida. Her direct practice specialty is mental health services with adolescents, young adults and women. As a social worker and psychotherapist, she spent 20 years with at-risk teen girls and young women, seven years at Tallahassee Community College Mental Health Services, and five years in private practice, treating adolescents and adults of all ages.

Additionally, Janet is a certified tension and trauma releasing exercises instructor, a globally taught self-care body therapy that promotes our body’s ability to open up the healing process, enabling us to release tension, stress, and held trauma.

Since 1980, she has conducted self-defense for women seminars and short courses in general personal safety awareness training to many throughout the State of Florida, as well as nationally. Combining her two interests in the early ’90s, she created everyday self-defense trainings for human service professionals. More recently, she designed online personal safety courses available for CEs to licensed social workers in Kansas and nationally. NASW National, everyday self-defense for Social Workers, is approved by the National Association of Social Workers for continuing education credit in 46 states.

In 2014, she was deemed an expert witness for the Federal Government Agency of Occupational Safety and Health Administration in clinical social work personal safety awareness, workplace violence prevention programs, and worker safety skills training. Currently Janet devotes her time to designing and managing online courses and to teach personal safety and wellness instruction to social health and human service workers across the nation.

Janet Nelson, welcome to Courageously Go!

Jan Nelson:                         Well, thank you so much for having me, Debbie. It’s nice of you to have me.

Debbie DiPietro:               It’s great to have you. I don’t even know where to begin with you because you are so accomplished. I’ve had a recent conversation with you. I know you have a lot going on, so why don’t we start off with what are you currently mostly excited about these days? What’s going on?

Jan Nelson:                         Well, you know, when you read my resume I think, “Boy, I’ve been busy.”

Debbie DiPietro:               You have.

Jan Nelson:                         It’s a very exciting time right now, especially for the women’s movement, the Me Too movement. I looked at how I should title this, and I thought about the history and the show of Mad Men that just exemplifies how women were treated in the workplace. I said from Mad Men to Me Too ’cause look at how far things are coming along as it’s taken. But I’ve been a part of this for a long time, so it’s a very exciting time to see movement that’s happening now relative to women in the workforce, and sexual harassment issues, and the way we’ve been treated, violence against women. It’s just very interesting times right now.

Just mentioning a little bit about what I’m currently doing, working with online courses, which I had to put together because I started a business where I’m the only person doing this. It’s very rare to have a social worker and a martial artist combine those two talents. I’ll mention that a little bit down the road here.

Currently, I’m teaching Department of Children and Family workers. If people don’t know what that is, those are the people that are out investigating child abuse in the home, neglect, sexual abuse of not only children, but adults, elders, et cetera. These people are out on the frontlines going into people’s homes and really put themselves out there in very difficult situations to help protect children and people at risk.

It’s been my pleasure, more recently I’ve been getting more jobs with New Jersey Department of Children and Families, we call it DCF. This past spring I taught in Prince Frederick, Maryland for their DCF program. I’ve taught for the State of Florida of over a few different years, Adult and Child Protective Services. That’s really what I’m doing right now.

Plus both my husband and I … He worked in the healthcare field for a long, long time for the State of Florida. We both recognized that there’s loads of people that go into people’s home for various reasons. We designed a very short online course for agencies and businesses like Comfort Keepers or Angels, people that either volunteer, they go in for medical purposes. There’s so many people working in people’s homes now that I’ve really put my focus on those workers, whether they’re degreed social workers, case workers for state agencies, or even a lot of these volunteer and home helper agencies. That we all need to be prepared to be safe in our work helping others. It’s as simple as that.

That’s what I’ve really been focusing on these days. I’ll go back up to New Jersey again. I’m talking with Missouri right now about helping them with their programs for their child protective service workers. It’s a very exciting time for me in that regard.

Debbie DiPietro:               It sounds like it. I haven’t really thought about this, but social workers really are on the frontlines going into probably some pretty sketchy situations. What are some key components that you teach these people on how to keep safe?

