“Women are told … to be soft, to be kind, to be caretakers, and that to be aggressive or to be intense are bad qualities to have.”
But Cristina Gonzalez is out to shatter these outdated stereotypes — and help elevate young girls, especially girls of color, along the way.
We sat down with Cristina in a brightly lit corner of The Wing in Soho, a new, all women coworking space with the mission statement: “advancement of women through community,” that takes the white and pink millennial aesthetic to the next level (and houses an insanely cool library featuring exclusively female authors). Gonzalez doesn’t look like your average boxer, but what she lacks in height, she makes up for in passion, tenacity, and drive.
Gonzalez is the founder of an organization called, She Fights, which offers free classes in a variety of combat sports to young girls from low income backgrounds living in NYC. In 2016, Gonzalez was boxing at a gym and helping the gym with charity events, when the owner suggested putting together a youth boxing program. At first, the program was co-ed, but Gonzalez noticed something very interesting.
“We started to recognize that the people who came week after week and who were really dedicated to the program were the girls,” she explained. The co-ed youth program quickly evolved into an all-girl program, and Gonzalez started organizing what is now She Fights. Officially launching in November 2016 at Church Street Boxing Gym, where posters of men (and few women) line the walls in a musty basement that smells of sweat and testosterone — She Fights was born. The program began with one coach and a few girls from the original co-ed group, but Gonzalez had a much bigger vision for the fledgling program.
“It wasn’t enough to just do an offshoot program within one gym,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to create an organization that partners with other gyms and creates multiple versions of this program to have a maximum impact.”
Indeed, She Fights has expanded dramatically since its early days and now boasts three coaches, an additional location, new combat sports to learn, and over 32 girls active in the program. In January 2018, the organization partnered with Unity Jiu Jitsu, and it already has 12 young women participating in the Jiu Jitsu program. She Fights hopes to have 100 girls enrolled by end of the year.
But for Gonzalez, She Fights is about much more than learning self-defense — it’s about arming these young women with a taste for activism, self-esteem, women’s empowerment, and self-expression. And there’s no nonsense — we traveled with Cristina to the gym, and the relaxed woman sitting across from us at The Wing throttled into beast mode the moment she stepped through the doors of the Church Street Boxing Gym. The girls affectionately call her “The Warden.”
Why Cristina Gonzalez is a #badass
Before coming to New York City, Gonzalez received her bachelor’s in photojournalism from Syracuse University. From there, she started a career in TV production, working on several reality TV sets, before having an existential crisis over the seemingly simple questions: What are you doing? How are you contributing?
Realizing that reality TV wasn’t meant to be her legacy, she ended up volunteering five days a week for NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio and ultimately got hired full time. She spent four years learning the ins and outs of NYC politics and its structures, hoping to one day use that knowledge to effect positive change.
“I really enjoyed that type of advocacy,” Gonzalez recounted. “Talking to my neighbors, knocking on doors, figuring out what are the issues that they face, what are the things that matter to them?”
But according to Gonzalez, she started to feel that working in the NYC political sphere made her a bit of the token woman of color — and that she wasn’t truly being heard.
“You start off as this magical unicorn,” Gonzalez sighed. “It’s like, we are looking for diversity and your diversity matters, and then you give your opinions on how what they’re doing is not actually helping communities of color. Then you’re the squeaky wheel, and then you become the problem employee, because you’re pushing against something they feel is uncomfortable and divisive, and then eventually it becomes a place where you’re silenced and then you leave.”
Gonzalez refused to stay silent though. It seems this boldness stems from the fact that the two women she’s most inspired by didn’t have the means to elevate themselves or raise their voices. When asked who her work is most inspired by, she responds without a moment of hesitation “my grandmothers.” Both of her grandmothers grew up in a time when women, especially women of color, did not have the same access or potential to use their strengths and tenacity in the way women do now. Gonzalez’ maternal grandmother dropped out of school in junior high to take care of her family after her parents died. For the rest of her life, she tried to get an education through reading the books her brothers had, and by completing her children’s assignments with them. All she wanted was her GED, but her husband wanted her home cooking meals for the family.
“It broke my heart knowing she couldn’t do this thing that she so desired for herself, and she didn’t have the power to do that,” Gonzalez remembered. “Her tenacity wanted her to go down that path, but it wasn’t enough because those barriers existed. It would be foolish of me to not use the power I have in this moment in time to make sure that women, and women of color specifically, advance to the best of their ability, and I think it would do [her grandmothers] a great disservice if I just accepted things as they are.”
