Vincentians and systemic change

by | Sep 6, 2014 | Systemic change, Vincentian Family

SVDP system changeVincentians and Systemic change

This phrase “systemic change” has been discussed in recent years throughout the Vincentian Family. In 2006 an international committee was established by Father Greg Gay, the Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, to focus on systemic change. That committee, initially led by Fr. Bob Maloney, offered workshops in various parts of the world and composed a book, Seeds of Hope, on systemic change. In the United States a workshop was held for interested members of the Vincentian Family in North America. After that workshop, the North American Vincentian Family Collaborators (VFC), a committee with representatives from various branches of the Family in North America continued work on systemic change. In 2009 the VFC developed a definition of systemic change that the members agreed to use. The leadership of the many branches of the Vincentian Family that gathered for a meeting in 2011 adopted that definition for the entire Family in North America. This is the definition.

I. The Definition and an explanation

“Systemic Change among those living in poverty aims beyond providing food, clothing, shelter and alleviating immediate needs. It enables people themselves to engage in the identification of the root causes of their poverty and to create strategies, including advocacy, to change those structures which keep them in poverty. Systemic Change requires transforming attitudes.”

The VFC came up with this particular definition for a number of reasons in order to cover a series of issues that were considered important for Vincentians.

First of all, the VFC wanted a definition that focused on people living in poverty. There are many ways of viewing systemic change. As Vincentians the VFC wanted to stress the efforts at systemic change for people living in poverty.

Secondly, the VFC wanted to stress the complementarity between the positive and helpful ministry of working to alleviate the immediate needs of people, which is the ministry of charity, and aiming beyond those needs to work at overcoming the causes of those needs, what is considered as the ministry of justice. In stating that systemic change “aims beyond providing food…” VFC wanted to affirm that those immediate concerns are appropriate for Vincentians and yet Vincentians can also move beyond them to seek out the causes of those needs.

Thirdly, VFC wanted to affirm that it is important to involve the people Vincentians seek to help in identifying the root causes of their poverty. There is always a danger of well-intentioned people viewing a situation of poverty from outside and coming up with their ideas and plans to eliminate the causes of the poverty.

Sometimes, the helpers may come up with the correct ideas. However, that approach may simply lead to the people in need continuing to be dependent on outsiders to help them in their difficult situation. Involving the people in the situation to be partners in the process will do more good in the long run as it will help them to realize more adequately their own giftedness to face and resolves the challenges they face not only in the present situation but in future situations they may encounter. In fact, the people living in poverty may have clearer insights into the deeper root causes of their poverty than people looking at the situation from the outside.

Fourthly, by the involvement of the people living in poverty in the process, all, working together, will be able to develop more appropriate strategies for each particular situation to change the structures which keep people in poverty.

Fifthly, it is important to realize that VFC did include the change of structures in our definition of systemic change, though in relation to the people themselves. Some approaches to systemic change begin with focusing on the systems or structures themselves and only then look at the people who are affected. VFC affirmed the value of beginning with the people and yet realized that in promoting systemic change, there needs to be change in the structures that keep people in poverty, whether that is an educational system, an economic system or even the system of the people’s lives in which they seem trapped.

Sixthly, VFC included in the definition the work of advocacy as one of the ways to root out the causes of poverty. Advocacy can be viewed in a variety of ways. It can be seen totally as a political effort of people doing all they can to influence for change in local, state or national governments. There is nothing wrong with this kind of advocacy, as long as it is done morally with the focus on the issue and not on political parties or individual politicians.

The kind of advocacy Vincentians promote is based on our commitment to alleviate the causes of poverty in our society, rooted in our Vincentian perspective on Catholic principles of social justice. Vincentian advocacy can be focused on local, city or county governing bodies, on community districts, on state, regional or national agencies. As long as Vincentians keep the focus on the issues and not on particular political parties or individual persons, there is no need to be concerned about being labeled partisan. Vincentians are political in the sense of advocating in the body politic of the community; however we are doing it not for our advancement but for the advancement of those living in poverty. Examples of this kind of advocacy are working for the following: just wages for workers, better schools and their environments for all children, particularly those in poorer areas, legislation against extravagant payday loan interest rates, housing for people in poverty, immigration reform.

