This Street-Fighting Teen Is #GirlPower Goals

Photo: Courtesy of Pooja Nagpal.
It's one thing to be 15 years old with a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo. However, taking your martial arts training to a rural village in India, and teaching young girls how to defend themselves is beyond impressive. This is just one of the reasons why the Girl Scouts of the USA awarded Pooja Nagpal with its National Young Women of Distinction award last fall. (Check out this year's winners here.)

"I figured if these girls learned self-defense, they might be able to protect themselves in situations of danger or violence," Nagpal explained in a 2015 TED Talk. She was determined to give them "a fighting spirit and a determination to prevail."

In the time since, Nagpal went on to launch For a Change, Defend, a nonprofit organization that promotes martial arts-based self-defense in Los Angeles-area schools and seeks to empower girls and young women both mentally and physically. Below the now 19-year-old talks to us about her passion for gender equality and her relationship with Girl Scouts of the USA, as well as her plans for the future.
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Photo: Courtesy of Pooja Nagpal.
Over the years, you've trained in various forms of martial arts as well as street fighting. What has that done for you?
"Martial arts has definitely made me much more confident. I first got involved when I was about 7 years old. I continued pursuing Taekwondo because it allowed me to learn important life values such as helping and protecting others and having respect for everyone around you. I met my mentor at Girl Scouts in the sixth grade, and she became a role model and inspiration for me to reach for my potential in ways that were right for me, like martial arts, which wasn’t typical of the girls I knew."

You've spent a lot of time teaching in India. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the young girls and women there?
"I would say...these communities do not appreciate programs like mine. Many rural parts of India are rapidly developing and it is so important for the younger generation to be involved with issues pertaining to gender equality and education for youth. Even though my program was a very new concept in these areas, it was amazing how well these girls responded to it."

What inspired you to start your own nonprofit back here at home? Were people surprised that someone your age would be behind a project like this?

"I've always been someone who has taken action when I have an idea. Although there were initially many obstacles, including my age and being alone in this project, this is something I am deeply passionate about and truly believe is a pressing issue in our society today. I knew I had the skills to create something good for the world."

Is physically empowering young girls and women something you might want to turn into a career?
"Yes! I definitely want to pursue a career that empowers women and girls as well as continue doing social impact for the rest of my life. I am studying electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley, and I would love to use my skills in software engineering for the greater good. I also hope to encourage more girls and women into engineering and STEM. Obviously, I plan to continue working with my nonprofit For a Change, Defend, and hopefully combine my passion for technology and social impact to create a safer world for all."

Do you think that Generation Z has a different point of view when it comes to gender equality?
"Definitely. I do believe our society is progressing with this issue. However, we are still not completely there yet. It's so important for youth to be socially conscious (the media is helping with that) and pursue their fields with the intent of social impact."
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity. To join, volunteer, or donate, visit girlscouts.org.
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