When they were 8 and 9 years old, Diandra Thompson and Liza Fernandez didn’t realize they would embark on a friendship of a lifetime on the karate mat, at a martial arts studio in San Francisco, California.
The duo never imagined the studio that shaped much of their childhood years would remain a permanent, symbolic place in their hearts as instructors and co-owners, nearly decades later. “It’s kind of like an out of body experience being in a place where we once practiced, and being here as [women] co-owners,” said Diandra.
In January 2017, long-time friends Diandra and Liza took over the studio as co-owners and renamed their childhood martial arts studio, FTK Martial Arts – San Francisco Kids Karate & Martial Arts.
For many years, several friends, including their long-time instructor and mentor, Lama, urged Diandra and Liza to take over their childhood studio.
“He sat us down and said, ‘you girls have been working it so long on your own, you might as well create your own identity, your own name, your logo,’” said Diandra. This January marks Liza and Diandra’s two year anniversary as co-owners. One of the main goals of their studio is to provide the same community and family-oriented feelings they themselves experienced when they were younger, says Liza.
“I get that a lot of people tell me some karate studios don’t give off that feeling or vibe. You just come here and do your business and leave, but we’re different. We feel family-oriented,” said Liza, who shares that she and Diandra always try to encourage the students in their martial arts classes that, “school comes first.”
“We tell them we want to see their report cards and see if they’re doing well. [Sometimes] we stay after to help them with homework,” she added.
Diandra says it wasn’t until she and Liza actually took over the studio nearly two years ago when they realized that there seems to be a lack of women-owned martial arts studios in the area.
“Most people were welcoming, but we realized how much of a minority we were. In San Francisco, we are the only female-owned karate studio within a 20-mile radius,” said Diandra. When they did research on Yelp, they came to find they were the only women co-owned karate studio on Yelp that they knew of, said Diandra.
“A lot of women don’t get respect in this field just because they are female. It’s not until we’re on the mat and you show up, and you’re consistent and they [recognize]. It’s kind of like that saying, ‘you don’t walk into the building with respect; you have to earn it,” said Diandra.
Diandra says she first got into martial arts when she was 8 years old. “I started watching ‘Power Rangers’ and that got me excited,” said Diandra, who shared that growing up in San Francisco, she was a shy kid in school whose parents pushed her to get out of her shell and try something new.
Diandra says she’ll never forget the day when her mom signed her up for Kenpo. “My mom brought me in and the instructor was standing at his desk, and I couldn’t look him in the eye. I was always looking down at the floor. He had me look up and said, ‘keep your eyes forward.’ It was always about reaffirming as a kid that you are someone special. Those are the type of things we pass onto our kids at FTK,” said Diandra.
Liza has a similar story, noting the influence of television shows and action figures inspiring her to take part in martial arts. “I was watching ‘The Karate Kid’ with my brother, and it was one of those things where I saw it and wanted to do karate. I told my mom and she signed me up that following Monday,” said Liza.
Some of the fond memories Liza remembers during her early friendship with Diandra was when they would practice their forms with each other during class. Over the years, working closely with one another strengthened their bond and passion for martial arts. “One time, our instructor put us together to create a self-defense technique and we had to perform it. It was the first time we had to actually talk to each other,” said Liza.
Liza says throughout her years practicing Kenpo, she has noticed a dramatic shift in her confidence level and self-esteem.
“As a kid, I used to have low self-esteem. This really helped me become who I am today. My friends and family can tell there’s something different about me,” said Liza.
“I have people tell me, ‘I see the confidence radiating out of you.’ Throughout the years it’s definitely grown,” she added. Liza’s own self-transformation has inspired her to continue teaching martial arts and empowering the youth in San Francisco.
Liza said she’s heard countless stories from parents who have told her that many of their kids have been bullied at school, prompting a need for martial arts training and trauma-informed instructors, she says.
“They don’t know what to do, so they bring their kids here and I tell them, ‘look, you first tell your teacher if there is any bullying going on. If that doesn’t help, this is how you defend yourself,’” said Liza.
Liza recalls one child who went to a school where he was bullied a lot. According to Liza, the student said he told the teacher, but the bullying persisted. That’s when his parents enrolled him at FTK Martial Arts.
“He defended himself against a bully and it made the bully realize not to mess with him anymore. Ever since that incident, he’s never been bullied again. His confidence has definitely grown,” said Liza.
Liza says when it comes to bullying, it’s very important that kids and parents report any instances to proper administrators and educators at a school. But when multiple attempts do not work out, sometimes the next step is incorporating techniques from martial arts and making youth feel empowered with the tools they need to protect themselves. The tools the kids learn on the mat are self-defense techniques when all else fails, she explained. It’s by no means harming others; it’s protection from a possible altercation and learning respect for one another on the mat, she explained.
“We tell the kids that we are family, that we look out for them. I’ve had parents come up and thank us for introducing the little ones to karate, and some of the kids are not being bullied anymore,” said Liza.
Diandra also adds that karate is not about getting into fights or glorifying some of the things that depicted in fight scenes.
“We don’t train bullies here. It’s all about protecting yourself at all costs,” said Diandra.
While the martial arts studio is more targeted toward children and youth, FTK is slowly breaking into offering more family classes so parents can take classes with their child. FTK teaches students as young as age 4 to the oldest at age 15. Liza and Diandra are also hoping to offer more women and teen self-defense classes as there continues to be a growing need and interest, says Diandra.
“We always try to reaffirm, especially in little girls, that they can do anything the boys can do–that there’s no discrimination in this class,” said Diandra. “If everyone’s jumping over bags or breaking wood, you can do that too. You can hit just as hard. We reaffirm.”
When co-owners Liza and Diandra first started offering women’s self-defense classes, Liza says there was an overwhelming sense of women empowerment and unity in the shared space. It was exhilarating and humbling to see so many women support one another–whether they had taken a martial arts class for the first time or were curious.
“Everyone got to tell their stories, why they were taking the class, and how they can improve in their techniques. I’ve had a lot of people requesting classes especially for women,” said Liza.
Not only is there a growing need for martial arts, but there’s also a growing need for more martial art female instructors, says Diandra, who shares that she is happy to see more young girls getting into martial arts. She emphasizes, however, that there is also a need for more self-defense classes taught by females from a female perspective.
“While a man can say do this, and do that, as a woman, you [might] not necessarily feel comfortable with what he says all the time. When it’s coming from another woman, you [might] feel more comfortable. Once it’s coming from another woman, there’s a level of understanding of where she’s coming from,” says Diandra.
Growing up and taking martial arts classes under the tutelage of their previous Kenpo instructor, Diandra says they learned that they could do anything boys can do. As co-owners and instructors of FTK, both Liza and Diandra hope to continue to reaffirm values of confidence and empowerment in both boys and girls who come to their martial arts studio to learn and grow.
“We always try to reaffirm and tell the boys that just because she’s a girl, doesn’t mean she can’t defend herself,” said Diandra.
“Some of our best fighters here are female so just because you are a girl, doesn’t mean you can’t knock a boy on his butt. A lot of the boys are scared of the girls because they are agile and move faster,” said Diandra. “I would tell a girl, ‘you never know what you’re capable of until you try. The fright only lasts a second.”
FTK hopes to continue to train the next generation of martial artists, equipping them with self-defense techniques, but more importantly, instilling in them a great level of confidence and compassion for others.
-Written by Monica Luhar