Interview with Canadian Aikidoka Kali Hewitt-Blackie: Aikido, the Coalition, and Beyond, Part II

Kali Hewitt-Blackie first saw aikido above a burger shop in California in 1987. At that time, because of her schooling and being a single mom, she could not commit. Upon returning to Canada, she met Yumi Nakamura at Aikido Tendokai in Toronto. She trained diligently there for nineteen years, and because of a number of factors, she left the Canadian Aikido Federation. Subsequently, she joined the United States Aikido Federation, thanks to a long-lasting relationship with and the support of Harvey Konigsberg. With Konigsberg’s encouragement she founded Sandokai Community Aikido. Later, she signed the petition written by the Independent Coalition of USAF Women; however, she retracted her signature on October 4, 2019. Today, she talks about her aikido journey, her motives in joining the Coalition, and what her experiences were after the Coalition-USAF Event. All images provided by Kali Hewitt-Blackie. This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

MAYTT: Backing up a bit, how does your background in psychotherapy impact your view of aikido training? Have you noticed aspects of aikido training influence your views on psychotherapy?  

Kali Hewitt-Blackie at Women’s Camp, September 2019.

KH: That’s a very good question. I am a feminist psychotherapist, but I’m kind of like a Buddhist at heart, so I think transcending the ego is the way to go. We’re always facing everybody’s ego in aikido – our own first and then other people’s. I help people understand their ego and the way it gets in their way in psychotherapy. And on the mat, I see my own ego and I can see the moment when I let go of it and I’m just there. I’m at peace and in a really blissful place. And that’s what I aspire to in my life and on the mat – to be in the place of peace in myself and peace with others. It’s through that feeling of connection when we meet somebody halfway. Right now, I feel you nodding to me, and you feel me talking to you – we’re just in the middle together. So, I think aikido parallels, for me, a pathway for a person to become a better human. I don’t mean better than others; “better” meaning dissolving their need to be “something” or “somebody.” When we get over that – for me, we are free. I really realized that after my black belt, I realized I didn’t know anything! [Laughs] It was the nicest realization actually. It was humbling to realize how little I actually knew and now I think of the dojo as an exploration with others to explore intimacy with one another. The areas of resistance are exactly like in psychotherapy where we dissolve the resistance, we can feel connected, and we realize we’re not alone and we feel love. When a person feels that in a therapy room, they realize that their life matters.  

For me, they’re exactly parallel paths. The things I learn on the mat, the things I learn in my work, they’re like distant cousins. They are both healing in and through relationship. 

MAYTT: That’s really interesting that you found the similarities between the two and melded them together.  

KH: But I don’t talk about it. So, to go back to the beginning of this chat, I don’t talk about it.  When we talk about it, it’s almost like we’re lying – it’s some meta-analytic blah blah – because for me, the learning in aikido happens from the relationships and the actual contact. In twenty-five years of knowing Kawahara Sensei, I never once touched him, so I don’t know how I could learn his aikido. But Yamada Sensei, I touched him many times, I’ve held his hand, and I know what he feels like. I know what Harvey Sensei feels like. There are so many aikido teachers that I know what they feel like, and I’ve learned from them. To me, aikido is so unmediated by blah blah. And what’s paradoxical with psychotherapy is the contact is nonverbal. When I’m really present with a client, I’m with them in a way that I am with somebody on the mat, just present and available for the contact. And within that contact, some healing happens between the two people. It’s magical. The same thing happens in therapy that happens on the mat; it’s outside of language, even though there’s some blah blah that happens in therapy. The real stuff happens in “between the talking.”

MAYTT: Returning to the recent past, what were the series of events that led you to help form and sign the Independent Coalition of USAF Women petition? How did the aikidoka around you respond to your signature?  

KH: I always never thought of men and women being different in aikido at all – men and women practiced together. Kids practice together and it doesn’t matter what gender you are. It never occurred to me. Because I saw female teachers and I had a female teacher, I didn’t think, for the longest time, “women aren’t on the Technical Committee.” I didn’t even know what the regulations about that were until much later. Many years ago, it would only be Yamada Sensei or Kanai Sensei with him testing students at camp. There wasn’t a Technical Committee back then.  That’s only because Yamada Sensei had foresight and he was thinking of succession planning.  He was putting in place people who could test for him, which is smart, actually.  

