One Future Inspire | Kirthi Jayakumar: Art, Activism and Peace-Building


One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.

Team One Future interviewed Kirthi Jayakumar, an Indian women’s rights activist, a social entrepreneur, a peace activist, artist, lawyer and writer. She founded The Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative built on storytelling, civilian peace-building and activism for gender equality. 

Please tell us a little about your personal journey. What led to the birth of Red Elephant Foundation?

The idea was in the making, but didn’t quite catalyse into the form and shape until June 2013. But the story, though, begins on the night of December 17, 2012. On December 15, 2012, I had turned 25. On December 16, 2012, 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 abuse as a child. 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 get issues that were otherwise covert, out into the open. The vision was to change the landscape through storytelling.

What are the projects you are currently working on?

Right now, there are a bunch of new things coming up this year at The Red Elephant Foundation. We’re setting up what, for all intents and purposes, is India’s first Peace Journalism platform. Besides that, we’re excited about saahas, saruki, and our peace and gender education programs on ground that will be scaling up this year!

From doodling with Femcyclopaedia to your book The Doodler of Dimashq, art and words find their place in the centre of activism. What is the connection between the two?

For me, personally, art and activism are intricately connected. I find myself both gravitating toward viewing art that makes me think, and toward creating art that can make me think, and hopefully, take others along on that exploratory journey, too. The truth, though, is that I’m a very, very, very, very infinitesimal artist without any training, so a lot of things that I consume and produce as art is very very very nascent – so I don’t quite know if any of the art I make has, or will, make a mark!

Kirthi doing what she does best

What are the challenges you face at work? What are the resources or requirements — what do you need — to work in this field? (personal disposition of team members, resources, etc.)

The key challenge I meet is resistance to the work itself. Don’t get me wrong – you have both, receptiveness and resistance. However, the resistance is so strong, and the receptiveness doesn’t always turn into a payforward, 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, TOUCHWOOD, been blessed to have turned the resistance into receptiveness through education. But the greater landscape is fraught with a lot of obstacles. I think society can make a turn around if all the influences on society honestly dovetail into the same message of gender equality. It is not enough for organizations to work with the youth and their parents and address issues like consent and 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.

There’s a surge of feminism in India. What does it mean to feminise a space, especially in the Indian context?

To acknowledge that multiple oppressions exist, that one’s gender experience is a function of several oppressions, and to dismantle ALL patriarchal structures – be that gender, caste, class, religion, and so on.

What would you like for people to understand better about your work?

That we’re here to walk alongside, and not impose our ideas on anyone.

Which country’s policies on equal rights are worth learning from and why?

Every country’s policies are worth learning from – you get lessons on how to get it right, and how to avoid doing something that’s absolutely ridiculous and wrong. It’s dangerous to say that one country is ideal and another’s got it wrong – because each country has unique factors to it that make some strategies work, and some not work. That said, I’m interested particularly in the indigenous practices of the Babemba people, the values of Ubuntu and Ho’oponopono, the Gacaca and Lisan methods, for example, – which have all been used (of course, with their own flaws) in different contexts of building peace.

Tell us about three books or three people that have changed your life.

Everyone I come in contact with changes me in some way – including those that I disagree with and those that disagree with me. The same for the books I read, honestly! 🙂

If you could go back in time and speak to your younger self, what is the one thing you would tell her?

Keep your 6th grade math notes, you’ll need them at 27.

What is your advice to the youth?

HEY! I’M YOUTH TOO. I’m 18 with 12 years experience. But that experience is not good enough to offer advice. Maybe I’ll just say, “What have you got to lose? Go ahead and learn what feminism is.”

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice