Striving for a Gender-Sensitive Global Space: Kirthi Jayakumar

By Avilasha Sarmah in Editor's Pick 26/06/2019

Kirthi Jayakumar calls herself a lawyer by education but in the professional space she has been a social volunteer, an entrepreneur and even self-coded an app! Her extraordinary story revolves around creating the Red Elephant Foundation, a global organization that advocates gender equity and civilian peace-building. Operating on a zero budget, without an office and only by volunteers, the Red Elephant Foundation works with leading schools and organizations to end gender based violence and has managed to help women in distress in about 196 countries through the Saahas App.

 

“Perhaps Red Elephant was in the making, it just didn’t find its outlet until a certain point, which happened to be the 16th December incident in Delhi.”

 

Talking about the origin of the Red Elephant Foundation, Kirthi says that it coincides with her own story. It started when as a young schoolgirl she faced bullying, including gender based violence. The gender based violence ranged from being beaten to molestation.

 

“Growing up in that space I think, I saw what suffering looks like up close and it just felt that was where I had to be.”

 

It was the 2012 Delhi gang-rape, which Kirthi calls the second biggest wake-up call in the post 90s space after Vishaka. She had just finished her graduation and became an online volunteer for the United Nations at 25. Working with the NGO Delta Women earned her the US Presidential Services Medal (2012). She was part of a digital campaign team using social media to translate into offline action –  putting together a school for children at Delta State.

 

“The Award was unexpected. I was insignificant. But that work to have made an impact for the President of the United States to have thought of it as worthy of giving a medal, it felt tremendous.”

 

But in a turn of events post the 16th December incident, she felt that it was a nudge that her direction must be different. While in the UN, she came close to the narrow understanding of ‘gender’ that was prevalent.

 

“Gender was a very common basis of discrimination. People didn’t understand the dynamics of gender.”

 

These catalytic moments of motivation gave birth to the Red Elephant Foundation 6 months after the 16th December incident. 

 

Painting the Elephant in the Room Red: About the Foundation

 

 

“The idea is to paint the elephant in the room red until you take notice of it and talk about it.”

 

It began with Kirthi telling her own story of being bullied on her blog. Using her blog as a medium helped reach living rooms faster. “Former bullies came back to me to apologize, which was so trans-formative because it set two people free in each conversation, myself and every person who hurt me and walked away with the guilt.”

 

Kirthi’s own experience formed the basis of the Red Elephant Foundation. It began with the core team talking to people and transcribing the stories of survivors of bullying and gender based violence, and publishing the stories on the website.  The impact of this method was such that it influenced schools to use these stories in their classrooms. Kirthi and her team were called to work with students which eventually encouraged them to create a curriculum. When classrooms started showing response to become zero tolerance spaces for bullying, they realized they had a formula in place.

 

“The stories gave them a chance to think. The curriculum gave them a chance to act and articulate.”

 

The Red Elephant Foundation is built on the foundations of story-telling, training, tech-for-good and advocacy for gender equity and civilian peace-building. As Kirthi explains, the motive is to deconstruct the unhealthy aspect of one’s beliefs that could be harmful for both them and others. “Putting the truth in the tools to find the truth in your hands, and for you to figure out how you use that,” Kirthi says.

 

The foremost step the foundation follows when engaging with people, is to always  create a safe space. “When you come into our space, we want you to recognize that it is a positive space where you can be yourself,” says Kirthi.  With it also comes the assurance of no judgement. “You say what you wanna say and I am gonna say what I wanna say.” This helps create a mirror, such that it triggers a reflection which allows one to look at themselves and realize the parts they need to work on. “It’s something that’s playing with your beliefs. It’s coming at you with a very subtle way of telling you, buddy, what you have been learning, it’s kind of wrong.”

 

This is mainly done with culture based stories because a lot of the conditioning sets in from culture. “We take fables from your culture, present them to you and ask you to look at it in the right view.” The idea is to differentiate between, as Kirthi puts it, “what your culture tells me and what you think your culture tells me”.

 

Talking about one’s problems could be challenging. To help aid the process, the foundation adopts a method called “intervention spaces”. “The idea of building a space then becomes ‘interventional’ where you actually facilitate room for people to feel safe,” explains Kirthi. They conduct a lot of activities towards building trust. It could involve games or even one of the members of the Red Elephant team being vulnerable. “If you can present yourself as vulnerable to another person, they will see that they can trust you.”