Jan Nelson:                         Well, I have a real basic program. Around safety, there’s always awareness. Law enforcement will tend to, and they rightly so, teach you about your environment. Where do you park your car, locks, all those things. I work actually more teaching people … The first good third of my course is really about inner awareness, how to read your gut, how to be in tune with that fight or flight or fright system that we have that works for us, our autonomic nervous system. It lets us know that something’s not right and we’re in danger.

What happens for most people is they lock up and they freeze. What I work to teach social and human service workers is to stay grounded, centered, balanced, keep breathing, how to keep thinking of your options, how to stay calm in the face of danger. Specifically for social workers, which of course it’s a degreed professional’s job. You can’t just call yourself a social worker. You do have to get a degree.

Social workers are great to teach because they already have so many skills of interviewing skills, listening skills, deescalation skills. You need that to be able to help people stay calm in tense situations. Just imagine somebody coming into investigate child abuse in your home. That’s the most contentious situation you can be in. But social workers do so many things in the home, as do occupational therapists and physical therapists. There’s just so many people. It’s really how to read your gut, listen to it. If you know something’s coming up, and you got to get yourself out of there, then you do it. We talk about safety plans and how to get out of tough situations.

But we know that the way to deal with angry people, the best skill is good listening skills. Luckily, a lot of social workers are taught with that. I always try to encourage them. You already got a lot of good tools in your kit to use.

Debbie DiPietro:               Yes, sounds like it. Typically, how long goes the program last when they’re getting trained by you?

Jan Nelson:                         I prefer to do a six hour training, an all day training. I have done three hours. But just recently … In fact, I’ll mention New Jersey again. The caseworkers there said, “We want more of this. Three hours is too short.” Just a sketch here of this is my fourth year of teaching up there. They changed my class to now be six hours. No one is saying we need more. They seem satisfied with that. We can cover quite a few different topics and areas. Plus we get up and move. I teach self-defense techniques. I teach breathing and centering. I teach them how to escape choke holds. Things that are going to really put them at risk.

But, in general, I just call it personal safety awareness because I’m trying to make them think about all the things in their environment externally, as well as like I said internally. How to read themselves better so that they can just increase their awareness skills. Because most of us typically, we get in our car, we go to work, we kind of get robotic in things. We don’t really pay attention to small cues that can tip us off that’s something’s wrong.

You’d be amazed though the people that go into homes and work with clients in their home settings are very attuned and they’re very savvy. I just say, “Hey, I’m sparking your imagination. I’m giving you more ideas.” I try to cover a variety of things in a six hour program.

Debbie DiPietro:               I imagine there are a lot of people that can benefit from this kind of training, even if they’re not in the social working industry. Even like I think I’ve seen real estate agents, who they meet a total stranger to show them a house, or they host an open house. That could be potentially a dangerous situation that they’re putting themselves in.

Jan Nelson:                         Oh, it has been. Yes, it has been. Just over a year ago, someone from Gainesville, where of course I lived in Gainesville, I live in Tallahassee now. A realtor contacted me and said, “We want to get a women’s group together. Will you come down and teach us self defense?” I did. I designed a program just for them. It was a half day program. Because they’d already had a couple threats and incidents. So yes, real estate agents, really anybody that goes out into the field on their own, and it could be selling books door-to-door, which I did when I was in college. Unfortunately, my roommate that summer, we were up in a Detroit suburb, she was sexually assaulted. She was raped on a home visit trying to sell books door-to-door. It can be almost any profession.

Certainly, I also look at all different places. It’s not just on home visits. It could be just you’re on a street going to your home visit. You could be just going to your office. It could be in your office. One reason New Jersey brought me up there is that they had a DCF worker stabbed 21 times in front of an elevator in their DCF building, in their Department of Children and Family state building, in the building itself.

