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Building leadership & friendship with Adivasi youth in the Nilgiris

Meet T Thirumurthi, Senior Associate Trainer part of our Niligirs Adivasi Leadership Program who is working with tribal youth in Wayanad, Kerala training them in community organizing to create change in their communities. We spoke to him about his experience as a trainer, organiser, coach and most importantly a friend to the tribal youth in the Nilgiris. He shares his experience working with the young leaders, the challenges & issues affecting PVTG communities in the Nilgiris, and their dreams and aspirations to create change.

1) What is your story, and how did you start working on social change issues?

I’ve faced discrimination since childhood, and while growing up, I saw people around me experience caste discrimination. This was one of the motivating factors to work for social justice, and why I pursued Bachelors’s and a Masters in Social Work. I’ve worked with children, and domestic violence survivors, in slum areas in Chennai, conducting various programmes and training on providing mental health support, and legal aid support. I also worked on domestic workers’ rights and safety.

During my first year in college, I was unsure of what to focus on, but being a young person, I know the support youth requires. I relate to the intersection of these issues and how our communities are affected, hence I want to work on social change issues.

2) Why is working with young Adivasi leaders from PVTG communities in the Nilgiris important for you?

As part of my Master’s, I was researching the socio-economic conditions and livelihood issues of the Paniya Tribe and learnt about the various issues they face, from discrimination and displacement to exploitation and domestic violence. They don’t have representation from the community and there is a lack of leadership. The other tribes in the region also face similar issues, and that’s when I first decided to work with the particularly vulnerable tribal groups in this region, especially the youth.

I believe if young people are nurtured and invested, they have the power and motivation to build a future and change the world, they can do anything. That is what the Nilgiris Adivasi Leadership Program is trying to do, invest in the leadership of young Adivasi leaders who want to organise to create change within their communities.

3) As a community organising trainer and coach, what has been your experience working with these young leaders?

This is my first time working with tribal youth, but as a young person myself, I’ve formed a bond with them. I’m not just a trainer, but also a friend, and they’ve found it easy to interact with me and talk about issues that they’ve faced growing up. When the leadership program first began, they would question why they should do something about the issues, and why can’t someone else take it up. But after our training sessions, they’ve started taking up smaller projects and working towards the betterment of the community.

They are very energetic, eager for what’s coming next and want to move forward. They share their own experiences, challenges and life stories, bond over their projects, and are motivated to bring other youth for training sessions.

4) What does leadership mean to them, and how do they understand it?

Initially, they understood leadership as a formal post or designation and thought leadership only meant political leadership or a leader in school. They now understand that leadership is about organizing people, and working in a decentralized manner towards a particular goal. We contextualised leadership for them, by giving them examples of leaders like tribal leaders like Ayyankali and CK Janu. They’ve understood what decentralised leadership means, and now are eager to take on things, and do them together.

5) You’re training these leaders in storytelling as a leadership practice — What role do stories play in the communities, and how much do they matter?

Stories are very important for Advisai communities, to pass on traditional knowledge, festivals, indigenous & forest medicinal knowledge, and hunting. This knowledge is fundamental to them, and it is through storytelling by the elders that the Adivasi youth understand more about their age old traditions.

After attending our storytelling and Public Narrative training session, they learned to share their personal stories showcasing challenges, strength & hope, and collective stories of their community as well. Once the youth shared their stories with each other in the session, everyone was very emotional and vulnerable. It became an intimate and safe space allowing everyone to open up, and through this feeling of vulnerability they learned to build more collective power. The interesting mix of happy, sad and powerful stories motivated and connected them. They started to understand each other’s issues, why they were all there together, not alone, and how storytelling played an important role.

6) What are some of the issues that affect them, and how have they been working on them?

Among the various issues they face are caste discrimination, child marriage, lack of drinking water and education, and not having access to proper documentation. They are not getting the same treatment in school, the youth are deliberately being picked on and abused by teachers and professors. They face discrimination in public spaces like hotels and are often beaten up. Government offices abuse the tribal community, because of their names, and features, and they discriminate against them, making them sit away from others. Most of them work in the labour sector with low wages, even children face a lot of exploitation.

