Empowering Girls to Defend Themselves
Thanh Pham, 17, runs a nonprofit organization called Empower Our Youth, which raises funds to bring self-defense/empowerment classes to inner-city and low-income schools. Teen Voices' Michelle Golden talks with Pham about her organization.
TV: Can you tell Teen Voices about Empower Our Youth?
Pham: At the end of my second semester of sophomore year, I took a self-defense class at my high school and my high school is one of the five in the state that offers self-defense. At the time, it was half self-defense and a self-esteem building class. I felt the class was so empowering and so useful, so I looked into the background of self-defense programs in my state. I found out, as mentioned, that only five offered such a program, and those schools were located in affluent, relatively safe towns. It surprised me, because I felt like a lot of the schools that most needed it did not have [the program] because of funding problems. That's when I started thinking about opening the non-profit.
TV: How does the organization work?
Pham: I go to schools and talk to school administrators about bringing the program there and most of the time they are really interested in the program, it is just a issue of money and that's where my non-profit comes in. They are allowed to choose any self-defense program that they want- that addresses their needs. I usually suggest one or two types of self-defense programs from other companies. Through my non-profit I raise money and fund the programs. The goal is to empower young women and men with practical life skills of how to protect themselves in dangerous social situations and for women against date rape. With self-defense I am not promoting violence; I am promoting a way that you can step away from dangerous social situations. In the case that you cannot step away from it, you are addressing it and safely approaching it and be okay. My ultimate goal is to hopefully one day in my state or maybe even in the whole country that schools will consider having self-defense programs in their school and I think that would be a good preventive measure against rape.
TV: You have a very interesting goal in mind and at such a young age. It is really nice to see that teen girls are caring about themselves and other people. You talked about the goals, but could you tell TV about your mission statement?
Pham: We want to raise issues of sexual awareness through presentations and to fund the self-defense programs to any school that needs it for at least two years. Those are the two main mission statements as of now, but of course my non-profit is relatively new. It's not like a non-profit that has been around for ten years and has raised millions of dollars. One of the reasons why I wanted to reach out to Teen Voices was because I wanted to reach out and inspire younger women to really step out their comfort zone and volunteer. I think a lot of girls think that all they can do is work in a soup kitchen which is great but they also can exceed themselves and do things like social entrepreneurship or be a leader in other groups. So I wanted to inspire women and young girls to maybe open a non-profit or lead a project at their school and I think now is the greatest time to start volunteer work. People always think that teenagers have a lot on their hands and that they shouldn't open a non-profit, they should wait for an adult. But I think teenagers are really good people to start non-profits or doing volunteer projects because they don't have maybe ulterior motives and aren't bounded by financial reasons. That's why I think teens should open up non-profits and lead volunteer projects and I hope to inspire other young women through your magazine.
TV: How do you work with schools to run classes?
Pham: We mostly just fund the classes because you have to be licensed to actually teach the classes. Our non-profit gives the money to the school and in exchange they let us come and give presentations to the schools. That's how it works. It's a little bit more complex than that but once the administrator agrees to sign the two-year contract, they set up the curriculum and the program of studies, they get the money from us, and then they pay whatever self-defense program they feel best addresses their need and then we look it over and see if it's one that's worthy for the school and for the students. Once that's approved, they put it into their session.
TV: What does volunteering mean to you?
Pham: A lot of teenagers feel that doing volunteer is a waste of time and even when they do it, they see it as a requirement but I think that it's great if teens think about volunteering because it gives meaning to your life and it can make change. A lot of students feel like they can't make a huge change, but I think little ripples make a tide. That's why I wanted to do the non-profit not only to help students to learn practical life skills and to raise the issue of domestic violence and rape but also to encourage people to adopt a cause they feel passionate about and to just run with it.
TV: Why is self-defense important to you?
Pham: There are a lot of causes that I feel passionate about like animal rights. I do animal rights [work] at my school too. But the thing is, the opportunity jumped out [when] I saw there was no other non-profit, no other organization, nothing that could give the inner-city schools these programs, and when I saw an issue, I thought at least I should try to do something about it.
TV: So can you walk us through a typical self-defense class?
Pham: A typical self-defense class starts with students getting in a circle and sharing how their day was and something that inspires them. The class is empowering and something that can build women's self-esteem. We don't only teach self-defense; we also tie in videos that suggest things that schools can add to the curriculum. It's not only the physical, but also the verbal -- how to get out of a dating situation where something has gone wrong. If you feel like someone is threatening your life, the class teaches you how to get out of it. We also try to do one or two creative projects a semester. After a semester, each student has a graduation where they record their skills so that everyone can see what they've learned. I usually invite parents, students from the school, and school administrators to come and see the students.
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Tagged as: action, empower our youth, empowering youth, Girls in Action, inner-city youth, self-defense, self-defense classes, social change, social justice, teens, volunteering