Lots of Bushwick residents have passed through the McKibbin Lofts at one point or another for a party or a show, but not everyone who knows the building know that it houses a (literally) kick-ass martial arts school in the basement of that very building, which operates five days a week and has for the past thirteen years!
Founded and run by Jason Donovan, Traditional Okinawan Karate of Brooklyn is a pretty spectacular place offering high-quality, affordable martial arts education in a genuinely community-oriented and inclusive space.
We tried out a few classes and spoke with Mr. Donovan, Head Instructor, and Laurel Leckert, one of Mr. Donovan’s long time students and now an Instructor herself, to learn more.
This local dojo is truly a martial arts school for all–its students begin as young as five, and continue into all stages of adulthood.
Though most of the dojo’s students are local Bushwick residents, people travel from all boroughs to take classes here.
The school places an emphasis on being accessible, affordable, and welcoming to people of all backgrounds, especially those who have been marginalized due to race, class, or gender identity.
In fact, a one self-defense class at the school, which is offered exclusively to women, trans, and gender non-conforming individuals, continues to garner increasing attention, often drawing in students who hadn’t previously heard of the dojo, or who otherwise weren’t actively seeking karate lessons.
This specific class is open to people of any gender identity except those who identify as cis men; the school is hoping to teach self-defense skills to people who may find them useful but may not have always felt welcome within a more traditionally masculine and/or heteronormative martial arts environment.
At the end of the class, each student has the opportunity to sign up for a free two-week trial to check out the school’s other offerings, the rest of which are open to people of all genders, including cis men.
Mr. Donovan spoke of founding the self-defense class four years ago after noticing an uptick in violence against women at the two subway stops closest to the dojo, and realizing that many women had not accessed the resources of the dojo, in spite of it being essentially at their doorstep.
After recruiting a base for the class, he began to teach it but quickly handed the reigns to Ms. Leckert, thoughtfully recognizing the utility of a woman herself teaching a women’s self-defense class.
Reflecting on how the class had changed since its inception, Ms. Leckert said, “The women and trans folks who are students here have become more consistent in being a part of the class and helping me to teach it. The crew has become more solid and excited about it, and I think that’s a really big deal—to have a lot of empowered women teaching self defense to other women and trans folks. Communities within communities, right?” Right.
The dojo seems to bring this focus on community into all of its activities and classes, regardless of their audience. Though membership to the school costs $125 per month, Mr. Donovan explained that money alone would never be the reason a person could not practice there.
Should a prospective student be unable to afford the cost of full membership, he will find a way to accommodate that student’s circumstances and needs—simply put, if you want to be a student at the dojo, the dojo wants you to be a student there, period!
As additional incentive: once a member, you can attend class as many days per week as you’d like, which is rare perk for a martial arts school. Other schools tend to limit how much time students can spend with them, or charge extra for additional hours.
Students at the dojo are encouraged to attend classes as frequently as they wish, though all have an anchor day on which they are expected to attend, and if they don’t show, a teacher will personally follow up to make sure everything is all right.
Both the students and instructors take accountability for one another extremely seriously, and in this day and age, it is hard to overstate both the rarity and importance of that kind of group ethos.
As Mr. Donovan aptly put it, “When you think about whatyou’ve needed the most out of life, how often you need things, I’ve needed to punch somebody way less than I’ve needed support from other people.”
The school aims to be a second family for their members, offering concrete skills that will allow you to keep yourself and your loved ones safe, in addition to a place for you to relax, be yourself, speak your mind, and face (some of) your fears.
A social gathering takes place after every evening of classes; all students are invited to remain after the session to have a snack or beverage, decompress, and remain in community for a little while.
When asked how they see the dojo’s role in the post-election climate of growing intolerance and increasingly violent rhetoric, the instructors affirmed their commitment to maintaining the school as a safe space providing their community with concrete self-defense tools, should the need for self-defense arise.
They noted that the dojo does not offer instruction on defense against police brutality, simply because defending oneself against the police most often leads to that person getting hurt, killed, or ending up in jail. The dojo does not want its students to suffer this fate, and so focuses solely on defense against civilian violence.
It’s worth saying here that, aside from its impressive commitment to community-building, Traditional Okinawan Karate of Brooklyn offers serious, high-level instruction in the Isshin-Ryu (whole heart) style.
Though Mr. Donovan is the Head Instructor, there are seven additional instructors who teach a variety of weekly classes; all individuals are required to have completed at least three years in the dojo’s Future Instructors Special Training (F.I.S.T.) program before they are even considered for teaching positions. This month’s F.I.S.T. class is on Power and Privilege, taught from an anti-oppression framework.
The dojo also welcomes people of all ability levels, including those who have absolutely no experience with martial arts.
Surrounded by people of varying ages, backgrounds, and identities, it is hard to not “fit in,” because there isn’t a singular line to fit into. Grandparents and grandchildren belong to the same school.
As Ms. Leckert explained, “It’s the most truly diverse and inclusive community I’ve ever been a part of, and the truth is, there’s pros and cons to that. When you really get a group of people that are all kinds of different people and put them in the same space, it’s not always easy, but I think it’s really healthy and important to be able to learn how to navigate that and get along with all different kinds of people.”
So, Bushwick, if you’ve been thinking of picking up some self-defense skills but have not gotten around to the training just yet, the time is most certainly and soberly now. We can’t recommend this neighborhood’s very own traditional dojo highly enough, both for its instruction and, possible even moreso, for its community. Try it out and let us know what you think!