Any time, any place, anywhere, we all have to be aware of our safety. These workers especially are really … Police will tell social workers, “You go places I wouldn’t even go.” It’s the truth. Very tough neighborhoods, very tough situations, and they walk in with a clipboard and a pen and a pad of paper. There they are. I call them brave and noble and I tell them, “What you’ve been doing, if no one’s ever told you this, is not only a noble act, but also brave. Pat yourselves on the back for it.”

Because these professions are not highly paid. People are doing this because they care for other humans. They care for children. They care for humanity. They really don’t get enough credit. They don’t get talked about enough in the media. You hardly ever hear the word social worker mentioned even. It’s just the astounding to me that we ignore that, but also I just as a social worker, I know firsthand, but I admire my colleagues and anyone in the social service and human service fields. It’s exceptional work that they’re doing.

Debbie DiPietro:               I agree. They’re heroes in our society quietly and humbly. They’re doing the important work that they’re doing and they are the epitome of Courageously Go! They’re going in there and with their hearts. Like you say, it’s not the highest, it’s like teaching, why it’s not the highest paid profession. I imagine if you go into this as a career, this is something you have a passion for. It’s definitely a courageous career choice and path that these people are on. That’s great you’re helping them.

This time goes by so fast. Sensei, let’s cover the sensei part of your life, Janet, because I don’t know that many women who have achieved the high level that you have in the martial arts world. Let’s just touch on that ’cause I find it really interesting. I think a lot of people out there would too. How did you get into martial arts?

Jan Nelson:                         Well, you know it was one of those things I kind of fell into. I had seen a Tai Chi school in my neighborhood. In my last year of high school, I went and interviewed the sensei there. That introduced me to the martial arts, just the concept and the ideas. When I moved to Gainesville, I had had during my high school years, I had been diagnosed with a knee disorder where I was getting arthritis by the time I was 14. I was told keep your legs really, really strong. I had already had surgeries by then.

I bravely, you might say courageously, said, “Well, I’m not going to be held back. I’m going to go take martial arts.” There were some girls in the dorm that said, “Come on. It’s a free program.” I just said, “Okay, I can do this.” I went and joined Cuong Nhu and it was 1974. Right at that time in history, things were just coming together. There were so many women in our style. It was the east meets west. There was a lot of exchange of just ideas around meditation and now what we call self care and stress reduction, wellness. Those terms weren’t even around. It was more just about taking care of yourself. Then for me it was fun. I got started by just following some girls out of the dorm at UF, University of Florida, down to what’s now the swamp. We worked out in a gym and the Florida fields. That’s where I got started.

I was specifically inspired by Mary Davis, who was one of the two black belt women at the time. There was only 12 people. The founder of the style had gotten his PhD and left. Came back after I was a brown belt years later. He was gone when I first started. He’d left 12 black belts. Two of them were women. These were some powerful women and great role models for me. I was inspired by Mary Davis, who kind of taking the call out of the ’60s which I like mention, that women were gaining a voice after the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement had begun. Women were seeking more power and just more confidence. Really, like I said, the assertiveness training movement started then. Gaining a voice was super important. Being heard, asserting yourself.

Then really out of that came the stop rape movement, what they called the battered women’s movement. In the ’70s if you look, many of the battered women’s or now they call it spousal violence, or domestic violence I should say. Those all started in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Here I had this great role model, Mary Davis, and I helped her in her class. Then she started teaching self-defense for women on campus in 1975. She was the first one to be doing it in Gainesville, Florida. That was starting all around the nation. There was that inspiration to not only train in the martial arts and overcome what some considered a handicap, and prove to myself that I could do this martial arts thing, and I could earn these ranks. I was very inspired to keep doing that.

I saw what was happening at that point and I thought there’s a lot of growth that’s coming out of the women’s movement, and I’m a part of it. I’m going to start teaching self-defense. I just started doing community work. I had models. Master Dong came back from Vietnam. He was teaching elderly people in the community. I started doing that too.

