Building Bridges With ESD -- An Interview With Sergio Guillen


​​Things are heating up at ESD Global, as we get ready for so many summer events.

One face we'll be seeing regularly at all of our events, in both Costa Rica and New York, is that of Sergio Guillen, who is here with us to talk about his work, his community, and his involvement with ESD Global.

In addition to being a project director for an NGO, Sergio works as a suited-instructor. He will be working as a translator during the sixteen-hour IMPACT course for the community of Colon, San Jose Costa Rica while his wife, Jenny, is nearby participating in a Level 1 Instructor Training.

And we can't wait to work with him during the very first Men's Incubator.

Welcome, Sergio!

Q. Please tell us a bit about your NGO and some of the projects you’re working on.

A. I am currently working in a Project Director role with the Foundation for Peace and Democracy (FUNPADEM). FUNPADEM is a non-profit, non-partisan, NGO established in 1988 to promote sustainable human development in Central America.

We have worked for over 30 years in transboundary cooperation, migration, citizen safety, dialogue and conflict transformation, labor rights and public governance. I began working with FUNPADEM as an environmental conflict management consultant in 2007, right after I finished my Masters Degree in Environmental Security and Peace at the University for Peace.

In 2008, I went on to support the organization as a social dialogue specialist, designing and facilitating dialogue forums on labor rights and citizen engagement, until I left for Australia to do my Ph.D. in 2013. I rejoined them last year to direct a new project, funded by the United States government, aimed at strengthening the capacity of government agencies and coordination networks in Costa Rica’s Northern Region to address the needs and human rights of migrants.

Q. How did you become involved in self-defense and martial arts?

​​A. When I was 7, my parents found that I had atrophied lower leg muscles, so I underwent physical therapy for several months. Afterwards, my parents encouraged me to take Taekwon-Do lessons during grade school. I took it up again in College in Canada and earned my First Dan Black Belt in Moo Duk Kwan under Master Jesus López in the late 1990s.

I then went on to study Kenjutsu, Jujutsu and Aikido under Master Pol Martin’s Ishinkan Budo system, and earned my Ho Dan Belt in Kenjutsu in 2003. I taught Kenjutsu at our school in San Pedro for several years. Since the mid 1990s, however, I began to feel that my martial arts practice was missing a closer link to engaging in service for the betterment of society.

Q. What inspired you to become a suited-instructor? What is one important aspect of the role that you’d like people to understand?

A. Starting in the mid 1990s, I began to feel that my martial arts practice was missing a closer link to engaging in service for the betterment of society. A lot of things about my martial arts experience were great, but there were also a lot of elements of toxic masculinity ingrained in the local martial arts community.

I found Rick Fields’ Book “Code of the Warrior” and read about Model Mugging, and it spoke to me very deeply. In 1998 I contacted a few IMPACT Chapters in the U.S. about training as an instructor, and starting a chapter in Costa Rica. Some of the responses were very honest and extremely discouraging.

Up front, I was forewarned that I would need at least $15,000 - 20,000 to invest in getting a chapter set up. One response, however, was a lot more helpful. It was from Cori Couture, director at the time of Bay Area Model Mugging (BAMM, now IMPACT Bay Area) who became a dear friend and mentor. Prior to taking over as director, Cori worked as lead trainer, helping start new chapters. She shared with me a great deal of her personal documents about getting an IMPACT Chapter started, including Excel worksheets with different scenarios for starting out.

What I chose to do as my first step was to spend some of my savings to fly out to San Francisco and take the Men’s Basics Course. I found it a really profound empowering experience. A lot of the process of sharing in Men’s Basics courses revolves around giving ourselves permission to prevent and avoid a fight without feeling like cowards, although we also learn the usual verbal and physical techniques for boundary setting and repelling an attack. One of the most striking moments for me was when Rick and Elliot, our suited instructors, played for us a compilation of 1980s romantic comedies that I had grown up with. It was very shocking and life-changing to realize that what I had internalized as clever gallantry was in fact outright stalking.

My second step was to organize a short half-day demonstration course in Costa Rica. Cori and a suited instructor, Jim Ace, volunteered to fly down without charging any fees to give this training, and we held two sessions. We received a Recognition as Peacebuilders award by the Ministry of Justice for this work that year.

In the summer of 1999 (or 2000, I don’t exactly recall) I flew once again to San Francisco to undergo my instructor’s training. There were 8 of us, 4 new Bay Area Instructors, a couple who was pioneering a London chapter, an instructor IMPACT Safety Ohio, and me. It was very enriching, and very challenging. I had never tried the suit before I started training, and I injured my jaw while I was working to adapt to receiving blows. So I had to adapt my techniques for taking knee strikes. Sharing with other men and women along the training process was also very eye-opening. It was the first time I had experienced a community that based its whole interactions on respecting each other’s boundaries.

Finally, embodying the “Mugger” was very challenging too. Finding that I had a “dark character” inside me, that could be summoned to the surface and that could come up on its own with such intimidating and dehumanizing things to say, just so that the women could learn to claim their power in a realistic scenario. Technically, it also involved some very difficult processes, especially finding the balance between acting in realistically threatening ways, while at the same time being fundamentally safe and gentle in the ways in which these holds and physical actions were performed.