Along with her grandmothers, Gonzalez also credits Oprah as being a feminist icon she looks up to, because along with her rough upbringing, Oprah “was a woman of color trying to make it in a medium where women of color didn’t succeed. She built this empire. Oprah is everything.”
With these inspirations to guide her, Gonzalez is making sure that she is the difference she wants to see in our society.
What Gonzalez is doing to advocate
Besides She Fights, Gonzalez also co-founded Women of Color for Progress with a mission of creating an inclusive and transparent political system that empowers women of color to excel, lead, represent, and be heard. One of the main goals of the coalition is to help WOC political candidates get the support they need to run for office and help their communities by being their voice. Some of the resources this organization provides include connections to comprehensive training programs that are inclusive of women of color, mentoring opportunities, endorsements, and a strong base of volunteers.
Her advocacy in this realm also mixes with She Fights, both in the way she trains her girls, stands up for their space, and helps them reach their potential in all areas of life.
“Boxing is the conduit,” Gonzalez explained. “This isn’t going to be about self-defense at all. You’re going to come in thinking it is, but it’s not going to be self-defense. I’m going to teach you a strength about yourself that you didn’t recognize was there; you’re going to learn how to take that strength and apply it to things outside of boxing.”
For some of the girls, this takes the form of political activism. Using her experiences with Women of Color for Progress, Gonzalez even helped one of her girls organize walk-outs in the city after the Parkland shooting. By guiding her on how to build a timeline for outreach and get noticed, her student was able to go on and organize the demonstrations, get an op-ed published in the Gotham Gazette, and raise money to get a group of students to Washington DC to participate in the March for Our Lives.
Her student, “understood that those are the communities that are most heavily impacted by gun violence and is usually punished when there is high instance of gun violence, and they’re the ones that tend to be policed in ways that her white peers do not,” and so, Gonzalez helped her advocate on her community’s behalf.
Gonzalez is more than their boxing coach; she’s a mentor, teacher, and friend.
Besides growing She Fights in the hopes of expanding it beyond NYC, Gonzalez is going to continue to be a voice for the women and women of color who are voiceless. Women’s empowerment has always been important, but from the Women’s March, to the #MeToo movement, women’s rights seem to be at a critical moment — making it the perfect time to continue to push to end the inequality.
“I think now is when people are paying attention and understanding the importance of elevating these voices and elevating women’s power,” Gonzalez said. “It’s on people’s minds now in a way it that hasn’t been before.”
But, there is still work to be done when it comes to intersectionality in feminism. Thankfully, Gonzalez has a few tips.
“Part of what I do is I look at a room and say who’s not here? What am I doing that creates that? If you’re putting together the panel, make sure there isn’t a token [POC], but there’s parity,” Gonzalez advised. “If you are attending a panel, or there’s a panel that your interested in and you don’t see that parity, call them out on it. It’s really important to call people out on that bullshit.”
Gonzalez notes, if you’re the one organizing an event, make sure there is actually diversity, and also make sure you know when it’s time to stop talking and listen.
“Am I speaking when I should be passing the mic? I think that’s what a lot of white women should be doing as well. Are there lessons that I’ve been learning about activism, am I using it to elevate other white women, or am I using it to elevate WOC?,” Gonzalez suggests we ask ourselves.
For Gonzalez, one of the most crucial things is knowing when to take a step back, letting others speak for themselves, and then giving them the space to speak freely. She knows that real change cannot happen overnight. It will take work, but it is work that Gonzalez is prepared to do, and like the one rule she has for her girls when they enter the gym, Gonzalez truly believes: “You can’t say I can’t. You have to say I try.”
She Fights is planning their first ever fundraiser on Sunday, May 20, 2018. The event is going to be a one hour boxing fitness class followed by a brunch mixer. Money raised from the fundraiser will allow She Fights to purchase more gear for our students, expand the programs they are able to offer, and grow the number of girls enrolled in the program from the current 35, to at least 100 by the end of 2018. The event is being hosted by Rise by We, and sponsored by Society Nine, Quiet Punch, and Girl Gang Wraps. Tickets run from $50-$150, all of which include the one hour fitness class, food, and drinks. Tickets can be purchased at this link: shefightsfoundation.org/fundraiser
Also make sure to follow @she_fights on Instagram for more updates.