Regent Park Community Aikikai when Hewitt-Blackie first opened the school in 2016.

What happened is there was a Woman’s Camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico – I think it might have been the second camp – and we would have these meetings at the camp talking about women sharing their experiences growing up in aikido and some of them had yucky experiences with men.  

At that point, I have had those experiences. I didn’t actually think about it in terms of politics, power or gender. When I started to think about it, I had always wanted a woman to be on the Technical Committee. We were talking about that. It was suggested that we form a coalition and that we could get heard if a bunch of senior women together supported a petition to garner support for a woman to be on the technical committee. 

I don’t know about Hombu today, but I know that Yamada sensei promoted women and supported women to teach at New York Aikikai – Jane Ozeki for example. There are great female aikidoists (senseis) who have taught there – Ruth Peyser, Gina Zarilli, etc. These are the women whom I have admired over the years who are my sempai. Female senseis I looked up to, like Barbara Britton – she was Kanai Sensei’s student and Penny Bernath from Florida Aikikai. There are innumerable women in the USAF who are proficient in the art. 

At Summer Camp, at one point, there was a line of women and we said, “Okay, no men allowed in the line, only women!” [Laughs] It was a funny thing; we were joking, like, no penises! [Laughs] And we were just trashing each other, and we were having a ball. But it was for fun. We were throwing each other really hard, and we were just delighted to have this pile of senior women at camp one year. It was just exciting. 

MAYTT: It does sound exciting! You later withdrew your signature from the petition on October 4, 2019. What factors led you to take such action?  

KH: So, all I thought was: “We’re going to make a petition to get support to have a woman on the Technical Committee.” Period. I ended up retracting my support for the petition, because I think it went from that simple polite request to something that spiraled out of control.  

In aikido, if there’s a problem, I talk to you about the problem. I don’t know how Yamada Sensei felt, but I think putting the petition on Facebook and requests for support were made in a way that spiraled out into something that wasn’t intended. The method that we used; I don’t think it was right because it was “public” and it was received by Yamada Sensei very negatively. I think that it was an insult to him that it went viral – it went global. Then suddenly, the USAF was painted as a “sexist organization” or something like that. So, it went from a simple request to have a female on the committee and equal representation to something entirely different.  

Hewitt-Blackie (second from right) at Harvey Kongisberg’s (center) Woodstock Aikido, May 2018.

I value my relationship with Yamada sensei massively. He is an important figure in my aikido life and has been only supportive of me. The same thing with Harvey Sensei.  

What I didn’t know, at the time, is that in the by-laws, or guidelines of the USAF one of the requirements to be on the Technical Committee is to be seventh dan. And there were no women who held that rank until Penny Bernath Sensei got promoted.  

I decided to retract my signature, because I did not want to throw all my relationships under the bus. It wasn’t right. I had already left the CAF. USAF was my home, and everybody had been very good to me and kind.  

Yamada Sensei has always supported women. It’s not accurate to think that he’s excluded women in a way that Hombu dojo has. He was very progressive in that way. Like he does have female teachers on his roster and both NYA and summer camp. “Proportional representation” is a relative term, considering so many more men who practice aikido than women.  

I supported something and I think because of the way it went, I apologized to Yamada Sensei for myself for the method and for the way that he took that. I don’t feel bad that I apologized. I didn’t do it from a feeling that I had to. 

It’s one thing, as a feminist, I’m a “shit disturber” in lots of ways; if I see something’s wrong, I will say something’s wrong. Like Harvey Sensei said, “Kali’s real shy and quiet,” but he knows I speak my mind. It’s one thing to want something to change, but it’s a whole other thing with the method that you use to do it.  

What is beautiful about aikido is we are all equal on the mat. As a man, you can throw me as hard as you want – maybe not now because I’m sixty-four years old so you have to be nicer to me [Laughs] – and as a woman, I can throw a man as hard as I want.  

In terms of the petition: I didn’t write the petition. We all knew what we were signing. And the petition wasn’t nasty in any way. It wasn’t like it was a “horrible” thing. But the delivery method was a problem – it did go out on Facebook. I don’t know exactly how it was disseminated actually. The purpose of that document was to lobby to get a woman on the Technical Committee and have more equitable representation. Period. And it went from there to suddenly the “USAF is a horrible, sexist, inequitable organization” or something crazy. And I was like, “Whoa! I cannot be part of this.”  

