The martial arts have had a profound influence both on Rick Wilson’s life, and his work for social and economic justice during the past twenty years. Rick, area director of the Middle Atlantic Region’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project, has been a student of classical martial arts since he was a teenager. “I found a small hole-in-wall school that taught traditional Japanese-Okinawan karate. It was like a combination of boot camp and high-church ritual, physically and ethically demanding.”

Rick said the strategies he has learned can be used effectively in labor disputes, responding to hate activities or improving public policy. “The traditional martial arts emphasize developing one’s potential, self control and peace-making, and taking a stand for justice when necessary,” Rick explained. “The concept of ‘no first attack’ is at the heart of karate. One must refrain from aggression or provocation and always try when possible to resolve or diffuse conflict. No pre-emptive war, in other words.”

At a practical level, the martial arts, which have been tested for hundreds of years in dangerous conditions, have developed many sophisticated strategies that can be applied to social situations. “People who want to improve things often feel like they are up against forces more powerful than they are. Often they are right,” Rick said. “But power alone isn’t necessarily the decisive factor if we act skillfully when conditions are right.”

The powerful sometimes have a tendency to overreach, and that provides an opportunity, an opening, he explained. “Think about the Civil Rights movement. The forces used by supporters of segregation – fire hoses and police dogs unleashed against children – benefited those struggling for freedom. It’s a classic example of using the opponents’ force against them.”

Waiting for an opening and then acting quickly is a strategy Rick has employed time and time again. Sometimes the strategy results in a major policy change, such as raising the state’s minimum wage. Sometimes the victories are smaller, like restoring clothing vouchers for needy children. “It’s about studying a situation looking for the week points in a problem and applying focused energy to the right place at the right time.”

According to Rick, the martial arts teach how to effectively use energy. “Sometimes people waste energy. Even worse, activists can be motivated by anger and emotion and then engage in actions that have the opposite effect from what they intended. If you understand how force works and sometimes backfires, you can avoid useless expenditures of energy and sometimes position yourself to take advantage of the situation.

“One thing you learn from practicing the fighting arts is that you can’t afford to lose your temper in a serious situation. Also, karate is totally realistic – it teaches you the hard way that just wanting something to happen has absolutely no bearing on whether it will happen. Whether something is possible or not depends on two things: external conditions and how we respond to them. Period.

“Ethically, the main lessons I have learned are that aggression is wrong and that it is cowardly and dishonorable for people with power to abuse others. I may not always be able to do anything about it, but I try whenever I can.”