Interview by Nisha Dhawan, Editing by Anobik Saha
Kirthi Jayakumar, founder of the Red Elephant Foundation, is a change-entrepreneur, wanting to heal the world and bring about a change in mindsets. She wants to make people aware of gender-based violence and ways of responding to it. She is living her childhood dream of “helping people”. Her initiative, The Red Elephant Foundation supports the community through its app, Saahas – a directory comprising 40000+ organizations across 196 countries offering medical, legal, education/employment, resources (food, shelter, clothing, emergency support), consular and refugee-specific support, police and ambulance services for survivors of gender-based violence and child support services. Read on to learn more about this amazing woman.
Hello Kirthi. Thanks for taking out time to speak with us. Please tell our readers a bit about yourself.
My name is Kirthi Jayakumar. I was born in Bangalore, and grew up between my grandparents’ home in Bangalore and with my mum, dad and brother in Chennai. I grew up with stars in my eyes, hoping to do medicine in the hope of “helping people”, until I realised that I could do that with development, too. I studied Law in Chennai, mostly because my father is a lawyer and if I failed in a career in development, I could still fall back on my father’s practice. Once I left law school, I began working in the corporate sector and in litigation. My colleagues were wonderful, doing some great work, but something about the system had me running out, kicking and screaming. It got me thinking that many cases that sat warming the benches in the judiciary could have been addressed had the people involved been aware of their rights from the start. This led me to start volunteering with the UN Online Volunteering System and a couple of other organizations in Chennai. To put money in the bank (because it did, at that age, irk me that my peers were earning and I wanted to save the world without a pie to my credit) began freelancing with local publications, legal journals and publishing initiatives.
Over time, I gained some understanding of the way things worked, and realised that one of the most common narratives in the journey remained tied to the gender quotient. If I worked with communities on awareness on their Right to Public Health, I noticed that women were kept out of it. If I worked with communities on their right to clean water, I noticed that women had little or no access. Similarly, for food, education, healthcare, infrastructure, jobs and what not. It hit me that there’s so much sitting on one domino – gender inequality. If we improve it, this enormous global burden of inequality could be eliminated. You can see that I imported an idealistic mindset into my adulthood – I was an idealist as a child, I used to dream of a world where we would all sing songs together and eat muffins (food of choice then, haha!) and just be together without fighting. I try to hold onto that little girl’s ideas even today.
What is the Red Elephant Foundation? What’s the story behind the name and what is the philosophy behind its work?
The idea behind Red Elephant Foundation was in the making, but didn’t materialise until June 2013. The story, however, begins on the night of December 17, 2012. I had turned 25. On December 16, the gang-rape in Delhi, as most people know, took place. On December 17, 2012, I was at the US Consulate General at Chennai, receiving an award for my work with a US-based NGO called Delta Women, which worked for the rights of women in the US and in Nigeria, and the right to education for children in Nigeria. When I received the award, I truly felt like a hypocrite – because here I was, receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done, and when a girl was battling for her life because we as a community sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy, misogyny, toxic and hegemonic masculinity, and inaction on part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant. I went to bed that night, thinking of how much we had allowed to pass in the name of “we are like this only“. It was on the same day that I had come to face a dissociated past, where I had completely blocked out my own memories of facing child abuse. I decided to do what I could on my own, and started by telling my story.
Six months later, I looked back to see how telling my story had made a difference: one, parents and to-be parents began to be vigilant about the vulnerability of their children and began to work with their children to have open conversations towards staying safe; two, I realised that I began to feel better and my own personal comfort levels felt like they were higher because I had owned my narrative instead of dissociation and my journey to heal began, and finally, that people were beginning to talk openly, and address issues that were otherwise covert. The vision was to change the situation through storytelling. But after a year, we had reached a plateau. People were talking but there were no solutions.
We started investing time into legal and policy research that we now use to suggest and inform change. We also work with the youth and their parents through workshops, to shift mindsets through interactive and educational workshops to make them internalize gender equality as the norm. Then came a time in the journey when we realised that try as we might, the shift could only provide massive ripple effects in the future.
But in the present, there is a desperate need to address the state of violence against women. One aspect of this has been to help women get out of a violent environment and get help.
This led us to work on developing a tech tool, here, which maps organisations across 197 countries, providing medical, legal, resource (food, shelter, clothing, crisis response), education and employment, police and medical services and consular establishments so that women can access them, get help, and stay safe. To help make the map accessible, I taught myself to code and created a mobile app called Saahas.
How does it feel to move towards such an ambitious goal? Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
It is a big, audacious goal, indeed! But we take pride in every marginal gain. If we’ve changed one mindset, that’s important and rewarding for us. And so we walk, like the man on the shore who threw starfish back into the sea. I guess it goes without saying that you have both, receptiveness and resistance. However, the resistance is so strong, and the receptiveness doesn’t always turn into a pay forward, that it seems like the resistance is gaining greater ground.
From our work, I can safely say that we’ve had both, receptiveness and rejection, and have been blessed to turn the resistance into receptiveness through education. But the landscape is still fraught with obstacles. It is not enough for organizations to work with the youth and their parents and address issues like consent,sexual violence and personal boundaries, if pop culture is going to normalize the objectification and stalking of women. This, again, can come only if we collaborate. My greatest grief comes from the competitive nature of organisations working in this domain. We are not in competition. We can make a difference only if we collaborate.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I doodle, read, and make up fun lyrics to songs and sing them inside my head 🙂
Where do you imagine your foundation, the Red Elephant Foundation, five years from now?
I dream of a point where initiatives like ours would no longer be needed. If we plant the seeds now, this dream could turn into reality in another two generations. So five years from now, you’ll see us planting more seeds of change!
How can people connect with you and the foundation?
Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer with us, or follow us on Social Media. We also love collaborations, so if you have an idea that you want to see materialised in a way that can add value, please write to us. 🙂
How can the readers of Indspire Me spread awareness about causes that they are passionate about? Please share some tips.
- Never stop learning. Your journey ends the moment you decide you cannot or have nothing more to learn.
Collaborate, rather than compete. Competition renders already limited resources doubly limited. Collaboration expands limited resources.
- Be inclusive. There is nothing in the world that can be achieved by exclusion or restriction.
- Be open-minded. There are lots of things around you that you can learn from and gain from, and open-mindedness lets you see that and seize that opportunity.
- To quote Rudyard Kipling, treat success and failure in the same way: as impostors that shape-shift from time to time. Everything is a learning experience that keeps on moving.
Editorial Note: To read more inspiring and candid interviews of people like Kirthi who are changing the world, click here.
Anobik is passionate about his purposeful work as a digital marketing professional at a U.S.-based leadership tech development start-up. In the past, his intellectual pursuits led him to explore several domains that include working as a graphic designer, freelance writer, proscenium theatre artist and learning French. After work hours, he dedicates time to his lo-fi music production and prepping for the next trek in the Himalayas. His recent trysts with meditation and yoga now take up most of his headspace, pondering over and learning about the boundaries of human potential, breakthroughs in neuroscience and emotional intelligence. His favorite movies are Into the Wild, Frances Ha and Valley Uprising.
Nisha Dhawan is a fashion and English literature student. Her interests lie in fashion , fitness , travel and photography. She is an animal lover who wishes to do something big for the homeless animals in the near future. She has a pet dog named Tyson.