The Secret to Enacting Social Change: There Really Isn’t One
“Social change” is one of those vague terms we constantly hear, but what does it really entail? Though the phrase itself means quite simply a change in cultural or societal structures, the mechanisms through which it is achieved can span a spectrum from social activism through protests and demonstrations to using lived or indigenous experience to empower one’s own community. There is no singular, absolutely correct way to enact social change, but it’s important to remember that desires to enact social change can easily devolve into potentially problematic instances of the privileged “aiding” the underprivileged. In the first few weeks of this internship with Orora Global, it was apparent to me that bringing about social change can take on myriad forms, and the role you play in affecting that change can be big picture planning down to nitty gritty fundraising efforts. At Orora Global, the fundamental approach to social change is one that is both inspiring and effective, and stresses the importance of intersectionality and true compassion above all else.
Savitha Sridharan, the founder of Orora Global, is an extremely driven woman from southern India who, after many years of schooling and moving about, found herself wanting more for women, for the impoverished communities of rural India, and for the environment at large. As a result, she created Orora Global with a mission to create social change that would meet all three goals. The importance of these intersecting goals has grown increasingly clear to me these past few weeks as I have learned that real sustainable social change is utterly unachievable unless the strategies and tactics used also address oppression and marginalization. Orora Global aims to eradicate—or at least alleviate—energy poverty in impoverished, rural communities while simultaneously empowering women in these communities and using environmentally sustainable solar energy.
To build towards her larger vision of holistic, intersectional social change, Savitha uses an incremental project-based approach. She started out with specific problems in mind: many towns in rural, southern India lack access to electricity but desire such vital services. Simultaneously, these communities have high levels of abuse and assault of women. Her approach to combatting both issues is to provide solar lamps to women in these communities and train them to sell the lamps. In this way, she is able to empower women by teaching them entrepreneurial skills, providing them with a source of income, increasing their social status, and improving their safety at night by providing them with light.
Though Savitha is aiming to correct many forms of injustice and initiate social change on multiple fronts, women’s empowerment seems to be of utmost importance to her. Part of what makes Savitha’s project so powerful and successful is how close to her heart the issues are. After just one lunch we shared together, it became so clear how passionate she is about the problems at hand, precisely because they come directly from her own life and experiences. The battle she fights through Orora Global is truly hers to fight—she is a woman from southern India who has been through so much, and because she has found a way out, she now wishes to use her capacities to build an empowered community of women for women. As her company grows, Savitha is able to tailor what she offers to each community depending on the needs as well as expand the geographic scope of the outreach. After implementing this solution in a few communities, Savitha realized that her solutions were often short-lived because in many villages, people’s homes and lamps are washed away and destroyed during flood-season. As a result, Savitha decided to adapt her approach by expanding beyond simply solar powered lamps to building solar-powered homes that are more resilient to floods. In addition, Savitha is rapidly expanding the physical reach of her strategies for social change; what started out as targeting one community in rural India has expanded to many villages in India, and is now growing to other countries as well.
People in the western world who seek to enact social change abroad often assume the role of the “white saviors” with the resources and solutions to solve the problems of the less fortunate. But these westerners aren’t always conscious of the dynamics that outside resources and solutions create and end up overwhelming—and sometimes even harming—rather than empowering indigenous people with their limited knowledge and arrogance. Savitha and the approach she takes through Orora Global’s work, however, have renewed my faith in advocates for social change. Orora Global is an organization created by a woman from the area in which she wishes to enact change who is now using her own success to go back to her roots and help empower people just like herself using her deep knowledge of the communities and the social systems in her native India. She is proving that social entrepreneurship and contributing to social change abroad can be done mindfully and successfully.
So what is the secret to initiating or motivating social change? Maybe it’s acknowledging and addressing intersectionality, maybe it’s starting out small and scaling up, or maybe there really isn’t one at all. Nonetheless, a deep-rooted passion for progressive change as well as a thorough understanding of the cultural context in which one works are absolutely vital, no matter the mechanisms one wishes to use to promote social change.