Leah Goldstein is bobbing and weaving her way through a dozen girls poised to punch. Their tiny fists are held high, ready to strike.
“Show me your fighting stance,” Goldstein says. “See how powerful you are? That’s enough to knock someone out if you hit them in the right spot.”
The girls lunge at an invisible opponent. Sharp breaths cut through a chorus of giggles.
Goldstein is leading a group of middle school girls in a self-defense course. The class is built into the fitness curriculum of Girls Inc. of Alameda County, a branch of the national non-profit that aims to educate and inspire young women across America.
The Alameda County branch of Girls Inc. is headquartered in downtown Oakland, and serves as a resource center for girls all over the county. The center is open to girls from kindergarten through high school and functions as a community center as well as a training and education hub, according to Nicki Guard, the center’s volunteer manager.
“One of our biggest goals is to prepare them to have choices,” says Guard. “In the younger grades, literacy is the main focus. In middle school, they start focusing more on science, technology, engineering, and math.”
Fitness is also a huge part of the Girls Inc. curriculum. “One of the goals of the program is to really get the girls moving,” says Guard. “A lot of our girls live in neighborhoods where there is a lot of violence, which means they’re not outside a lot, so they’re not getting a lot of physical activity.”
Guard says kickboxing and self-defense were among the girls’ top choices for a fitness program. So on this Monday afternoon, the girls are assembled in Frank Ogawa Plaza for a class called “Fight Like a Girl.”
Goldstein is a special guest instructor for the week. She leads the girls through a mix of martial arts, kickboxing, and Krav Maga, the self-defense system developed and adopted by the Israeli Military.
And she’s an expert: Goldstein became the World Bantamweight Kickboxing Champion at age 17. Soon after, she joined the Israeli Defense Force.
Goldstein says she was initially being primed to train regular recruits, but was then hand chosen to part of the Krav Maga unit “They sought me out,” says Goldstein. “They wanted me to be one of the trainers for the commandos, and I was the only woman. I was the one put on a bus and sent to a secure location, and my job was to just rip these people apart,” referring to the intensity of Krav Maga training.
She went on to join the Israeli police force, where she worked undercover combatting drug trafficking, terrorism and violent crime. After rejoining the civilian world, she became a champion cyclist, winning Race Across the West and Race across America. This summer, she published a memoir, No Limits, that details her journey.
Goldstein describes feeling gender discrimination for the first time after joining the police force. “It hit me like a brick wall,” she says. “It was just a constant battle of having to prove myself.”
Goldstein is passionate about teaching girls self-defense skills. She knows that they will likely face discrimination, and believes self-defense and confidence go hand-in-hand.
“When you know you have a skill of self-defense, it automatically gives you more confidence. And when you have more confidence, you bring that out in other aspects of your life,” Goldstein says. “It transitions into being mentally strong as well.”
Alex Cowling, the program’s fitness and nutrition leader, also sees the power of building confidence with self-defense training. “We want girls to feel empowered to be themselves and feel comfortable wherever they are,” Cowling says. “I think that having skills where you can go anywhere and [to] be aware of your surroundings, and be aware of danger, is important for everyone, especially the girls in our community.”
The risk that girls face growing up in high-crime areas throughout Alameda County is not lost on Girls Inc. staff members and program leaders. “Unfortunately, a lot of our girls live in neighborhoods where there is a lot of violence,” says Guard, “And a lot of our parents are very protective of their girls. No parent wants their child to be hurt.”
Goldstein says that the program wasn’t developed to make the girls paranoid, but serves as a way for them to be prepared and aware of their surroundings. “If you live in an area that is potentially more dangerous, you absolutely need to use those senses. It’s important that they be activated all the time,” she says.
Despite her military training, Goldstein says that the girls need to be inspired gently. “With everything that they’ve gone through, they need the encouragement first,” Goldstein says. “The most important thing is that they know the self-defense part, and that will follow with the confidence.”
Last Monday afternoon, Goldstein had her students practice their punches with both their left and right hands, which a few girls said felt awkward. Goldstein jumped on the opportunity to ask the girls why they might need to train both sides equally.
A small voice rose from the back: “Cause if one hands gives out, you have the other?”
“Exactly!” Goldstein exclaimed. “You always want to work on the things you’re weakest at, not the things that you’re good at. Now we’re going to throw the power punch!”
When the session concluded, the girls gathered in a circle to share their feelings about the experience. They said they felt excited, smart, strong and bold. Goldstein echoed them: “I feel happy, powerful and confident.”