The youth have now started working on issues as part of the leadership program, and are actively working on organising projects that address issues like getting drinking water, education, eradicating discrimination, etc. We selected youth who were motivated to do something for their community and who were really interested in moving the community forward. They are now going back to their village and coming back with their friends to join the sessions. They have started organising their communities, and some have already started seeing a change — Rakesh, a young leader organised to restart a jeep service to ferry children to school. Another leader organised their community and reached out to a local media house, to draw media attention to the poor condition of their roads.

7) Can you tell us a memorable moment or experience while working with them?

In one of our last sessions, we had a very powerful moment, as we managed to mobilise 54 youth for the training! The topic was building teams, and we were explaining a decentralised team structuring model which we call ‘snowflake’ or ‘spiderweb’ method. They wanted to come up with a more local name for the model, and they debated, discussed, and selected around 10 traditional names, as four different tribes has different names they wanted to pick. They finally agreed upon ‘Chiguru’ (leaf) and renamed the spiderweb module in their own language, and the context of their community & traditions.

8) Tell us about some of the leaders & their work

Youth leadership is definitely visible in the communities now, everyone wants to take up a role. For example, mobilizing some of the communities is difficult, especially the Paniya tribe, as they are comfortable in their routine of working and having a drink after. Binu from the Paniya community mobilised 14 youth from the community. It’s incredible to see the way he speaks, and motivates the community, “If others can do this, why can’t we?”. He is motivating them to dream of a better life, and currently, education is their primary focus, with school bags being one of the first things they’re working to get funding for. Child marriage is another issue they’re working on.

After learning about team building, the youth have taken up more responsibility, and there are an equal number of young guys and girls. A young girl named Jos is a star performer, as she tends to push things and question things for the betterment of the community. They are working towards bringing clean drinking water and building a new well.

9) What have been some challenges or difficulties you’ve faced?

Many of the youth, especially the boys, go for daily wage jobs, and it becomes difficult to work on their projects, They need more time, as they find it challenging to go back and build relationships with the community. They have to plan their day accordingly to attend the training, so we try to ensure that the sessions happen as per their schedule. Their needs are kept in mind when scheduling the sessions, the dates are then processed and fixed.

For Adiya and Kattunayakan communities it’s a little easier to organise, but youth from the Paniya community faces issues to gain trust from the elders in their community. In addition to that, there are a lot of network issues in the region, and it gets difficult to keep in touch.

10) What are you hoping for in the next few months from this journey?

My hope is that the youth take up more social issue projects, their relationship building with the community and other stakeholders improves, their resources increase, and they commit to their cause. I hope with sessions in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, we add up to around 400 youth who are organising their communities!

The youth want the project to extend so they can work with the Haiyya team and have someone to guide them along this journey. I’m positive that they’re highly capable and can work on their own, but it will be nice to have someone around to guide them.

This article is Part 3 of a multi-part blog series on the Adivasi Nilgiris Program. Read Part 1 & Part 2.

About Nilgiris Adivasi Leadership Program:

Haiyya in collaboration with Keystone Foundation, an NGO working in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve with indigenous people and local communities designed and launched a leadership & capacity-building program for 100 Adivasi youth. With on-ground training in Kotagiri and Wayanad regions of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the program is training the youth in the community organizing pedagogy by building a dynamic front of young Adivasi leaders.

T Thirumurthi, interviewed by Abhishek Desai. Abhishek (he/they) is the Head of Communications & Narrative Curation at Haiyya. He works towards disseminating learnings, resources & tools on people-powered movements across issues. His work has been published in national dailies and magazines on diverse issues of equality, rights, gender, sexuality, health, education, sanitation, civic issues and young leaders.

T Thirumurthi works with Haiyya as Senior Associate Trainer. With a Master’s Degree at Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development, MSW (Youth and community development)Tamil Nadu, and a Bachelor’s degree at Gandhigram Rural Institute of Deemed University, BA (Gandhian Social Work) Dindigul. Prior to Haiyya, he has worked on child rights, domestic workers’ rights, women’s issues, mental health, and young people’s issues. He was a project coordinator at Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Welfare Trust, Chennai, and program coordinator at Revamp Trust, Chennai.



Haiyya is a youth-led feminist movement building organization based out India. We equip social changemakers, organizations and citizen groups to learn, innovate and adapt to the needs of the changemaking landscape.

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Haiyya is a youth-led feminist movement building organization that works at the intersection of youth leadership, social justice and people power organizing