MAYTT: With all that in mind, how did the disconnect between what the coalition wanted from the USAF to create an image that the USAF and Yamada were these terrible entities?  

KH: How did it happen? I don’t know. I do know that some people were kicked out of the NYA but were let back in, women who supported the Coalition. That’s what I meant when I said it “spiraled into something else.” You know what the bottom line is? It’s Yamada Sensei’s dojo.  

Here’s the thing: we were brought up in a Japanese martial art. If I think about how it is in Japan – rigid, male-dominated, and all that – I wouldn’t want to train there so much or be fifth dan at Hombu dojo because I would probably be doing the books or something, even if I trained there all the time. But that’s just because it’s a Japanese art and that’s the Japanese tradition and it’s inherently sexist you might say.  

But in North America, Yamada Sensei has gone a long way to absolutely change those kinds of things because women are supported. He is very inclusive of all people in the NYA dojo – everybody’s welcome. From my experience, I don’t see him being like that – somehow not supporting women, somehow not encouraging women to be leaders or have their own style of aikido. But I think what happened is some of his students or the thought that his students might support that petition, that, for him, probably, I’m guessing, would feel like a betrayal. Like I left Yumi Nakamura Sensei and suddenly our relationship was over but I’m absolutely sure she loved me. If one of my students did something that hurt my feelings, I would feel betrayed. How do you act when you feel betrayed? You react and say, “I don’t want you to be here anymore.” In some ways, I understand that. But this has to do with loyalty. One of the cornerstones of aikido is loyalty.  

Photo credit: Robert Bergman. Hewitt-Blackie throwing Rebecca in a shiho nage.

Think about what a dojo is. A dojo is not a sports club. A dojo is a place of practice, it has a hierarchy: there are your senpai-kohai relationships; all within the structure of the dojo. It’s not a collective. It has a chief instructor, it’s very clear. A fifth kyu doesn’t talk back to a black belt; they just smile and nod if they know what they are doing. There’s a sense of respect.

So, I think that the thing for me as an aikidoist – not as a woman – that if Yamada Sensei felt disrespected, then I would have to ask myself, did I contribute to that? And if I contributed to that, then I owe him an apology. That’s what I did, because I think I did – I contributed to him feeling disrespected by somebody he would consider somebody within his group. But it had nothing to do with male-female, it had to do with the structure of the dojo. It wasn’t about a female and him “power-tripping” and kicking somebody out because they’re female. If somebody did that to me and I was the chief instructor, I would kick them out. So, it’s about loyalty and a sense of betrayal, not about gender and that’s where it got spirally or beyond spirally, but I think that happened after I had already left. Thank God I had already left. Because it got cuckoo.  

The problem is you get broken telephone. When something goes all over the place on the internet, you get a broken telephone and people start rumors about things and they weren’t even there, and they don’t know what happened.  

When Penny Bernath got promoted to seventh dan, she got appointed to the Technical Committee. There were a few women, like Jane Ozeki sensei, she would’ve been up for that, I guess, but she’s not training anymore. There were a few women who were that rank but left the USAF and were part of other federations, like Kristina Varjan Sensei. So, they weren’t able to fulfill that role, but could’ve.  

It’s challenging. It’s always all men, that was the pattern. Again, we modeled ourselves after a Japanese, very patriarchal culture and it takes time for those things to change. But I don’t think if you throw gasoline and light a fire, it’s a good way to change anything.  

MAYTT: In the aftermath of the Coalition-USAF event, how are the same grievances addressed? Has there been a change in the process since you began training?  

KH: Grievances are something if you’re my sensei and I have a grievance, I come and talk to you about it. That’s how grievances should be dealt with in dojos. I don’t know. I certainly didn’t go to Yamada Sensei before, so I don’t know. But suddenly he’s presented with this paper, but I don’t know if somebody went to him before and talked to him about this issue. I certainly didn’t. I don’t know if any of the other people in the coalition went to Yamada Sensei and said anything about their concerns or asked. I never found Yamada Sensei to not be approachable. The Coalition happened in the context of a Woman’s Camp.  