We have a code of ethics in our style. The first one is to improve yourself and your abilities in the martial arts in order to serve the people. I took that to heart and realized if I can do this and I have talent, I need to be sharing this with other people that might not walk into a karate dojo.

Starting in around 1980, I started to develop community ed courses that people could take through community colleges sponsored them. That’s how I got going. I was always also on campuses teaching, stop rape week, that stuff has never ended. Sometimes people are talking about college campuses and sexual violence movements and all these things. They’ve been going on a while now. It’s really the mid ’70s when all that started.

That brings me to where I was. I just started going all wherever community … I lived in Broward County for a while, by Ft. Lauderdale. I lived on Ocala. Wherever I went I was trying to teach women self-defense and work with elderly people as well. Just doing community based work, which I might add, women tend to do in general. Whether it’s paid or unpaid. It’s great experience. I certainly advocate for women getting paid for their work. But we do what we do because we want to do it. Community ed and volunteer work is a great thing.

There you go. It was an exciting time. When I moved here to Tallahassee, I immediately started teaching women’s self-defense. Then I ended up having a women’s self-defense school, a dojo basically, that oddly enough was right next to Chi Omega sorority, which if some people don’t know, was infamous in the late ’70s for when Ted Bundy bludgeoned some sorority sisters. In a way, I thought like we’re back here, we’re teaching self-defense right next door to this building and trying to get women thinking about this.

I just have been on campuses working for a while. I’m not doing that now at this point. Here I was in my graduate school class. I went back to school at FSU. All of a sudden, I’m doing all this work on campus. I look around the classes and I went, “You know, this is all women. There’s hardly any men.” That’s when my little light bulb went off and I went, “I need to be teaching self-defense to social workers, to my colleagues.” I really was able to put that together. That was about in ’94, ’95 I put that together.

Debbie DiPietro:               Janet, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but we have one minute left. I wish we had another half hour. Why don’t we very quickly share with our listeners, do you have a website where they can get more information about you and your programs? You’re a fascinating professional lady that I think a lot of people would like to know how to reach you. Why don’t we share with them a website or how could people reach you?

Jan Nelson:                         Okay, well they can reach me through That is my website and that’s what I call my programs.

Debbie DiPietro:               Okay, great. Well, thank you so much. You’ve been a tremendous, tremendous guest. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to you and I know that a lot of our listeners were probably very inspired by your story and what you’re currently still doing. I thank you for taking time out of your day to be here on Courageously Go! with us. Thank you, Janet.

Jan Nelson:                         Well, thank you for having me. I encourage all the women listening to pick up with the Me Too movement and have our voices be heard. At least now they’re being listened to finally. It’s an exciting time for us to courageously go forward.

Debbie DiPietro:               Awesome. Yes, all right, that’s a great note to end on. Everyone, thank you for joining me and Janet here on Courageously Go! I am Debbie DiPietro. I love to hear from you. I have an email, which is debbie D-E-B-B-I-E, My website is You can learn more about our show. We are now on iHeart radio so you can follow us on there. Super exciting. I look forward to tuning in next week on Courageously Go! Ladies, until next time, remember this. It’s our time to shine. Let’s make it so and Courageously Go!


4 thoughts on “From Mad Men to #MeToo: Self-Defense and Personal Safety Then and Now

  1. The interview with Jan Nelson was fantastic. She has been a friend for many, many years and I was impressed with her accomplishments as described on your podcast. Thanks for the free method you used to let Jan express herself.

  2. My family lived across the alley from the Nelsons, in Illinois in the 1950’s and 60’s. I thank my sister, who lives in France and is a lifelong friend of Janet, for forwarding “Courageously Go.” Over the years, when Janet’s work brought her to Kansas (I live in Kansas), we would visit. Your program made me much more knowledgeable of the amount of great work that Janet has done and is doing. Keep up the good work Janet and Thank you Debbie.

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