Janani's activism for girl empowerment and protecting the environment led her to speak at the United Nations.

All right. Hi guys. It's Jen from Pincurl Girls. This is the GIRLBRAVE podcast. And today I am super excited about my guest, her name is Janani. Janani is an amazing girl. She lives in New Jersey doing awesome things for the world and for other girls. And so thank you so much for being here. 

How are you today? 

I'm so great. Thank you so much for having me. 

Sure. Yeah. So let's start off with the basics. How old are you? What grade are you in? 

So I'm 15 and I'm a sophomore in high school. And so where are you living right now? I live in McCutcheon, New Jersey. Yes. 

And so is that where you've gone to school your whole life? 

So I actually started out, well I was born and raised here in McCutcheon. So I went to preschool elementary school here in New Jersey and my parents really wanted me to sort of gain exposure to living in another country and understanding our own, like cultural roots spreader. So we moved to India, um, in fifth grade when I was in fifth grade. And I when I was in India, I studied all through middle school there and then we decided that it would be best for me to come back to the US for high school. Uh, so in 9th grade, I came back to the US and I'm now in 10th grade and this is where I'll continue to study and go to college and hopefully I'll get to go back to India and see my family and maybe even live there again one day. 

So looking back on that experience, what did you learn from studying abroad and being in a new country? 

Well, the experience was actually amazing. The first two years were, were extremely difficult though because it was a completely different environment, a very open and uh, environment in general because people in India are, well, they're, they like to socialize a lot and they're honestly like amazing people. And it was just kind of a difficult switch to make though because I had grown up here studying in like a private school. And, um, in India, although I went to a private school there, um, the students there spoke different languages and it was a little bit hard to like mingle with them and understand them. But, um, since it was an English medium school, everything was like all our communication was in English. But I definitely was exposed to so many different backgrounds and cultures because everyone had such a unique story. And just being able to meet new people like that and learning about their experiences and over the course of four years definitely helped me make some bonds that still exist to this day. Like some of my best friends that I've ever made, um, are still back in India and I continue to like speak with them and hopefully, get to see each other again one day. 

What an amazing experience. So what is your typical day look like? 

 Um, so my day usually starts out by me walking my dog Cooper in the morning, um, and just, uh, giving him like food and just playing with him for around like half an hour just before I go to school. Um, because it's sort of fun to just be like carefree and not have to worry about anything happening in school for a little while before, like the pressure hits. Then I usually start to like get ready for school. 

And I like making my own mind sometimes because I'm, well, I'm vegan and my school doesn't really offer a lot of being in food. So I love making my own food, but my parents usually help out too. And then I'm in school whenever I'm like free, like if I have a free period or during lunch, I might work on doing something for my organization, just like catching up on emails or something that I missed. 

Um, and then I just continue about my day in school. Um, and I usually get out at around 3:00 PM. Um, so in the fall I play soccer. So right after school I usually have practice for about two hours. Um, but in the spring, um, I, I run track. So I also have practiced for about two hours, but sometimes, um, meats can take longer, so it can take anywhere up to like three to six hours. So sometimes it's pretty late by the time I get back. 

So on the days where it does get pretty late, as soon as I get home, I try to um, finish all my homework and studying as soon as possible. But if I do get home kind of early, then I just like to hang out with my dog Cooper and maybe, um, go outside for a while or go to the library cause I love reading. So the library's one of my favorite places can go. And then after I'm done with homework and studying, I usually like to eat dinner with my family and watch TV for a little while. Um, and I go to bed around 10 30, although sometimes it can take longer because, um, in high school we do get like a lot of homework and a lot of, um, studying material and stuff. 

So sometimes it can take longer. Um, but yeah, that's usually how my week goes. But in the weekends it can be quite different because I'm an activist for the environment as, as well as for animal rights. So I do attend a lot of events and protests every few months. I also have like speaking engagements where I speak in various middle and high schools about the environment and animal agriculture as well as other global issues. Um, so, and I've spoken in various middle and high schools as well as colleges in the US and in India. So traveling also affects my schedule, but this is generally what my week looks like. 

