When I opened the school four years ago, I had a vision. And while it may have been an honorable one, it fell susceptible to change. As the past intersects with the future at that moment we call the present, and as present moments compile behind us altering the course and character of our history, new consciousness’s sometimes evolve, especially for folks like myself who are compelled by an urge to push limits, discover and create. Indeed, the past few years have slowly but surely chiseled and crafted a new identity and purpose for me, largely attributable to my experience working with the Urban Kempo children.

In this respect my beliefs are aligned with a prevalent concept in many eastern philosophies asserting that we become reborn from moment to moment. And for those of us who take responsibility for our own lives and imagine futures that look vastly different from where we are in the present—call us dreamers maybe—we manage an ability to transform our lives with as much agency as we can muster, while surrendering to an outside world that we in fact exercise very little control over.

In other words, we adapt. We improvise with a desire to maneuver and improve within a chaotic and ever evolving world that posits constant, unpredictable and at times overwhelming barrages of adversity against our grain. And herein lies the essence of the martial arts—to manage chaos. To find peace within adversity. Clarity within fog. Safe haven when in danger. And to live with an assertive passivity keeping a close compass towards victory, whatever that means to you, against formidable odds. And all of that is fueled by the one's persistent belief that one can accomplish something, whether in the moment or something longterm.

It is important to understand that our children are in what is first and foremost a character building program and second a martial arts program. At its pinnacle, the martial arts are a conglomeration of principles of both character and movement. In the early phases of our “kids” program, while it is physically demanding and we take care to lay a foundation of martial arts basics, we place a much greater emphasis on what we refer to as the Five Shaolin Principles, which are Self Control, Sincerity, Etiquette, Effort and Character.

Kids come to understand over time that the advanced physical movements—the fascinating aspects of Kempo that one sees in the movies, the Kempo that most people desire to know intuitively, but the Kempo that very few have the patience, endurance and determination to accumulate—are reserved exclusively for those students who earn the right through the consistent demonstration and superior understanding of the Five Shaolin Principles. Subsequently, the “Little Ninjas” will compete to advance into the “Kids” group, the “Kids” into the “Juniors”, and the “Juniors” into the “Next Generation”, as this progression symbolizes one’s honorable passage towards a very prestigious goal, which is really a lifestyle symbolized by an Urban Kempo black belt.

It follows that the second thing to understand about our program is that it is a program of commitment and time. While your child will learn to punch and kick effectively, our student body becomes curated over time to fashion leadership qualities, or at a minimum to align their actions as closely as possible with that little voice inside that is their conscience. Because ultimately, any way one decides to depict the program, in addition to having a skillful way of communicating with and motivating children, I exercise a unique ability to teach the martial art of Shaolin Kempo, which embodies what many experts believe is the most efficiently disabling fighting style ever created.

Having been placed in situations where I’ve had to decipher if, how, and to what to degree to use my body in efforts to mitigate potentially violent circumstances, as a teacher I am unusually attuned to the physical, emotional, and potentially legal (whether one is defending against a group of bullies on a playground or an armed robber on the street) repercussions that could result. It is imperative that our young students grow in maturity as their skills in the art progress. I fear that while most of our young students are great children with all the potential in the world, the emphasis on character and maturity, which develop in unison, have been lost amidst an emphasis on selling belts. What contributes here is that while many instructors have the best of intentions, they simply lack experience with adversity as well as an understanding of how to function within it. Compounding this lack of experience is an insufficient understanding of people in general, which becomes an irrevocable impediment to their ability to cultivate these character skills, skills that Urban Kempo is arguing are integral to the art—period. In short, many instructors are wearing the wrong uniforms.

When asked what sets us apart from other schools, it is that both myself and my apprentice are no strangers to adversity, but rather our life’s challenges have come to define much of who we have become. Our struggles with and victories over adversity have taken us to levels of achievement that we otherwise wouldn’t have discovered.  We share a sincere desire to assist others in their struggles, which we see as blessings in many ways, be them rooted in anxiety, special needs, confidence or any other of facet within the myriad of challenges that we as a community face. We believe that one’s weakness can become their strength. Rather, we believe that one’s weakness WILL become their strength, when supplemented by belief. Our lives evidence that our personal struggles lend us fertile terrain in which to grow strong rooted characters, which are the bedrock of the arts--not sheer physical ability. And, we believe that we have unique skills in understanding and communicating with human beings that aid in those efforts.

Indeed, the martial arts has served us both well through our own personal struggles. To imagine our lives without the arts is almost unfathomable.

While my vision for Urban Kempo has evolved over time, it has always been one of my goals to refashion the martial arts landscape in Washington DC. This is a lofty goal—I am aware. It will require a team of instructors who understand adversity and share my passion for people, as well the belief that we can improve. But as Urban Kempo started out with one teacher—me!—touting a lofty vision out of Iwo Jima park almost five years ago, today I work out of the finest neighborhood in the DC area, I have the support of the most successful grandmaster in the country, and the assistance of a young protégé who I consider a prodigy in the realm of understanding and caring for people, in addition to being my finest student. That is a darn good start!

Having been teaching some of my kids for almost a decade, our school has yet to award a black belt to a child. And while many schools rely on awarding the black belt as a motivating factor, we try to ingrain a different motivational system, with the black belt being the culmination of a long process that marries the Five Shaolin Principles with an extensive and complex martial arts curriculum that has been developed, passed down and vetted by generations of Kempo grandmasters and Shaolin Monks.

If you attend our “Next Generation” youth class (reserved for ages 10 and above and ranks blue stripe and above) you will find a group of kids taking pride in their ability to demonstrate their characters, which they’ve worked very hard to tailor. The kids in the Next Generation class, especially the brown belts, are in preparation for an Urban Kempo black belt and are excited to prove that they are sincere in their goals. I admire these kids, as well as their families who have trusted Urban Kempo to nurture them in the arts. This is a special and exclusive group of children that will prove themselves great leaders in the outside world. 

I thank you for taking the time to learn more about our kids program. While I personally thrive in the adult class environment as a laid back place to teach the art I love so much, with students who are professionals and my peers outside of the school, and where I can let my guard down a bit and be myself, I enjoy an extraordinary amount of pride and derive a powerful sense of purpose through working with our kids. It is more than an honor--it has become my life.

Helping the kids along their paths reminds me of who I am and how I got here, and it reminds me that I have a responsibility to share what I’ve learned with each and every budding generation that comes. I believe that the sky is limit. Every second of every day I continue to believe that. Not by choice, I just do. 

With gratitude,

Sensei Mike