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HerStory: The Strength History (1978-present)

HerStory: The Strength History  (1978-present)


The Strength programs have a long history of dedication and support from volunteers, citizens, Police Bureau command staff and city officials. These equitable programs have always been free and available to men, women and children and are thriving because of Portland’s support and belief that these programs are vital and play an important role in educating citizens about personal safety and violence prevention.

This document gives a brief overview of the rich history and how it evolved to become the “Strength” programs by adding GirlStrength (2008) and most recently BoyStrength (2013).

Enjoy our history, which reveals the strength, courage, and perseverance of the Strength Directors and hundreds of volunteers who are the face and reason for why all the programs still exist today.   

 A  Crime Prevention Program

The Portland Police Bureau’s Crime Prevention Program emerged during the late 1970s thanks to funding from the federal government. The funding was designated to help police departments throughout the country reduce crime by involving community members and organizations.  Numerous programs were created during this time in Portland, which included a program for elders, a sexual assault and rape prevention program, and a child safety program with an emphasis on establishing a citywide network of safe houses for children. Lt. Tom Potter was assigned to overseeing the Crime Prevention Unit (Lt. Potter would later became the Chief of Police and Mayor of Portland). In 1978, Lt. Potter recruited Lynne Nesbit (formerly Landau) to oversee and develop the rape prevention project for the Police Bureau. Nesbit became the first WomenStrength Director and remained in this positon until 1981.

Nesbit’s background and experience included a degree in "Administration of Justice” and a history of working on robbery and burglary prosecutions. She was employed by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, which initiated a Rape Victim Advocacy Program for survivors. Nesbit was working as an on-call rape victim's advocate for the Clackamas County Court's office, which provided her with the opportunity to collaborate on training opportunities for respective volunteers in both counties. 

Lynne Landau (now Nesbit) working at work overseeing the rape prevention project for the Portland Police Bureau.


Rape Prevention Project 

There was great demand for the rape prevention program because of the national attention being paid to sexual assault and rape occurring on college campuses; a national crisis that sadly, we are still addressing today.  The demand was too much for Nesbit to handle alone. She was a one woman, one brochure program and the services needed to expand.

The Birth of a Volunteer Program

Nesbit pitched the idea of training volunteer instructors and creating a volunteer program to Lt. Potter as the most cost effective way to meet the growing needs of the community. He agreed, and the Police Bureau then recruited volunteers who were trained as speakers to share information on assertiveness, sexual assault and rape prevention – the program was called the Sexual Assault Prevention Program.

The first group of trainees consisted of six volunteers who completed 40 hours of training in a conference room at Portland General Electric (PGE). The space was donated by PGE, where Nesbit had given rape prevention talks for their employees. Once trained, the volunteers routinely spoke on average 20-30 times a month in high schools, colleges, churches, rotary clubs, and for any organization in the city that expressed a need.  This was an innovative time for the Police Bureau, as the Sexual Assault Prevention Program would become the first free rape and sexual assault prevention program in the country, and under Nesbitt’s leadership, the program would be officially named WomenStrength.

The WomenStrength Program

WomenStrength was the name given to the self-defense workshops. Nesbit developed the program with a philosophy rooted in empowerment – one that was holistic in its approach to violence prevention and personal safety. This philosophy is still the foundation of WomenStrength and GirlStrength today. All the program’s training and education focuses on empowering women and girls with safety options and choices before, during and after an assault. This philosophy does not provide guarantees for success, but instead focuses on the many options that a woman or girl can use in a variety of situations and that empowerment comes from a woman or girl knowing they have knowledge and skills to make choices. This empowerment model is the exact opposite of self-defense programs that focus on telling females what they should or shouldn’t do or wear to stay safe, shrinking personal and public space for women. WomenStrength and GirlStrength focus on expanding space for people who identify as women.  

Nesbit incorporated topics such as the importance of trusting one’s intuition, escape options, verbal assertiveness, boundary setting and, if fighting back was chosen, the importance of fighting with righteous anger against an attacker. Even though this progressive program was empowering women, Nesbit soon realized one of its shortcomings. At that time, WomenStrength did not teach women how to physically fight back, and many women wanted to learn fighting skills. This was a startling revelation for Nesbit who realized how important it was for women to learn and gain confidence in their fighting skills. She submitted a proposal to add fighting skills to the WomenStrength volunteer training, which was quickly approved under the leadership of Lt. Potter. Thus, WomenStrength truly became a holistic program giving women physical, verbal and internal Strength skills.

In a quest to find the best skills to meet the anatomical needs of women, Nesbit contacted Marge Heyden, a physical education teacher who taught self-defense at Portland State University. Heyden was instrumental in helping Nesbit develop a constellation of skills, many of which are still used today in both WomenStrength and GirlStrength classes. The additional skills led to the creation of a longer program, and the birth of a 65-hour immersion training for instructors.

Immersion Training

The first immersion training for WomenStrength instructors took place at Portland State University. Professionals in the field of sexual assault and crime prevention taught the new volunteer instructors.  The immersion training process is still a key component in the successful training and retention of volunteers in WomenStrength and GirlStrength. This immersion training is intense and provides instructors with a deep understanding of the many challenges survivors face during and after a sexual assault, while also providing them with knowledge and insight into intimate partner violence and abuse. Today, immersion training is considered one of the best practices for preparing citizen volunteers to teach violence prevention classes.

