SHERIDAN — The #MeToo campaign has dominated social media feeds, exposing sexual assault acts transpiring over decades to men and women globally. The hashtag trend reached Sheridan, and citizens exposed times when they experienced inappropriate sexual interactions with strangers, friends or family members.
Stories and cases of sexual assault surround the community, and Empower Wyoming helps equip both men and women with skills to protect themselves through safety training, physical and otherwise.
Misty Gardner, the founder of Be Fierce apparel and soon-to-be trainer for Empower Wyoming, realizes the extensive history and longevity of the issue.
“It’s huge in the media right now…but it’s not just now happening,” Misty Gardner said. “It’s been going on forever.”
Empower Wyoming, based in Buffalo, strives to end violence through personal safety training, which teaches individuals to be more self-reliant, increases their self-esteem and imparts practical self-defense skills, according to the mission statement on its website.
The organization’s founder and current executive director, Francine Russell, moved to Johnson County from Los Angeles and sought to continue her work with IMPACT, a personal safety, assertiveness and self-defense training program with global chapters. Empower Wyoming started in July 2010 and recently transitioned into a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
Russell, coming from the second-largest city in America, sees the difficulties of sexual assault specific to the smaller towns and cities in Wyoming.
“One of the biggest dynamics that is different from a big city is that in a big city you can be anonymous,” Russell said. “It’s much easier to avoid and cut off the people who may be violating your boundaries in whatever way.”
Empower Wyoming assigned three instructors specifically to work with the Wind River Reservation and received a grant to provide additional training in the area. The nonprofit hosts workshops for third, fifth and eighth-grade students in Buffalo and completed a workshop with students from Big Horn High School last year. Russell said she plans to get the programs in the Sheridan schools in the future.
Empower Wyoming scheduled one women’s self-defense workshop for Dec. 27, and because it filled so quickly, decided to provide an additional class on Dec. 28. Both reached capacity not long after advertising.
Gardner, who first started Be Fierce as solely an apparel company, moved into a more proactive role following a rebrand. While researching self-defense classes in hopes of establishing one herself, she came across Empower Wyoming and witnessed her two oldest daughters complete the class.
“I love the message, I love what they were teaching,” Gardner said. “They weren’t teaching a bunch of karate moves; it was setting boundaries and being aware and keeping themselves from being in certain situations and how to get yourself out of those situations.”
With four daughters in her care, Gardner often worries for their safety.
“I’m always worried that they’re going to be in a situation, right, whether at school or when they go away to college, or walking out of basketball practice or whatever,” Gardner said. “I want them to be as prepared as they can be for different situations.”
The Empower Wyoming classes impressed Gardner with the nonprofits’ integration of emotional-protection training paired with physical.
Gardner’s motivation for her children’s safety and wishing she had access to classes like those put on by Empower Wyoming when she was in college propelled her to start training to become a teaching member of Empower’s team. She helped with the Big Horn High School training and will soon help with the young children’s classes.
Gardner also wants to expand services and availability of sexual assault prevention training, starting with the “captive audience” of schools. She said the schools requiring a mandatory training class would benefit students with limited parent involvement or an inability to pay or catch a ride to weekend class offerings. Gardner’s ideal offering would not only include physical self-defense, but also conversations that included social media safety, anti-bullying tactics and de-escalation skills.
Both Russell and Gardner plan to continue work in empowering, protecting and educating Sheridan and surrounding communities about sexual assault.