Finally, VFC wanted to remind Vincentians that systemic change is not simply about helping people living in poverty to become independent; it also involves transforming attitudes, our own as well as those of the people living in poverty. We need to grow in our Vincentian identity by coming to see our own poverty and how we can learn from people living in poverty; some of those people have greater Faith in God and trust in God’s help than we do. Some of us may enter into this process seeing ourselves as better than people living in poverty. We may need to realize more honestly that were it not for the situation into which we were born and raised we would be the persons living in poverty.

II.The connection between systemic change and our identity as Vincentians.

Though the term “systemic change” is relatively new among us as Vincentians, a case can be made that St. Vincent de Paul actually did systemic change. The institution of the Daughters of Charity and the Congregation of the Mission are examples of promoting systemic change in behalf of people living in poverty. Just consider what was the system present in Vincent’s day regarding religious women. They were women living in cloistered monasteries, engaged in prayer and ministry. Vincent did not want to form a religious congregation that would live in a monastery. He wanted women who would be free to work among the poor on the streets, women who would even leave their prayer to go out to those in need telling them they were leaving God to go to God. In the formation of the Daughters of Charity, Vincent changed the system or at least created a new system of committed women; he did not even want to call them religious. In this way, they would be freer to go out to serve the poor. Nowadays there are so many religious congregations active in society that the Daughters do not stand out as unique. However, in his day they were and their creation led to the formation in later years of many others, following Vincent’s systemic change regarding the formation of active religious women.

The story of the origin of the Congregation of the Mission is similar. Vincent saw the need for a group of priests and brothers, living together and yet committed to going out “to evangelize the poor.” He did not see Vincentians as another religious order committed to the rules and practices of the religious congregations of his day like the Benedictines and Franciscans. Like Vincent’s approach to the Daughters, he did not want Vincentians to be called religious priests and he did not want our formation to be the same as religious orders. We were to be secular priests living in common and going out to evangelize. This was a form of systemic change in order to create a group of committed men in the service of the poor.

There may even be a case that Vincent initiated a change in the very system that men in France were prepared for ordination to the diocesan priesthood. He introduced the practice of having these men make a retreat before ordination so they could be better prepared and focused on the spiritual identity of their ministry. He also became involved in helping priests be more focused on their priestly ministry through the Tuesday conferences for priests. In our day, these seem like rather insignificant things, since there is a prolonged seminary formation program, including spiritual formation. However, in Vincent’s day, that focus was not present. As a result, it seems fitting to say that Vincent promoted systemic change even though he never heard or used the expression. And he did it so ministers would be better prepared to serve people living in poverty.

Frederic Ozanam founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society in 1833. Its original focus was to offer direct and immediate aid to people living in poverty. And yet Frederic also made this affirmation in the early years of the Society “You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis; you must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty with the aim of a long term improvement.”

III. What to do about systemic change?

As long as we maintain the service of those in poverty as the focal point for Vincentian ministry, the work of developing and promoting systemic change in our ministry is appropriate. In fact, if we see systemic change as a way of doing what Frederic Ozanam said about studying the conditions and the injustices which brought about such poverty with the aim of a long term improvement, then we are doing an even better job of moving people from poverty to independent living. The VFC discussed and proposed three basic ways for Vincentians to become involved in systemic change projects, one is by seeing if it is possible to add a systemic change dimension to a present ministry of Vincentians, another is by starting a new project that is rooted in systemic change and a third is though advocacy

A. Modifying present ministries.

A simple example of this approach is to add a budgeting dimension to a direct service program for people. By offering simple classes on budgeting limited income, we can help people to see how they can live on whatever income they have by more careful planning and budgeting. Eventually, these people may become independent and no longer need direct assistance from our ministry.

Another similar approach would be to reach out to people living on the streets or in overnight shelters to see if any of them would be helped by a drug rehab or AA program. If they could be, a ministry might be able to direct them to such programs and offer some assistance; if successful, these people might be able to become independent of the need for such dependent living situations. The Ozanam Inn shelter in New Orleans offers such programs and leads residents to independence, truly systemic change in their lives.

