Mel Thomas is a mother, a martial artist and a woman on a mission. Founder of KYUP! Project (Pronounced “KEY-UP!”), she is tackling the big uncomfortable issues surrounding bullying, gender equality, domestic violence and consent.
This Q&A with Mel is part of an ongoing series of interviews we will be featuring over the coming months to share the stories of Women of Balance.
Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.
My goal is to empower girls and women by helping them develop self-worth and self-protection skills. Whether it’s taking a stand for herself or others, turning around negative self talk or shouting out in self defence. KYUP! (Pronounced “KEY-UP!”) is a martial arts term loosely translated to mean shout. Much more than a word, KYUP! energises your core and prepares you for a challenge
I believe every girl has a fighting spirit. She doesn’t need to be a black belt to use her voice, or to know her worth, raise her standards and physically protect herself. Self protection and self worth go hand-in-hand.
As a girl, I didn’t know I was worth protecting, I didn’t stand up for myself and others and I perpetuated the cycle of violence with abusive and controlling partners. Having lived through domestic violence, street violence, and through teen bullying (both as a victim and instigator of bullying), I know from personal experience the powerlessness of not having a voice.
Today, I help girls understand their body’s crisis response mechanisms when faced with violence and also give them the tools to deal with past violence. I talk to girls about intuition and the power of the voice, not only to shout in self protection but to take a stand and speak up for herself and others. Girls learn they are stronger than they think and capable of powerfully dealing with a situation that doesn’t feel right.
I deliver my unique violence prevention education in schools, universities and in local communities. My workshops are based on more than 20 years of specialist self defence training in Hapkido and leading expert insights. Since 2013 I have collaborated with premier educators and experts in psychology, sport, wellbeing and research.
What made you decide to start the KYUP! Project?
In 2012 I met a young girl who had been assaulted by a group of boys. She was at the local park after school with her little brother, when a group of older boys came along and started making comments about her looks. The remarks escalated and she told me she was hoping someone would come along to make the boys leave her alone. She was afraid yet found the courage to stand up and go. That’s when one of the boys reached out and grabbed her by the arm. He pulled her onto his lap and the girl ‘froze’. Taking her silence as consent the boys physically and mentally assaulted her.
When she finished telling me her story she asked, ‘what had she done wrong?’. I told her what I have since gone on to tell more than 10,000 students – you do the best you can with the life experience you have, and when you know better you can do better.
In 1974, the year my father kicked my heavily pregnant mother in the stomach and the year I was born, New South Wales had one women’s shelter. Domestic violence campaigns were non existent and AVO’s would not be introduced until 1982. It would be another 14 years before courts appointed Domestic Violence Liaison Officers. Fast forward to today:
- Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of preventable deaths for girls and women aged 15-44.
- A woman is killed each week by her partner in Australia.
- Indigenous women in some parts of Australia are 80 times more likely to be hospitalised from an assault than non indigenous women.
It is so important for me that in twenty years time my daughters don’t live in a world where these statistics are still the status quo.
I am passionate about connecting the dots and shining a light on the family violence problem that is the same as it was thirty years ago. Twenty years ago I walked into a self defence class with zero intention of ending the cycle of violence. I didn’t even know I was in it!
It’s an honour to pay forward the skills I have learned to protect myself. I’m proud to be a real role model for girls in a real life world.
What are the most challenging things about running the KYUP! Project?
KYUP! Project is in the process of applying for charity status and we currently operate as a best practice social enterprise. While I have an incredibly experienced Advisory Board, award winning pro bono agencies and talented, inspirational mentors to support my growth personally and professionally today, it wasn’t always the case.
The birth of KYUP! has been a steep learning curve from business planning, marketing and fundraising to workshop research, development and presentation. For the longest time I felt like a one-man-band and I found it difficult to ask for help in fear people would judge me harshly and think I didn’t know what I was doing. Asking and accepting help was a remarkable discovery that allowed me and KYUP! to gain momentum and ultimately help more kids.
What are the most rewarding things about KYUP and what achievement/goal are you most proud of achieving with this project to date?
Every time I have the good fortune of working with a group of girls is a highlight. Watching the girls shout at the top of their voices and write words of affirmation on their skin is amazing and all the motivation I need to keep doing what I do.
However there is one moment that does stand out. In the early days I ran a special workshop for Kings Cross police and at risk youth. I began by telling the students and the police what we would be doing. I explained at the end of the course, we would hold a graduation ceremony with a demonstration to showcase all the kids who had participated.