Tell me about your speaking. How do you get invited to speak about the issues that you care about? 

We'll, after my speech at the United Nations, we had a video or my speech just posted on YouTube. Um, and that was just sort of for me just to like look for you, like look over, um, the speech and just show it to like close family and friends. But a lot of people started basically sharing a lot of like schools in the region, sort of, um, gained access to the video. And they contacted me to come speak at their school about the environment and um, animal rights. And as I began speaking in more schools, a lot of other people heard about it. And in turn, they also invited me to speak in their school. Um, and then in India a lot of people were aware of the work I was doing with my organization since it's focused on girls in India. And they invited me to speak about my organization and how I started it. And yeah, that's basically how I got the opportunity. 

So tell us about your organization. It's called Girls Play Global. How did it start and what's the mission? 

So, Girls Play Global's mission is to educate and empower girls in rural India. I'm using sports as a tool. So the pro, the reason why I started it is because in India, unlike the United States or the UK or in developed countries, uh, gender inequality is a major issue. And that exists not only in like the sports fields but in various other fields and industries as well. But to address the issue of the inequality and the gender biases in, in sports. Um, I started the organization to create like more opportunities for girls in rural India to participate in soccer specifically. Um, and the reason why I chose soccer is because soccer is generally viewed as a boys sport because it's played quite aggressively sometimes. 

And so Indian society isn't very welcoming to girls leaving their homes and playing sports and getting sort of rough and dirty. And although they are given opportunities to play sports like volleyball and an Indian, a sport called Coco, um, they're not really encouraged to play sports like basketball or soccer. Um, and schools also, uh, don't really let girls play soccer. So I actually experienced that myself firsthand because I grew up playing soccer here in the US but when I moved to India, I was denied the opportunity to play soccer because I was a girl. So what I did was I joined a club team outside of my school where I was one girl among a hundred boys. Um, and that experience was extremely frightening, but it also helped me learn a lot about how Indian society sort of works and what the issues were when it came to sports. So that's why I sort of started the organization because I knew that there were so many girls in India that were so talented and they were really motivated to play soccer, but there just wasn't enough support from their own family or society as a whole. 

And I thought by giving them opportunities to receive free soccer training and access to the tournament, they would be able to grow not only as an athlete but also into strong female role models so that other girls would be able to gain like inspiration from them as well. Did you get any pushback from anybody about, you know, trying to get these girls to play soccer? Yeah, I definitely did. It was quite difficult actually because the schools that we approached to send their girls to receive training were all government schools, which are public schools in India, which means that they don't have, um, facilities or enough facilities or good, um, like training staff or anything. So when I approached the schools it was quite difficult to have them like send girls because they were all afraid of what the girls, his parents might say. But as we sort of continued to encourage them and tell them about all the benefits of a girl playing a sport, they were sort of more open to it. 

And also since we were bearing all of the costs for the training and the equipment, they were more likely to send their students. So, um, that's basically how we approached like one school and then once that one particular government school, um, sent their students a lot of other schools who were also willing to, when they realize that it's very important to empower girls at a young age if we want them to succeed. The issue of child marriage still exists today, especially in rural communities. So a lot of girls are discouraged from even pursuing like 11th grade or 12th grade. A lot of girls get married as young, as ninth grade or even younger than that. And using sports, a lot of girls were able to improve their self-confidence and they were more likely to pursue a higher education and even go to college because in rural communities it's extremely unlikely for a girl to even be going to college using sports. 

A lot of them were there, sort of their mental health, their mental wellness was strengthened as well as their physical fitness. So they were able to speak to their parents and convince them that higher education can get you into a specific college, sometimes even for free. So that was a big part of why I sort of started it and how it's impacting the lives of girls, but also that there were a lot of challenges along the way. But I think it's important to face those challenges and really focus on the mission and why you're doing what you do so that you can have as big of an impact as possible. 

That's really incredible how you're changing the culture, you're changing the culture, you're changing the lives of so many young women. I commend you. Why does gender equality mean so much to you? 

