Being a young person from the Northeast of India is not easy. It comes with a special set of challenges. In a region so rich in nature and culture, tough geographical conditions, political unrest, lack of infrastructure and neglect from the government create a glaring dearth of resources and opportunities for youth.
Many young people in the region are faced with serious issues – violence, militancy, army atrocities, poverty and unemployment. It is natural for any young person to feel anger, hurt, disillusionment and resentment under such circumstances.
But the most beautiful thing about youth is hope. There is a growing tribe of resilient change makers in the Northeast, who are rising strong and creating spaces for young people to be their best selves.
CYC brings to you the stories of 5 inspiring youth workers from the Northeast whose work deserves recognition and honour. Their stories show us how they used their life skills to navigate their tough emotions and how their inner journeys led them from ‘me to we’.
Father Jerry Thomas, Director, Bosco Institute – Jorhat, Assam
Sometimes one incident has the power to change your entire life. In 1992, during the separatist movement in Assam, Father Jerry was caught by the security forces. He says, “I managed to come out rather soon and I forgave the guys who caught me. However, when I came back home and looked at my injuries, I was very angry. This incident made me think about the lives of young people who are caught in such violence everyday.”
This reflection inspired Father Jerry to research why young people were joining militant groups and leaving their homes as a part of his Masters degree in Social Work. “That was the biggest turning point for me where I realised that I cannot be a bystander anymore. I was a part of this,” he says.
From then onwards, the youth work Father Jerry was engaged in became more focussed. He says:
“In the Northeast (as anywhere else with young people), there is a lot of rebellion and when not taken seriously, it gets out on the street in the form of militancy and other social disturbances. That is why I wanted to create a safe space where young people can rebel, express themselves, be accepted and understood.”
From 2001 to 2007, as the director of the North Eastern Regional Youth Commission, Father Jerry led a peacebuilding program for young people. “We saw amazing results – after attending this programme, young people stood up against violence in their own communities and they saved other people’s lives during ethnic clashes.”
Father Jerry has been actively engaged in youth work and social work in the Northeast since the last 30 years. He now heads Bosco Institute in Jorhat, Assam.
The institute offers a Masters programme in Social Work affiliated with Dibrugarh University. The programme has 72 students aged between 21-26 from different states in the region.
Bosco Institute also provides fellowships to students who want to launch social startups.
“At our institute, I have seen a number of young people who have changed their career options to find more meaning and go beyond just getting a job. Today 14 of our alumni have started their own social initiatives,” says Father Jerry.
Father Jerry believes that youth workers need to focus on self-discovery first. “Don’t talk to young people about a good future. First, give them the space to discover themselves so that they can build their personal foundation. Then give them access to resources and opportunities available in their local area,” he says.
Deep Jyoti Sonu, Co-founder, Farm 2 Food Foundation – Jorhat, Assam
Deep Jyoti Sonu recalls what it was like to grow up during the time of social unrest in the Northeast. “There was hardly any person then who was not touched by the social and political realities of 80s and early 90s. I was also very disturbed by what was happening,” says Deep.
“The young were very frustrated and wanted change. Back then, boys my age thought that an armed revolution was the only way to bring change in the society. That was also the popular narrative during that period,” he says.
Forced to move out of Assam, Deep started studying at Delhi University. An opportunity to volunteer with a people’s movement left him with a life-changing revelation. He says:
“I had an opportunity to volunteer with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) and participate in the anti-Tehri Dam movement. This taught me that change can also be achieved through non-violent means like satyagraha (peaceful protest).”
In his own words, Deep got the “shock of his life” when it dawned on him that his friends and cousins who died during violent agitations had paid a huge price. This reflection motivated him to make an unconventional career choice.
Deep began to work at Pravah, a youth centric organisation in Delhi. During working with youth in schools and colleges for 8 years, he developed a deep understanding of the relationship between the self and society. “The most powerful lesson I learnt was that self Introspection and change from inside is very important and that’s how my journey began,” he says.
In 2011, Deep decided to return to Assam and bring his journey to a full circle. He and his friend Gaurav combined their passion for education and agriculture to start Farm2Food Foundation. Their vision was to enable youth to become agri entrepreneurs by using an innovative education model for a peaceful and prosperous society.
