It always intrigued me to know how every face has a name, and every name has a story. It drew me, like iron chips to a magnet, to know that these stories are bunched up into statistics to report a wrongdoing, or to report a phenomenon. So you often don’t hear how a daughter left home to get her first salary only for a bomb blast to claim her life on the way. You often don’t hear what it feels like for one to wake up in a new land after being driven out of her own homeland thanks to war – to be tagged with the label refugee. You seldom hear of the story of survival, of how a woman fought the burden of stigma and social isolation after surviving sexual assault, to own her life and lead it on her own terms like a true victor.
In December 2012, I turned 25. In the run up to my birthday, I was actively involved in a range of based programs: the Connection Point Dialogues by Peace x Peace, volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering Service, and working as a Commissioning Editor with E-IR among other things. Through these many different platforms, I had the opportunity to interact and learn from some of the world’s most amazing women. Everything I imbibed made a huge difference to me and my life. In the run up to my birthday, I went to sleep each night with thoughts that centred around this one question: what if I could bring all the voices of these amazing people I had interacted with, onto one platform, and take them out into the world so people could be inspired to act, as I was?
Two days after I turned 25, I went to the US Consulate at Chennai to receive the US Presidential Services Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama, and presented to me by the then Consul General, Ms Jennifer McIntyre. Later, at the First UNV Partnership Forum, I would talk about my experience as a Volunteer, in successfully helping open up the first college in 30 years, in a village in Nigeria. In a few days, I would also receive the UN Online Volunteer of the Year Award for it in 2012.
Even after all this, call it what you might, the wheel of fortune or whatever, but a chance encounter with a trigger brought all my repressed memories back, and I finally came to terms with a truth I had dissociated with: that I had survived abuse as a child. That night, I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to use my voice in a way that it would be heard, in a way that people would know that my voice would count, too.
I was already doing that – screaming through my own blog and whining occasionally on the kind and bountiful space that another would offer me every now and then. I had friends who shared a similar passion – and needed a little space to get out there. So I decided that I’d tie in my second book with an organisation that would be the voice of girls and women everywhere. That night, the Red Elephant Foundation was born.
Kirthi speaking at the UN Volunteers Forum
As is wont to happen, when you start an initiative, especially in the dead of the night, your mind fills itself with ideas. And since you are the only staff member of the newly founded initiative, you give yourself orders to implement these ideas. Over the next few months, the President doubled up as the Plumber, the CEO donned the cape of a Carpenter, and the Executive Member became the electrician. The nuts and bolts of creating an organization were not easy – but being a lawyer by education helped me choose. For a year or so, the organization ran without anything beyond a platform online. I interviewed survivors and changemakers and told their stories. Then, trusted friends and former co-workers got on board to head different divisions, and my core team soon grew to encompass one of the most inspiring teams I have and will ever work with. Through our stories, we pivoted our key goals around gender equality and civilian peacebuilding. We told stories of women, men and transgendered people who fought and overcame odds and braved through difficult situations. We then built up online visually driven campaigns that took forward the core values of gender equality, that culminated in peacebuilding through dialogue.
By and by, we realized that we had a sustainable readership. But what if the buck stopped there? We wanted the conversation to go on, and so, we kick started dialogue programs and workshops, both online and offline, so as to be able to get in as wide a participatory community as we possibly could. Slowly, we realized that we could build into the space of training and hosting workshops with communities at all levels and ages, to encourage critical thinking. We began to workshop with a series of schools across the world, and built our own community platform for peace and gender-based curriculums called ChalkPeace. Soon, we are growing into a space where we kickstart our revenue model of raising funds through workshops. Until then, my team and I are working on a purely voluntary basis, and effecting change through the power of an equally great investment: Time and Effort.
Assistance to help sharpen my skills were always around, thanks to the benevolent selflessness of several global organizations. I made it to the Vital Voices’ VV Lead Fellowship, and to the World Pulse Voices of the Future program, and more recently, the Local Pathways Fellowship Program.
Today, when I look back, I see that every day involved a learning experience that no university could give me. I had no management skills, no leadership training, no understanding of what a business model should look like. I wasn’t afraid to fall, and I wasn’t slow to get up when I fell – because it was imperative that since I started the journey, that I would continue. The process was not easy: I had hate mail. I had people calling me names for being a feminist. I was labelled a freak and what not. Many laughed at me. Still more thought I was crazy. But what stands out for me, is that I move, every single day.

About the Author:

Kirthi Jayakumar is an activist, artist and writer from Chennai, India. She founded and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, a civilian peacebuilding initiative that works for gender equality through storytelling, advocacy and digital interventions. She is a member of the Youth Working Group for Gender Equality under the UNIANYD. Kirthi is the recipient of the US Presidential Services Medal (2012) for her services as a volunteer to Delta Women NGO, and the two-time recipient of the UN Online Volunteer of the Year Award (2012, 2013). Kirthi is also the recipient of the Global Peace Prize 2016, from WeSchool, and the Rising Star of India Award, 2016, from We The City India. Her second book, The Dove’s Lament, made it to the final shortlist for the Muse India Young Writers’ Literary Award. Kirthi was recently invited to the United State of Women Summit at the White House in Washington DC, as a nominated changemaker. She is also a Zen Doodler, and her works have been commissioned by corporate establishments, non-profits and art collectors world over.

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