I went back to San Francisco once more to teach a supervised course. I tried to organize a course in Costa Rica, and I find it very difficult some two decades ago to find a teaching partner who would make a steady commitment to get trained to do this work.

In 2001, while I was studying Gestalt Therapy in Mexico City, I met Laura Martinez, the director of ADIVAC, an NGO working with rape survivors. Laura knew other survivors who had received a Basics IMPACT course, and they had for a long time wanted to replicate the courses in Mexico City, but they lacked a suit. So I traveled back home to get my suit, and we founded “Control Positivo de la Violencia” (C+V), and organization that still teaches IMPACT courses, and that has very strong ties to the rape and abuse survivors community.

About 8 years ago, I went into semi-retirement, stopped looking so hard to find a good teaching partner candidate, and stored my suit in the garage. I had noticed that most of the people who were instructors around the same time that I started had transitioned to other activities, in may cases related to body-centered therapy, or community service.

Q. Why is self-defense needed in your community?

A. Self-defense as a foundation for empowerment is a very important, and largely missing, element in the work that is being carried out to safeguard women’s rights and prevent gender violence in Costa Rica. According to the President of Costa Rica’s National Women’s Institute, every 5 minutes a call comes in to the national 911 emergency line regarding an incident of domestic violence. The figure doubles whenever there is a major sporting event. We have widespread levels of street harassment, including catcalling, groping, and intimidation.

When my wife goes out, alone or accompanied, if it involves any stretch of walking on a public street or riding public transportation, she is simply not willing to wear a skirt or a dress, because the likelihood is extremely high that she will be groped. So I never experience walking with her wearing a skirt on a summer day, until we lived in Australia.

Recently, however, things have gotten more difficult, particularly involving incidences of tourists being abused and murdered in rural areas that general used to be considered safe. Because I work in an NGO that has a large share of young women on staff, and our work often involves travel across the country and the Central American region, I offered to do a short demonstration during our end-of-year team-building. So out came the suit again, and it was great fun! Everyone was immediately enthusiastic, and encouraged me to organize more training.

Q. How did you hear about the Level 1 Training in Costa Rica? What solidified your decision to participate as a translator?

A. Just around the time when I had done the IMPACT demo session for my Foundation’s team-building, I read a Facebook post by Aude Mulliez on the University for Peace Alumni Network page, announcing the summer ESD Training. I wrote to Aude and told her that I had an IMPACT ​​background as a suited instructor, and that I would very much like to link with the work that ESD Global was doing. As a result, we had a few conversations, I joined the small informal group that is helping to organize the event in Costa Rica, and she also suggested that I apply for the Men’s Incubator.

I won’t be a participant in the ESD Level 1 Training, but my wife Jenny will, and we are both very excited about this. Jenny is a psychologist with a meaning and nature-centered approach. She works with child caretakers in marginal communities, and she has also worked with troubled teens, and at-risk children, and I think she can make a great contribution in this community.

As for myself, I will also be providing support as an English-Spanish interpreter for the July 25-27 intensive 16-hour IMPACT course for the local community.

Q. What are some of the issues you hope to address at the Men’s Incubator? Why?

A. I think the key is that padded-assailant full-force self-defense and de-escalation training opens a window in men’s lives, to reprocess old traumas of either feeling powerless or of feeling forced to perform a role as an “alpha male.” It brings to our conscious awareness social pressures that are always looming in the background, about what are my acceptable options for how I relate to others. Bringing together men who approach this challenge from different angles offers an invaluable opportunity to share, and reflect, from the head and the heart, and then go to the mat and work on how some of these issues play out in the space of physical interaction.

The example of how a self-defense course like IMPACT, evolved as a tool for teaching verbal de-escalation is a very good frame of reference. I also hope to honour the dedication that my mentors showed me two decades ago, by finding ways of making the complexity of gender interactions comprehensible for me at a very vital stage in my own life.

Q. What are some of your hopes and goals for after the training and the Men’s Incubator?

A. I really aspire to build on this work on different areas. Costa Rica is not only facing a problem with gender and social violence, it is facing a problem of lack of avenues for mutual understanding.

I hope that the physical aspect of Empowerment Self-Defense can keep functioning as a bridge, or as a series of bridges, for other people, as it has done for me. I see it as serving to bridge for reflection and updating my socialization and my conscious awareness and aspirations for social change as an adult.

​​I think it can also work as a means for connecting people, possibly people with very different views that could be seen as antagonists to one another, and bring them into an experience of each other’s humanity and shared aspirations.

I also see it as a wonderful pathway for my wife and me, and our wonderful new colleagues like Aude and Hannah and the men and women participating in this summers trainings, to engage in new forms of transformational work with our communities. (See more photos of Sergio's community.)

Thank you, Sergio. We're looking forward to speaking to you again throughout the summer!

* Support the Men's Incubator and our Level 1 Instructor Trainings. *

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