 

For a  foundation that works around gender violence, naming it ‘Red Elephant’, Kirthi says, was to break the serious nature these kind of organizations generally have and start a conversation instead.  “If I called it center for something, I would be intimidated and not show up at work!” She says that the idea is that people needn’t get intimidated that Red Elephant is trying to take their beliefs out of their system. “Rather we just work with them, walk with them, to help them change their mindset.”

 

 

“Culture, references, beliefs, ideas can be conditioned specific to a border in a specific direction. But pain is universal.”

 

Kirthi says that we live in an interconnected world wherein what affects one also affects another. “If anything is affecting you making your world unsafe, it is also affecting me making my world unsafe, even if I don’t directly feel the pain of it.” In that case, drawing borders seems contradictory.

 

Keeping this in mind, Kirthi knew that the tools of Red Elephant had to be universally available. Although their presence is largely in Chennai, they have had Skype sessions with students in Pakistan, Germany, even older women in Ireland, and students in varied parts of Africa, including physical sessions in Delhi and Alwar.

 

A Zero Budget Global Organization that runs only on volunteers!

 

 

“The model that the Red Elephant works on is give me your time, when you can. Give me your skills, if you can, when you can.”

 

Kirthi says that she herself is a volunteer and takes no pay from the organization, encouraging the same work module for everyone involved. The motive is about giving back: “If you believe that you want to give to the world something, and you have the skills, drive and the desire to do it, we’re one of many places where you can go and do it.” She says that people have even come volunteering for an hour. This has been the reason the right team has come on board. “Apart from two people in my core team, I have not met anyone in person.” 

 

Kirti says that she is mainly very conscious about whether the solutions that they provide have a future. This is because the problem of gender based violence has a very long future, she explains. This is one of the fundamental reasons why Kirthi decided that they won’t seek funding. “Because until we know this is working, that money can be put into it, I didn’t want to do that.” Also usually the money that comes in from large scale donors, says Kirthi, has its own limitations. “I don’t want to come to a place where after taking money I am in a space where I am wondering whether what is asked being asked of me is right, or whether it is compromising on my values.” In their 6th year now, Kirthi has started putting her own savings.

 

Being a “zero funded model”, they have zero administrative costs, apart from just their website. They do not engage with an office space because they are mostly digital. They charge private schools for their workshops and use that money to pay the trainers and the reminder goes in making free workshops for children from marginalized communities.

 

Kirthi explains that because of their limited resources, the Red Elephant Foundation lacks a marketing burst, especially when it comes to the outreach of the Saahas App. But for one, they are always open to spaces that allows them to talk about it, initiatives like She Leads Tech by Facebook. It helped her get the promotional materials for about a year. “It is not an easy job to have to build your own marketing space, if you’re an introvert.”

 

In spite of that they have been able to help close to 7000 survivors that they know of. “Those that need it are getting access to it,” Kirthi says.

 

“The problem persists because the problem persists. It is not because we are not doing enough. It is not that any organization is doing wrong.”

 

Kirthi says that every organization, feminist, men, women, gender non-binary have been raising their voices and the fight matters. It is very important to know that “This is the space where more the collaboration, the more impactful the change will be. Lesser the competition, the more impactful the outcome.” The one thing we tend to struggle with, she says, is the gamification of space which encourages competition. “The truth is that we can all work together because we are all doing the same work.”

 

“This kind of work involves limited funding and resources, and those that have those resources force you to compete with one another to win those resources. When you compete, you’re building walls.”

 

 “We don’t need to be silenced for what we are already capable of giving back to the world.”

 

“So many spaces that women occupy today is because some women worked for this for nameless, faceless, countless women in the future.” This is the legacy we need to uphold. Their non-remunerated emotional labor became our safe spaces for today.

 

“The point is if I can go to sleep every night recognizing that at least one person is benefited and no person has been harmed, because of actions that I have taken; thoughts I have had; or beliefs I have had presented; then that’s all I am aiming for,” says Kirthi.

 

I am a wanderer who loves to write! Places call out to me and I enjoy making poetry out of moments. Do check out my book – “When the Cuckoo Called”.


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