20-year-old starts self-defence program for Downtown East women

By Daysha Loppie –

Taped on streetlight poles throughout the Downtown East are colourful flyers with two women of colour looking fierce­ly into the camera, fists raised, encouraging viewers to register for a new, empowering program. Regent Park Mental Health Mat­ters, a grassroots organization started in 2022, is leading a free initiative called the Sisterhood Self-Defense program.

Women-identifying residents of Regent Park, Moss Park, St. James Town or The Espla­nade between 17 and 30 years old can register. The program is fully financed by the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Foundation, which funds facil­ities and programs to empower youth.

“[The program] began as an idea from my own personal mental health challenges,” said Alif Ashraf, a University of To­ronto undergraduate student.

“In South Asian culture, men­tal health is often stigmatized and hushed. When I got to first-year university, my anxiety got so bad to the point where I couldn’t leave my house. When I started to look for resources within Regent Park, I realized there was next to nothing for ra­cialized low-income youth.”

Ashraf used the 2019-2020 Regent Park Children, Youth and Family Needs Assessment published by the Regent Park Community Health Centre to shape the program she created. The assessment collected data from surveys that were admin­istered to 309 community mem­bers, of whom 131 were parents and 178 were youth.

“It showed many youth don’t know where to go for mental health resources or how to ac­cess it,” Ashraf said about the assesssment’s findings. “There was a large identification of, ‘we need mental health [support], and we need it in the low-in­come neighbourhoods.’”

The survey found that young people faced many barriers to accessing mental health sup­port, including transportation and lack of information. The highest reported challenge, at 48 per cent, was stigma.

The Mental Health Matters group ran a pilot of the Sister­hood program in 2023, aiming to foster safer spaces for ra­cialized women who live in the Downtown East to connect, but without the self-defence les­sons. According to Ashraf, it had a great impact on those who joined.

“A participant had crippling social anxiety; she was really scared. By the end of the pro­gram, she became a social but­terfly. It was beautiful to wit­ness her transformation.”

The current edition of the pro­gram is a four-month commit­ment in which participants meet on Friday evenings from March 1 to June 21 in the Downtown East. In addition to six self-de­fence lessons, educators will lead workshops on topics such as financial literacy and sexual education.

The registration deadline passed at the end of February, but the next session will open up soon after this cohort completes its program in June.

“I never thought that my idea would become so big,” said Ashraf. “Being able to see the development and growth of oth­ers who’ve also struggled with mental health is so rewarding.