WomenStrength Directors

In 1981, Nesbit commenced work on a program for elementary school children, Safe, Strong and Free.  This new program was part of Nesbit’s vision to expand WomenStrength’s offerings, and to fulfill her vision to serve more community members and prevent violence before it started.  Under the leadership of Nesbit, volunteers were also assisting in the development and day-to-day operations of WomenStrength. The volunteers collected data from daily police reports on sexual assault and rape. In 1981, Nesbit left the Police Bureau to start her own business.  In April, a volunteer instructor was selected as the new WomenStrength Director; her name was Teri Poppino.

Prior to becoming director, Poppino was a practicum student from Portland State (1980) and had assisted Nesbit with statistical research for the Sexual Assault Prevention Program. Her responsibility as an intern was to read the rape logs in the Detective Division’s Sex Crimes Unit and to gather information on reported sexual assaults. This data was incorporated into the training provided by the Sexual Assault Prevention Program volunteers. Poppino trained to become a volunteer instructor that year. Under Poppino’s leadership, classes were designed to meet the needs of women with special interests and needs. WomenStrength served women who were visually impaired as well as the new “Indochinese” immigrants from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. At that time, WomenStrength provided a workshop for five different language groups, that were all being simultaneously interpreted for Portland’s new residents.  

Poppino’s father was the first feminist in her life and because of his influence, she knew that men were capable of being strong advocates for women. It was for this reason that she stopped saying, “No,” to the potential male volunteers who kept offering to help and chose the first two men to undergo instructor training.

She also assisted the Oregon State Police with their statewide Rape Awareness training which was attended by police officers from departments throughout Oregon. After all the pathology, the forensics and the profiles, the conference ended on a high note; Poppino introduced the concepts of WomenStrength to the greater law enforcement community. It was at this time that she met a Police Officer from Hillsboro and two Rape Victim Advocates from Washington County. They wanted to undergo the WomenStrength training so that they could provide better, more comprehensive services to the people in their county. They completed the next new volunteer training. Though their concept to create a similar program never got off the ground, word spread and women from west of Portland began signing up for WomenStrength workshops in increasing numbers

Poppino also solicited the help of Mary Otto from the Easter Seal Society and Kathy Beedle from United Cerebral Palsy to create and implement self-defense workshops specifically designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities. Otto had previously contacted the Crime Prevention Program because of the specific safety concerns of the population she was serving. To provide services for people with disabilities, Otto completed the volunteer training. In 1984, Poppino transferred to another positon in the Crime Prevention Division and Otto, who had been hired that year to oversee a new youth program in the Crime Prevention Division, was selected to become the next WomenStrength Director.

Under Otto’s leadership, between 1984-1997, WomenStrength received a grant to establish a Sexual Assault Prevention Program for youth. Jennifer Weiss, a WomenStrength instructor, was hired to develop the program. This program was designed to address date and acquaintance rape with middle and high school students.  Unfortunately, this grant was not renewed and youth programming would not be added to the Strength programs for another 20 years.

An Era of Bureau Budget Cuts

WomenStrength stayed in the Crime Prevention Division until May of 1989, when it then become part of the new Community Policing Division. It was also during this time that the Police Bureau announced that WomenStrength would be eliminated from the Police Bureau, due to citywide budget cuts. Ironically, the program’s cost to the city was a minimal amount of $45,000, which like today, covers the cost of one employee as well as the operational costs of the program.  

WomenStrength volunteers, students, and community members were determined to not see the program disappear. Volunteers met with city commissioners, wrote letters, and testified at budget hearings on behalf of the program’s value and community need. The outcry and citizen protest against cutting WomenStrength led City Council to mandate the Police Bureau continue offering the WomenStrength Program. To underscore the survival and success of the program’s 10 years, Mayor Bud Clark created a city proclamation, marking July 1989 as the 10th anniversary of WomenStrength. The program remained in the Community Policing Division until it survived another year of budget cuts and was transferred to the newly formed Family Services Division (FSD) where it remained until 1997.

Otto consolidated the productivity of the volunteer staff and institutionalized processes that led the volunteer staff to work together as a collective to create curriculum and make program improvements. In the early 1990s, Otto consulted with experts to further the development and improvement of the physical skills training. Otto wrote the program’s first series of handouts for students and, in response to community requests, developed the program’s street safety training for women and men. She adopted the acronym ISIS to create a framework for discussing the street safety strategies of taking control of Isolation, Surprise, Intimidation, and Silence (ISIS).  

In 1997, the Police Bureau created a unit of domestic violence investigators and WomenStrength was transferred to the Training Division. Later that year, Otto was asked to create a program for people with intellectual disabilities with Officer Katie Potter. This program was called Safety Zone: Cops Talk and is still in operation today through the Family Services Division.

Otto transferred to Safety Zone, and the new Director, Stephanie Reynolds, who had been teaching WomenStrength for many years stepped in. As a volunteer, Reynolds was highly motivated and was responsible for creating the first written curriculum for WomenStrength.  Up until this point, instructors had individual sections to teach, which caused gaps and inconsistencies in the teaching of classes. By collecting each instructor’s ideas, stories and tips, Reynolds was able to synthesize the information and standardize the curriculum which greatly improved the quality of the program. A great deal of the information collected by Reynolds is still in use today.  Before becoming the director, Reynolds had dedicated seven years to the program as a key instructor.  

Reynolds was hired as a temporary employee by Captain Dave Benson and became a permanent employee at the end of 1997. Reynolds suggested that WomenStrength be moved back to the Family Services Division because domestic violence was a huge topic of concern that WomenStrength had incorporated. She believed the closer connection with organizations, advocates, officers and detectives working in the Domestic Violence Reduction Unit (DVRU) would benefit students, survivors, as well as the Police Bureau’s efforts to address domestic and sexual violence.  It was Reynolds who created large professional visual aids to improve the quality of teaching and learning for students. Visual aids and props are incorporated into all the Strength Programs.