“The biggest challenge for the youth in the Northeast is that they are not getting space to grow. For example, the children of tea plantation workers usually drop out of school so that they can work in tea gardens and earn. They see it as more beneficial than sitting in a classroom listening to something that they cannot understand and relate to,” explains Deep.
This is why Farm2Food works with children in government schools to teach them subjects like maths, science and nutrition creatively by growing their own food. They have worked with 350 schools till date and are currently running programmes in 65 schools in Jorhat. Through their fun lessons, they have managed to arouse curiosity even among children who find studying very difficult.
Deep encourages young people and youth workers to do inner work, express themselves and communicate their ideas. “Believe in yourself even if you feel vulnerable. The most important thing is to keep on talking to people. Never ever lose faith in dialogue,” advises Deep.
Jenpu Rongmei, Founder, CAN YOUTH – Dimapur, Nagaland
Jenpu’s work with dropout youth in Nagaland comes from a place of deep empathy. Money was scarce when Jenpu was growing up – his father was unemployed and his mother single handedly supported the whole family. Both Jenpu and his younger brother dropped out from high school. While Jenpu found himself a job as a salesperson, his brother battled depression and found recourse in drugs.
As his brother’s addiction grew deeper, he faced rejection from the rest of the family. The only person he could reach out to for help was Jenpu. Unfortunately, before he could go to a rehab, Jenpu’s brother passed away.
It was at this point that Jenpu realised how his talented brother became so vulnerable just because he had no options. His brother’s death inspired Jenpu to work with school dropouts so that they could gain skills and make a living. He says:
“I saw that there was a lot of talent and commitment among young people yet they had no opportunities. If parents here educate their children, they expect them to get government jobs but many people don’t get jobs even after they finish their formal education. They become frustrated and depressed. Being an entrepreneur is also hard because there is no funding.”
Jenpu started youth work through an informal group in 2010 which he then converted to a formal organisation in 2013. This is how Community Avenue Network (CAN) was born.
“Nagaland has the highest student dropout rate in India. The youth here want peace and meaningful jobs. At CAN YOUTH, we first ask young people what their interests are. We have developed a life skills training which enables young people to discover themselves. We nurture youth capacities by facilitating skill-based trainings for them,” shares Jenpu.
Today CAN YOUTH has not only helped young people gain precious skills for self-employment but also become trainers. For instance, a young man who learnt cane craft at CAN now has his own production unit and conducts trainings for other youth.
Jenpu takes pride in CAN YOUTH being a community-driven organisation. “I am happy to see so many young interns and volunteers coming from all over the Northeast to work with us,” he says.
A youth worker is bound to face some tough situations. Jenpu shared his key life lessons to overcome odds. “Life is not always going to be easy or beautiful. But you can choose your attitude towards it. We all fail. Instead of focusing on young people’s failures, encourage them. And remember, don’t stop trying,” advises Jenpu.
Jamkhojang Misao, Founder Director, InSIDE North East – Saikul, Manipur
Jamkhojang, who is called Hejang by everybody, remembers being a highly curious child. He often conducted small experiments that got him into trouble at home. From taking apart a brand new wrist watch to see how it worked to accidentally almost setting his house on fire while testing the electric current, Hejang was already working on his dream to become a scientist.
Hejang’s father passed away when he was just four. His mother found it difficult to support his education along with that of his four siblings. So he started working at a young age to pay his school fees.
At the age of 15, Hejang witnessed the horrors of the ethnic conflict between the Nagas and Kukis. More than 900 innocent Kukis lost their lives and more than 100 villages were uprooted as a result of the conflict. He felt vengeful and joined a village defence force camp and underwent a rigorous guerilla warfare training.
When his group about to attack a village, Hejang realised he did not want to cause others the same suffering that he had undergone himself. He decided to quit and left the camp. Later he was shamed and called a coward by other young boys. “Boys at that time felt that being in a militant group was as prestigious as being an IAS officer,” recalls Hejang.
