Lynne Marie Wanamaker

Lynne Marie Wanamaker gives a Tedx Talk in 2017.

In 1988, Lynne Marie Wanamaker took a self-defense class that changed her life.

The class followed the empowerment model of self-defense, a holistic approach to violence prevention that has given students the physical, verbal, and emotional tools to protect themselves from sexual predators since the ‘70s. 

Wanamaker, who later earned an MSW from the Boston College School of Social Work in 2016, mastered some traditional self-defense techniques, such as how to break free from would-be attackers. But she also learned how to recognize danger, set boundaries, and use verbal cues to defuse potential conflicts. 

Wanamaker was a college student in New York City at the time, a 19-year-old who had recently survived a sexual assault. Like many young women, she had unfairly blamed herself for the attack, and joined the class because she “just wanted to feel safe” again.  

Her experience, she says, reshaped her views of sexual violence—what it is, whose fault it is, and what prevents it—and set the stage for a career that’s culminated in a new role as deputy director for domestic violence programs in the Division of Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention and Services at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

As a self-defense expert, her philosophy is two-fold: the only person responsible for any act of interpersonal violence is the perpetrator—and, in a violent world, there are steps anyone can take to increase their own safety.   

“It was incredibly healing to be in a community where it was recognized that the harm that had happened to me was not my fault,” Wanamaker says of her first foray into empowerment self-defense. “And it was incredibly empowering to build skills—interpersonal skills, verbal skills, emotional skills, and physical skills—that could help me be safer in the world.”

Wanamaker went on to teach Empowerment Self-Defense for more than 20 years, working in venues as diverse as schools and bars. She gave a Tedx Talk on ESD in 2017, noting that it’s proven to lower the risk of sexual assault by nearly 50 percent.

She says her mission is to end sexual violence, which affects millions of people in the United States each year. More than 50 percent of women experience sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one in four women have survived rape or attempted rape.

“I’m motivated by my own experience of victimization and recovery,” says Wanamaker. “I’m motivated by the inspiration of the survivors that I’ve had the privilege to teach or to serve.”

At the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Wanamaker focuses on funding community-based programs that serve people who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual violence. Her work centers the experiences of survivors and is grounded in the history of the movement to address gender-based violence.

“One of the things that’s most exciting to me is the extent to which the division listens to survivors and providers,” says Wanamaker, who joined the team in November. “There’s a formal feedback mechanism of gathering information either from research or from the field of practice and then using that to inform decisions going forward.”

It was incredibly healing to be in a community where it was recognized that the harm that had happened to me was not my fault. And it was incredibly empowering to build skills—interpersonal skills, verbal skills, emotional skills, and physical skills—that could help me be safer in the world.
Lynne Marie Wanamaker, MSW’16

Wanamaker has been preparing for this role for more than 30 years. After graduating from the City University of New York with a bachelor’s degree in American Literature and Women’s Studies in 1991, she spent about a decade dabbling in the nonprofit and higher education worlds.

She took a job with the New York AIDS Coalition, a nonprofit alliance of community-based organizations and service providers that advocated improved services for New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. Then she served as director of Advocacy Programs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, recruiting, supervising, and training volunteers to act in support of the institution.

Wanamaker left the workforce in the early aughts to raise her daughter and teach self-defense in communities near her home in Easthampton, Massachusetts. But she grew eager to return, she says, “to come back to work in a way that married my nonprofit management expertise with my anti-violence activism.”

Her first stop was BC, which she chose for its Jesuit values and macro social work program. “Being able to do macro practice in a faith-based setting was just perfect,” she recalls.

Wanamaker credits her classes and fieldwork with preparing her for her new job. During her field practicum at the United Way of Hampshire County, she learned the ins and outs of how service providers get funded. As part of a course called Management of Organizations Serving Children, Youth, and Families, she mastered the art of creating a budget. And under the direction of Associate Professor Jessica Black, she conducted research on the neurobiology of self-defense—research that her colleagues have consulted to help shape policies and programs. 

“I rely on my education from BC all the time,” says Wanamaker, who studied in the Children, Youth, and Families field of practice. “The interweaving of clinical and macro skills, the look to research, the critical thinking. The training that I got in managing budgets, program development. I got exactly the right education to advance my career.”

Two months after graduating from BCSSW, Wanamaker was named deputy director of Safe Passage, a nonprofit in Northampton, Massachusetts, dedicated to helping people affected by interpersonal violence. She directed programs, applied for funding, and even managed a congregate facility for clients during the height of COVID-19. She worked closely with the Division of Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention and Services, making sure Safe Passage followed pandemic protocols to keep its clients safe, and got a close look at what it might be like to become part of that team someday.  

Someday, for Wanamaker, is now today. “I just really loved the work that I was doing with the division, setting policy, working with the field to strengthen providers and their ability to respond to survivors,” she says. “It was very exciting. It was very meaningful. So when the opportunity arose to become part of the team, I jumped at it.”

Wanamaker hopes that her work will play a small part in ending sexual violence for good. In her Tedx Talk, she reinforces the role of ESD in eliminating the scourge, saying that the evidence-based approach to violence prevention teaches would-be victims key awareness, communication, and physical techniques to combat common forms of harassment and assault. 

“If we agree to stop minimizing and dismissing the everyday intrusions that are so easily confused with the early warning signs of sexual assault, perpetrators would stand out sooner,” she says. “And that would give potential victims and their allies even more lead time to intervene, resist, and fight back.”