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 a day before the horrific incident in New Delhi, where a young girl was gang raped on board a bus. 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.
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. I realized the power in telling my story, and in sharing the truth that helped build empathy. I learned how people become closer, and more peaceful, when they empathize. To empathize, we must know. To know, we must talk. To talk, we must build faith. To build faith, we must be open, and must listen. That night, I remember thinking to myself one night 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 remember thinking that it wouldn't just be my voice that would be heard, but the voices of all those that were otherwise unheard.
That night, the Red Elephant Foundation was born.
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. The power of voluntary work cannot be undermined - and even if it is not profit-generating business, it is certainly impactful.
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. I was threatened on social media. Many laughed at me. Still more thought I was crazy. But what’s important, is that I stood for what I aimed to achieve, and keep going, with it.
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. Through this, I got to work closely with the likes of Elsa Marie D’Silva (Safecity), Agnes M Fallah Kamara (Straight from the Heart), Nicole Joseph (Ms Brafit), Rashmi Tiwari (Aahan Tribal Development Foundation) and Neelam Pol (Khel), among others, and tell their stories through The Red Elephant.
Today, when I look back, I see that I’d use an elephant as a reference point for the initiative since we were going to be engaged in telling stories that would spark conversations that we simply must be having. I chose red – because, well, who doesn’t remember something red waving in their faces? The idea, thus, was, to address the Red Elephant in the Room. With time, I realised that there was a deeper significance to the elephantine connotation – one that life’s amazing ways found a way to make happen. And that made me realise that we have a place in the universe. Thisamazing web-resourceput it neatly:
“Elephants form deep family bonds and live in tight matriarchal family groups of related females called a herd. The herd is led by the oldest and often largest female in the herd, called a matriarch. Herds consist of 8-100 individuals depending on terrain and family size. When a calf is born, it is raised and protected by the whole matriarchal herd…. Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years. It is this memory that serves matriarchs well during dry seasons when they need to guide their herds, sometimes for tens of miles, to watering holes that they remember from the past. They also display signs of grief, joy, anger and play.”
Unwittingly, I’d named my initiative after a symbol of matriarchy – a symbol of a world quite the opposite of ours, where females are revered, and given the respect they deserve. To be able to carry it forward, and to be able to stand up in rooms filled with men and boys and train them on gender equality creates a sense of Euphoria that words are not enough to describe.
We have many Elephants in the Rooms to address. Until we get there, I mean business.