Uh, when I visited India and when I lived there, I faced a lot of, um, gender discrimination because girls aren't treated equally to boys over there. And I received a lot of discouragement because I was a girl that liked to play sports and since a lot of girls weren't really involved in sports at the time, a lot of boys would make fun of me for playing soccer. They were, they would tell me, Oh, what are you doing on the field? This is no place for a girl. And that was extremely discouraging to me because even when I was on a club team with all boys, I wasn't really treated as one of them or like as just a soccer player, I was looked at as a girl who didn't know how to play soccer. And my coaches weren't very encouraging either and neither were my teammates. 

So for example, whenever we would have to like divide into teams, I would always be like the last one to be picked, even though I was better than most of the boys on the team. And that was just because they believed in their mind. It was sort of ingrained into their minds that girls are not equal to us. And that's sort of the mentality that I'm trying to change because I don't want any other girl attacked experience the difficulties that I did. And especially since I wasn't used to the environment and I was used to being treated equal each year in the States. And when I moved to India and I faced these challenges, I was of extremely discouraged because I had no idea what to do. I wanted to move back to the States, but I think I was sort of determined to change this mindset. 

And I continued to play soccer, um, in India despite all the negative like feedback or comments that I received. And I would typically have to bike for around two miles on that extremely bad roads in a really bad neighborhood. Um, just can get to play soccer. So even though I had all these difficulties, I continued to go to practice and play soccer because I wanted to prove that girls could be just as good as boys. And so when I came back to the US, I knew that I had to start this organization to give girls back in India more opportunities. So that's sort of why I'm so passionate about gender equality and advocating for these issues. And how do you think you can teach the boys or educate the boys and the men and the fathers that it is okay to play sports? Uh, yeah, so I think when they're young and one and it has to start from their own families, teaching them what's right and how they respect and treat other girls. 

And in India, it's been this way sort of for generations now and it is changing. People are becoming more open to girls playing sports like soccer and families are encouraging girls to play soccer because they understand the benefits of it. And the boys on my team were, so the first year I don't think they were really supportive at all. But I think as time went on they realized that I was good enough and I was just there to play soccer and not like I, they started treating me as just a soccer player rather than a girl that plays soccer and I was being treated equally and coaches were realizing that I was good on. I did, they did need to like encourage me as well and not just the boys. And I think about two years into the club, more girls started joining so I wasn't the only girl I think. 

And by the, by the time I left that we had established a full girls soccer team. So that was a huge accomplishment for the club and just for me because I now knew that there were a lot of girls out there who were interested in playing soccer and they just needed to be like motivated more encouraged more so that they could sort of reach their goals and pursue their dreams. 

"I think it's important to stay true to yourself and align your actions with your values and maybe even every once in a while it's good to step out of your comfort zone and try new things." 


How do you get the guts and the courage to make such a difference? 

So I just sort of focus on the mission and why I do what I do. Because sometimes it can be extremely frightening and I can get scared sometimes to have to go and talk to people and tell them that, um, you know, you have to give more opportunities to girls because I was discouraged like that and I, it wasn't a good feeling. And so when I focus on the mission rather than my own fears, I feel like I get the strength and the power to sort of continue to do what I do. 

That's great. Tell me about your newest initiative, Kicks For Climate Action. 

Yeah, absolutely. So other than gender equality, another global issue that um, there was a lack of awareness about in rural parts of India was climate change. And I found that it wasn't just like these global issues, but also a variety of other global issues that there was a lack of awareness about. And I think I S I believe that everyone should have like access to knowledge and information and the girls in the, in government schools, since they didn't have access to like good facilities or internet or anything, I thought that it would be best for me to also educate them about other global issues when I, whenever I visit India to train with them. 