B. Developing entirely new programs.

To help in discovering or creating systemic change projects, the VFC adapted a list of criteria originally presented in “Seeds of Hope” that need to be considered. They are:

  • Long-range social impact: the project helps change the overall life-situation of those who benefit from it.
  • Sustainability: the project helps create the social structures that are needed for a permanent change in the lives of those previously living in poverty. The people move from dependency on others for what they need to independence. e.g. they now have sufficient resources, such as food, finances, housing to live independently.
  • Replicability: the project can be adapted to solve similar problems in other places, in a variety of circumstances.
  • Scope: the project has spread beyond its initial context and has been used successfully in other settings.
  • Innovation: the project has brought about significant social change by transforming traditional practice.

Another way of presenting criteria for determining systemic change projects was developed by the Western Province leadership and the Franz Foundation.

  1. Involve the poor themselves, including the young and women, at all stages: the identification of needs, planning, implementation, evaluation and revision.
  2. Have a holistic vision, addressing a series of basic human needs – individual and social, spiritual and physical – especially needs like jobs, health care, housing, education, and spiritual growth.
  3. Place particular emphasis on self-help and self-sustaining programs that have a special view toward addressing the root causes of poverty.
  4. Foster transparency, inviting participation in preparing budgets and in commenting on financial reports, while promoting good money management and maintaining careful controls over the use of assets.
  5. Construct a shared vision with diverse stakeholders:  poor communities, interested individuals, donors, churches, governments, NGOs, the private sector, unions, the media, international organizations and networks, etc.
  6. Are new or introduce a new, systemic change approach into an already-existing project.

C. A Third way: Advocacy as a way of promoting systemic change.

Besides the two ways described above of developing programs that promote systemic change, the VFC definition of systemic change included the word, advocacy, in its definition. This is significant because the VFC wanted to support a form of systemic change that is not always understood appropriately. By advocacy, the VFC meant that Vincentians can go before local, state and national organizations to seek to change regulations or laws in the interest of assisting those in poverty in moving from dependency to independence. This approach includes going to legislative bodies to advocate for change in laws or to support new laws that will help people living in poverty. Obviously, the greater number of people advocating for changes or new laws the better the chances for influencing the law makers and succeeding in assisting those in need.

The difference between this kind of advocacy and partisan political lobbying is that the focus of Vincentian advocacy is on issues and not on politicians or other people. Secondly, our focus is not on promoting our agenda but the agenda of people living in poverty. Thirdly, our motivation is the teaching of Jesus Christ, Catholic social teaching and our Vincentian principles. To sign up to become involved with this form of advocacy, you can sign up for “capwiz” and you will receive periodically information on issues and opportunity to contact your legislators to voice your opinion. The website for signing up is

A specific structure of this kind of work for systemic change is the “Voice of the Poor” program of the National St. Vincent de Paul Society. The Society has been working on systemic change in this way for several years, both nationally and through Diocesan Councils of the Society. One can become a member of the Voice of the Poor network by going to the national website of Voice of the Poor at or simply search (google) SVDP voice of the poor and scroll to the first reference of SVDP and Voice of the Poor.

That website offers one the opportunity to learn more about Voice of the Poor, to get on the mailing list and to learn how to form a Voice of the Poor group. The site also includes eleven

position papers on issues the National Society has spoken out on including the following: immigration, predatory loans, human trafficking, affordable house, just wages. Individual Vincentian priests or brothers are welcome to join and to form Voice of the Poor groups in their ministries.

  1. Other resources regarding Vincentians and Systemic Change.
  2. If anyone wants to learn more about systemic change among branches of the Vincentian Family, an obvious source is the web site of the Vincentian Family and specifically the section devoted to Vincentian Formation. Simply google “Vincentian Family systemic change formation resources” and click to what will probably be the first entry on the list that surfaces.
  3. The National St. Vincent de Paul Society office in St. Louis has a “flash drive” with much information on systemic change: documents, handouts, planning a training session, presentations and even videos. You can purchase the flash drive through this email address, or simply contacting the office in St. Louis.
  4. A number of members of the Vincentian Family have given presentations on systemic change. You can contact them for possible presentations or for help in planning your own for your ministry. Sr. Caroljean Willie, S.C., Sr. Julie Cutter, D.C., Sheila Gilbert, President of the National St. Vincent de Paul Society.

This material prepared from various sources by Louis Arceneaux, C.M. revised 8.6.14