The USAF formed an inclusion/equity group that was formed as a result of all of this. I don’t know what happened to it. I don’t know how it’s evolved because it was all around the pandemic and nobody was training. I’m not privy to that, but I know that that happened to ensure that things are inclusive. That’s one of the principles that the USAF espouses.  

MAYTT: In light of the Coalition-USAF event, what does this mean for female aikidoka currently practicing and future female practitioners moving forward? How has this event furthered the awareness of women’s experiences in aikido?  

KH: That’s a good question. I think organizational structure isn’t written in stone. Like Yamada Sensei came from a very sexist, traditional culture and he brought aikido here and included women in a way that would have never been done in Japan, ever. What’s going to happen for women depends on how these structures evolve. I run my dojo in a very different way than I learned. I talk with all my students and encourage all my students, whatever rank they are, to interrelate. I wouldn’t tolerate a black belt male not treating my female students properly. As women get higher ranked in aikido, we get more power, let’s say, to give voice to different things and run dojos. Nobody’s telling us how to run our dojos. Yamada Sensei certainly wouldn’t tell any female how to run a dojo. He wouldn’t. Sure, tests have to look a certain way, but there are all kinds of room for creativity. For example, my own female aikido teacher told me, “You do aikido the way your teacher showed you.” I was like, “Whoa, what happened to creativity?” In my mind, after I became a shodan, I thought that I had to find my own aikido. That is when aikido becomes an expression of your own spirit. I think that all my students should copy their teacher until about shodan, and after that, you want to explore your own inside part of aikido really. But Harvey sensei told me, “Aikido is creative…It’s an art!” he was the one that told me that. He didn’t say do it like your teacher does it and he’s a guy. Go figure.  

Having Penny Bernath sensei on the Technical Committee is a big win for women in aikido. Win, I don’t even like that language because it sounds so dualistic. A win for women. It’s a door opening and a possibility for having more women on the Technical Committee.  

It feels like the Coalition has unearthed other beefs that women have about stuff that happened to them, and I’m not privy to what happened to other people. I certainly know that there have been aikido teachers, like Kazuo Chiba Sensei who I was afraid of. A student-teacher relationship is very sacred. Chiba Sensei, Ichiro Shibata Sensei, they were, in my impression – brutal and old school budo. I mean that’s because they’re rough and they’re good. How people train in any dojo is kind of like an unwritten agreement. If a student gets “whacked” by a teacher, that may be part of the training (if that’s their understanding). Are we going to call that “abusive” if that was a female student? You wouldn’t if it’s a male, but if your teacher whacks you, is that abuse? No, because that’s the relationship that they agreed to – regardless of gender. 

There are teachers that can be quite frightening because they can be super rough. And then there are ones like Christian Tissier sensei, he’s mind-blowingly technically proficient! [Laughs] It’s frightening. Precision, timing, and power; I just got chills down my spine thinking about him throwing me in koshi nage across the room. [Laughs] Of course, when I was younger! [Laughs]  

Photo credit: Robert Bergman. Hewitt-Blackie throwing Rebecca in a koshi nage.

I don’t think the initial impact of the coalition and the way it was done had a positive impact.  However, because some people seem to have had bad experiences in dojos. There should be no dirty laundry that isn’t aired out. If there are grievances that people have, those things need to come out. If there were people who were abused – actually abused – by their senseis, male or female, that should be coming out. But I don’t think the purpose of the coalition was to bring out all these experiences and call the USAF a “sexist organization.” But I think what happened was that suddenly, a whole bunch of other stories were running around. I don’t know what other people’s experiences were.  

MAYTT: Final question. What has happened to your dojo in both after the Coalition-USAF Event and the Covid-19 pandemic?  

KH: My dojo has risen from the dust; it’s now called Sandokai Community Aikido because we found a new space. The studio space belongs to Robert sensei, who’s my friend and who loaned me the mats way back. Now we are at his studio where we originally did all those videos. [Laughs] So, we have a nice loft space where we have the dojo and life goes on. 

MAYTT: That’s good that there is a happy ending for you right there! Thank you again for joining us for this interesting chat!  

KH: Thank you for having me! 

This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

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