So apart from learning more about gender equality and how to battle like gender biases, I also began to teach them about what other global issues we have going on going on in the world. So when it comes to climate change, a lot of girls were aware that our, like, weather patterns are changing and temperatures are rising, but they didn't really know what they could do about it as an individual. They always thought that the government would, you know, take care of it or other organizations would take care of it. But I began to teach them that they could, as individuals make minor changes in their lives, which would in turn impact, um, will positively impact the environment. So in order to do that, it's Kicks For Climate Action was a project within girls play global that we created. And it just started out as an educational campaign to just educate like local schools about the importance of like tree plantation or rainwater harvesting. 

But as it sort of grew, we decided to turn this into a soccer tournament and it became an annual soccer tournament too. So our first soccer tournament actually happened, um, over Christmas break where we invited around 10 teams to participate. And so there were around 120 girls that played soccer. But the kicks for climate action part comes into here because they were also required to educate their own like peers about the importance of taking action for the climate crisis. And after the tournament was over, we sort of had like a project presentation session where they talk to the other girls about their ideas for how to protect the environment and things that they were planning to do and implement in their own community to solve this issue. So that's basically what kicks for climate action. 

And you talked to the United Nations about this project? 

Yeah. So I was invited in September to at the UN on during the international peace day a youth climate summit. So, and that's where I spoke about my organization as a whole as well as addressing the issue of climate change is extremely important because it affects not only developed countries but underdeveloped in developing countries as well. And I also talked to them about the importance of educating like rural communities as well about how they can sort of address the issue. So that's what I spoke about at the UN. 

Did you get nervous speaking in front of so many people and what did you have to say to yourself to get up there and be able to speak like that? 

Yeah, definitely. It was extremely nerve-racking and I w I don't think it's sort of hit me until the day of the event that I was actually going to be speaking at the United nations. I was extremely sick that whole week and I had a fever the day of the event and I was sort of destroyed because I didn't know if I would be able to go, but I went anyway. And I spoke with all my heart and I just focus completely on the message rather than, um, like my own fears of speaking. And I think it's sort of just flowed that way and I sort of wasn't worried about anything else at that point, but I was extremely excited to, to be speaking at the UN because this isn't like an everyday opportunity and I was so grateful that I was able to receive a global stage and reach a huge crowd of like-minded students who are all passionate about protecting the environment and saving our planet. So yeah, it was an amazing experience being able to speak there and the opportunities that came out of it were also amazing. 

Yeah, that is a huge opportunity. So this podcast is called GIRLBRAVE. What's your definition of being brave and do you think you're brave? 

I think I am definitely brave because I'm being brave to me means standing up for what you believe in and not being afraid of what other people may think of you. Because as an activist sometimes, I'm required to like challenge the standard practices of society by speaking up about it, which can come along with a lot of like weird looks and laughter sometimes. But I think it's important to stay true to yourself and align your actions with your values and maybe even every once in a while it's good to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. Because I think in one way or the other it can lead to great things because I've experienced that myself. 

So like I said before, being brave just means standing up for what you believe in and not being afraid to advocate for these issues if you want to make a positive change in the world. Very true. So what would your advice be to someone out there that also feels like they're an activist to begin to start an organization or begin to create change in their own life, in their own community with their friends and their peers. So for anyone that's interested in starting their own organization or nonprofit, I would definitely suggest that you first get involved with another organization that shares a similar vision or values. Because I think understanding how nonprofits run and how they work and getting to know people in leadership positions in that organization would be a great way to gain some experience and get some guidance on how to start one. 

But I think it's also important to understand that while it may seem easy to start a nonprofit, it also comes with a ton of responsibilities. So I think if you're definitely willing to commit yourself long term and put in a lot of hard work, there's no limit to how far you can go and how many lives you can touch. 

Well, you have touched lots and lots of lives and I'm so excited that you are able to come onto the show today and talk about it. So thank you so much for all you're doing for the environment and for rural equality and sharing your story and your vulnerabilities. Uh, I appreciate you being here. 

Thank you so much for having me. I'm so grateful for this opportunity and for this experience to share my thoughts and use with everyone else. 

What does it mean to be brave? Sometimes brave means scared or anxious, but trying anyway. GIRLBRAVE is a celebration of girls who are brave taking up space in the world. And thanks for listening. Join us next time on GIRLBRAVE podcast.

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