A few years later, Hejang was going to a village with his friends to attend a wedding. The security forces detained him and beat him black and blue on mere suspicion. Another time, while he was in college, the army conducted a combing operation in the campus where he was selectively picked up and blindfolded with a soldier pointing his gun at his head. They left him alone only after they discovered he was a student.
Having personally faced violence, Hejang came to understand that young people in Manipur are stuck between the military and militants. He decided it was time for change.
Hejang embarked on his journey as a youth worker and initiated the gun to pen campaign. He and his friends also started a music band. “We wanted to bring back the smiles of people who had lost their happiness due to so much violence,” says Hejang. He organised ‘Smile Concert for Peace’ in different conflict areas of Manipur.
After graduation, Hejang entered the development sector in 2001 but he continued doing youth work at an individual level. After 11 years, he went back to college and did Master of Social Work (MSW) at the Bosco Institute in Assam. This renewed his inspiration and in 2013, along with his friends, he co-founded InSIDE North-East (Integrated Social & Institutional Development For Empowerment.), a non-profit organisation based in Saikul, Manipur.
Today InSIDE Northeast works with women, children and youth. They promote non-violence and life skills among young people by using the power of games, sports and music. They also work with women by enabling them to start small businesses and becoming financially independent.
Though Hejang still faces challenges, he loves what he does. He says:
“My mother and elder brother were so disappointed with the career I chose that they called me mad. They had big hopes that I would get a nice job. I do find it hard to manage my family with the kind of income I have. Yet this is the only work that gives me true satisfaction.”
Hejang believes that a youth worker must develop clarity, courage and above all – love. “As a youth worker, be very clear about the issue you want to address. Be fully prepared for any eventuality and have a strong determination. Youth work is not for profit-making. The intention of youth work is to bring about change and it has to be done with love. Without love, nothing can be done,” he says.
Indrajit Sinha, Co-founder, WAY Foundation – Guwahati, Assam
Indrajit Sinha discovered that his calling was youth work when he attended a Republic Day parade camp in New Delhi as an NSS volunteer. There he meet more than 200 youth leaders from different colleges across the country.
“I spent a month with enthusiastic young people doing amazing work at the university level through NSS. I got inspired by listening to their stories of community action and self-development. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a youth worker,” recalls Indrajit.
At that time, Indrajit was studying food science and nutrition in Assam Agricultural University, Jorhat. “The practical lessons in the lab could never excite me as much as working in the community,” he says. So he enrolled into Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development (RGNIYD) to pursue a Master’s programme in Youth Empowerment.
Indrajit shares the big moment that ignited his passion for youth work. He recalls the moment when former President of India Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was visiting his university. Dr. Kalam saw Indrajit’s artwork and told him, “Young man, your art can heal lives, channelize it.”
There has been no looking back for Indrajit since then. Fresh out of college, he co-founded We Are Young Foundation (WAY) in Guwahati, Assam in 2013 with the dream of nurturing active citizenship among youth in the region.
It’s hard to find funding when you’re starting out a youth organisation. “Each day there is a new challenge around finance and we somehow manage with the little funds we have in hand,” shares Indrajit.
Despite this obstacle, Indrajit used his creativity and love for travel to raise funds for his social venture.
In 2014, he rode his bicycle for 65 days and travelled solo all the way from Guwahati to Jammu, covering 2,500 kilometres – to raise awareness on adolescents’ rights and issues.
Today, WAY Foundation engages with school children by teaching them life skills. A small programme that started with 2 schools in 2013 has now reached 25 schools. They also work with college-going youth by facilitating leadership journeys, workshops, camps, internships and volunteering opportunities.
“We are creating youth-led spaces that are rooted in local communities and the tribal context, where the needs of young people are understood,” he explains.
Youth work is challenging and Indrajit does not deny that. “My daily challenge as a youth worker is my own journey within. Many times when I interact with young people coming from difficult situations, I start questioning myself and that motivates me to find answers.”
We hope that the stories of these amazing youth workers from the Northeast have inspired you to dream, dare and rise strong.
If you want to get an idea of what youth workers do, then be sure to read a day in the life of a youth worker. Also, if you’re interested in being a youth worker, then head over to our blog post why a career in youth work is awesome.