A 15 year old boy interrupted and said to me matter-of-factly, “No not me. I can’t do this Mel.” I learned the kid had cause for self doubt. He was living with an abusive father, he was smoking meth and he had been kicked out of his last school. I turned to the boy and said, “Not only do I think you will participate in the demonstration, you will be so great you will demonstrate for the whole community..”
Perhaps this was the first time he had to step up, or maybe it was the first time someone truly believed in him. I don’t know and I never asked him, but eight weeks later the same boy and his class demonstrated all the skills I had shown them. More than a dozen uniformed officers came along for the local community, and it was amazing to see this group of kids take their challenges and transform into a group of energised and enthusiastic teens.
Later, an officer told me the boy had asked about joining the police force and I was like ‘wow’. We were able to set him up with additional training and he went back into school. Throughout my career I have been blessed with many memorable highlights, but as I sat in my car after the little graduation ceremony in Kings Cross that day, I knew I had experienced a moment that would always be hard to top.
How do you find balance?
Balance is when work never feels like work – it’s impossible to switch off. Every news story and conversation about gender equality, violence, bullying, porn and consent interests me. And sadly, there is no shortage of upsetting content in my inbox and social feeds every day. I have learned to consciously take myself off the grid with my personal trainer, martial arts training and meditation. It’s necessary to switch off my busy mind at night with body scans and sleep stories.
I balance the darkness of domestic violence and the heaviness of supporting girls and women in crisis, with a close circle of like-minded, inspirational thought leaders who help keep me and my purpose on track.
Weekends are for quality time with my family. I try my hardest to stay present with the children by looking at the phone less, family dinners and playing old school games like UNO when we go out. But if it feels like life is spiralling and I have taken on too much, I dial a friend and make time for a long lunch and a sanity check.
What is your favourite food and why?
My favourite food is Vietnamese for its flavours and freshness. My hubby Craig and I backpacked from north to south Vietnam for a month in 2003. I fell head over heels in love with the food, people and culture. I love a spicy, beef Pho for a hearty breakfast on a cold day.
What are you watching?
I love binge watching series on Netflix, what a great time to be alive! Right now I am into the Handmaids Tale on the SBS app. I’m a huge fan of writer Margaret Atwood and her 1985 novel of a near future dystopia, where women are forced into slavery to bear children for the elite. It raises such important issues about how women are treated in society and it’s not often a film/series lives up to the expectations of a bestseller but I’m loving it and the filmmakers haven’t disappointed.
What are you reading?
I’m in the beginning chapters of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, a story that traces the lives of Roy, a black man wrongly convicted of rape, and his wife, Celestial.
Most recently I finished The Tattooist of Auschwitz, a page turner by Heather Morris. The incredible story of the Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist and the woman he loved on the first transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz in 1942. Based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, who is forced to tattoo numbers on his fellow concentration camp detainees’ arms. I couldn’t put the book down and I was left in awe of the human spirit through unspeakable atrocities. A must read.
Do you have a message for women over 40?
Give yourself permission to put you first. Every time you board a plane, they say in an emergency put your own Oxygen mask on first before you can help others. Okay, so it may be a little extreme to compare everyday living with life and death emergencies, but I’m going there. If you are not actively making choices for your own emotional, physical and mental wellbeing, start now. How can you possibly help others when you can’t breathe? What is the example you’re setting for the girls and young women in your life?
For the longest time I confused my needs and desires with selfishness, especially as a young mum. It was an irrational and negative mind set that led to resentfulness, exhaustion and ultimately made others around me feel like they weren’t doing enough, ugh cringe. Caring for yourself doesn’t dim anyone else’s light so give yourself permission to shine.
How you can help Mel and the KYUP Project…
Founder of the award-winning KYUP! Project, Mel Thomas and Sydney based jewellery designer, Maria Lizunova designed and created a special edition Lizunova necklace and bracelet to celebreate mothers and the power of women. The butterfly shape of the pendant symbolises the transformation girls and women go through once they learn life protection skills and gain the confidence to speak up and share their opinion in difficult situations.
All proceeds will go to KYUP! Project’s award-winning violence prevention education program, which has already helped more than 10,000 students in schools, university and community groups across Australia and New Zealand.
To purchase visit https://www.lizunova.com/collections/strong
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