“The Indian Scene“ March 2020 edition features “NextGen: Janani Shivakumar, Our Future”
New Jersey-based Janani Shiva started an organization to promote access to girls’ soccer in India and has spoken at the UN.
When I think about what it means to be a “well-rounded” individual, several characteristics come to mind. And Janani Shiva strikes me as a true example of one, affirming my belief that our younger generation is capable of changing the world for the better. Only a sophomore in high school, Janani has spoken at the United Nations and has also launched a program for girls in Coimbatore who wish to pursue soccer. With a highly impressive resume, Janani is an unstoppable force and is not planning to cease anytime soon.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Indian Scene: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Janani Shiva: I’m 15 years old and a sophomore in high school. I live in New Jersey with my parents and my dog Cooper. I am a passionate environmental and animal rights activist. I also play soccer, run track, and love spending time outdoors. I love animals, especially cows and goats and I do a lot of work with international organizations to advocate for total animal liberation.
IS: After having lived in both India and the United States, what can you say are the significant differences in education?
JS: Being born and raised in the U.S., I was fortunate to receive education in a private school throughout elementary school and I was exposed to an environment in which most of the students were very silent and obedient so I grew up constantly focused on academics and extracurriculars but didn’t have much fun in school. However, when I moved to India for middle school I was really shocked by the outgoing environment. Although it took me a while to adjust I realized that the education system is far better in India in terms of global and cultural knowledge. In the U.S., knowledge about global issues and other countries is very limited, which creates a disconnect between American students and their cultural roots. In India, I was not only learning about the magnificent history of my native country but also about the development of other nations, which I think is a major advantage to have after graduating from school and college when going out into the real world.
IS: Soccer, a sport which you played, didn’t promise you a fulfilling experience in India. Can you tell the readers what led you to initiate Girls Play Global?
JS: The story behind why I started Girls Play Global initiated when I was in middle school, living in Chennai. I had grown up playing various sports like soccer in the U.S. and I had hoped to do the same in India. But the school I attended, unfortunately, did not encourage girls to play sports, especially sports like soccer and basketball. Which are typically perceived as “a boy’s sport” in India. So I joined a club soccer team outside my school, where I was one among around 100 boys. I was faced with many challenges due to the lack of support from my coaches and teammates which was disheartening. In order to attend practices, I would have to ride my bicycle for around 2 miles on terrible roads in an unsafe neighborhood which got me thinking about whether soccer was worth all this effort. Although it was extremely difficult, I continued to play soccer and did not let the negativity discourage me. Gradually, more girls began to join the club and by the time I was in 8th grade, my club had established a girl’s team. Upon my return to the U.S., I knew that I had to do something to help girls who are interested in playing sports but don’t have access to the necessary resources and safe playing fields. So I began the organization and focused my attention solely on the rural communities of India to provide girls with free soccer training as I believe they have plenty of talent, but just need some guidance and encouragement to pursue their goals.
IS: How does this organization fund these young girls and what has been the response thus far from the girls’ experience?
JS: In the beginning stage of the organization, we operated mainly on funds donated by family and friends. We also received support from companies here in the U.S. that donated soccer balls and socks for all the girls. As we begin to expand to more schools we have already received a show of interest from multiple companies and associations to contribute to the cause. So far, the response to the initiative has been great from the girls and their parents, although it was difficult to get them involved at first. After we conducted our first annual soccer tournament in Coimbatore, India, it became visible that their skills and self-confidence were improving, which is a great step in the right direction.
IS: How has this heightened your awareness to make further changes in the world?
JS: This experience has definitely been a way for me to become aware of my own skills better and I have understood that it’s not enough to just wish for change, but that it’s important to take action to achieve your vision. As an introvert, I had always been used to staying within my comfort zone and I was extremely afraid of public speaking. But after starting the organization, I had the opportunity to speak in various schools and colleges about global issues and it has served as a way for me to identify talents that I didn’t know I had. With all the support and encouragement I have received so far, it motivates me to continue to advocate for what I believe in and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon!
IS: I was very impressed to read about your attendance at the United Nations. How were you invited to speak and what was your take away from the unique experience?
JS: I had volunteered at the United Nations headquarters for a few years through an NGO so I had been attending a lot of their events. That’s when I heard about the International Day of Peace Youth Climate Summit and I learned that they were accepting applications from around the world for climate action for peace projects. I knew that this would be a great opportunity to speak about Girls Play Global’s recent campaign Kicks for Climate Action and I applied. I was ecstatic when I heard that my project had been accepted out of 200 applications. The entire experience was thrilling and it increased my awareness of things we can do to address the climate crisis. I am ever grateful and humbled by the wonderful opportunity and I will never forget it!
IS: Can you discuss Kicks for Climate Action to the readers? What is the main goal of the organization? How are you promoting this?
JS: Kicks for Climate Action is a campaign within Girls Play Global to raise awareness about climate change in rural India since there is a lack of knowledge about global issues like climate change and solutions to address it. Using the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the power of soccer, we plan to educate girls about taking action to protect our environment. We accomplished this through our soccer tournament in Coimbatore where over 100 girls attended and presented their eco-friendly projects after the match. A few of the ideas that they came up with were tree plantation, rainwater harvesting, and eating more plant-based. This was a way for them to do their own research about solutions to address climate change and to educate their peers.
IS: What are your plans for college and how will you continue the work in which you started?
JS: I plan on studying neuroscience or psychology in college while on the pre-med track and attend med school in the future. It may be a little difficult to continue working with the organization but I am working on establishing a team to help out and I will spend as much time as I can, continuing to travel to Coimbatore to visit the teams and expand our reach.
IS: Do you have any plans to visit the girls in Coimbatore any time soon?
JS: Yes, I plan to visit Coimbatore for a few days in February as I was invited to speak at an ecological conference conducted by Anugraha Institute of Social Sciences.
IS: What advice can you give our readers who wish to initiate an organization like yours?
JS: For anyone interested in starting an organization, I would definitely suggest getting involved with an organization such as Girls Play Global or any others that interest you first and get an understanding of how they work. This will allow you to gain experience and guidance from people in leadership positions of an organization. Although it may seem quite easy to start an organization, it comes with a lot of responsibilities so if you are willing to commit yourself and put in the necessary effort, you can do incredible things!
IS: What is the number one takeaway that you can reveal about your experiences in making a change?
JS: My number one takeaway is to never be afraid to speak up for yourself or be worried about what other people may think of you. Being an activist or an advocate doesn’t just been talking about an issue because it also comes with a lot of pushback and negativity. So it is important to always stay true to yourself and continue to push towards envisioning a better future for all.