Social Work vs Social Reform

Inspiration feeds the resilience that we must cultivate as we continue to patiently anticipate the books getting published. Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956) comes to mind as an exemplar of someone whose tremendous energy implemented social innovation. Dr. Ambedkar was inspired by Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, a nineteenth century revolutionary thinker who pioneered women’s education in India with his wife. Babasaheb, as he came to be known, was the principle architect of the Indian Constitution who campaigned against the Hindu caste system by sparking the Dalit Buddhist movement. Born into the Dalit or “Untouchable” caste himself, he dedicated his life to social justice and reformation.


B.R. Ambedkar

Shakti Bhise, the 2013 Dalai Lama Fellow from TATA Institute of Social Sciences of Mumbai who I met at this summer’s Ethical Leadership Assembly, told me about both activists after I gave my presentation at the ELA. As someone who is familiar with the Tibetan refugee community of India, Shakti celebrated Snow Lion’s tangible goals by alluding to a distinction that Phule was aware of back in the mid 1800s. Shakti presented to me the profound difference between social reformation and social work. The idea can be summed up in the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” As Shakti put it, feeding a man one day is social work but providing skills is reformation, and Snow Lion is a good example of social reformation.

By providing books to children, Snow Lion is planting a seed and joyfully giving the shoot the space to grow as it will. In other words, the “tangible results” with which funders preoccupied themselves will manifest in ways that we cannot expect—and this is the reformation part of it. We cannot foresee what will transpire on a generational scale, but what we do know is that education is the roots of empowerment. At risk of condoning warfare language, and yet comfortable with my decision to use the quote because Nelson Mandela said it: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”



  1. Bidisha Banerjee

    Beautifully written. Very inspiring to see your openness to learning from the other Fellows. Thank you for sharing. Keep us posted!

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