Uncomfortable with systemic change?

by | Apr 13, 2016 | Formation, Systemic change | 5 comments


Uncomfortable with systemic change?

It is no secret that many people are uncomfortable with systemic change.  It seems to be so hard to get a handle on. On the other hand there are others who are comfortable with what they think is systemic change. Actually what they are comfortable with is simply a new label for what they have already been doing.

What is systemic change? Using the example of hunger, the real problem is not how to supply food, but how to address the cause of people not having enough to eat: the socioeconomic system in which they live. Addressing the cause means intervening in a way that results in the system as a whole being modified.

The principle of systemic change, in the context of works among the poor, looks beyond the immediate need of providing food, clothing and shelter. Its particular focus is on assisting the needy to change structures in which they live and on helping them develop strategies by which they can emerge from poverty.

“Systemic change” should not be confused with “systematic change.” The latter phrase refers to a planned, step-by-step process. “Systematic change” can have very positive effects, but it may be limited in its scope, focusing on changing only one aspect of a larger system. “Systemic change” goes beyond that and focuses on the whole system. Put differently, systematic change describes a process: a way of bringing about a result. In contrast, systemic change is a result in which a complete series of interacting elements are transformed.

Although systematic methods may be used to bring about systemic change, systemic change requires tools made to help change attitudes. So, to use a phase often attributed to Albert Einstein, systemic change thinking helps us “to learn to see the world anew.” It provides tools for focusing on relationships among elements of a system, interprets a group’s experience of that system, and promotes structural change within. (http://famvin.org/wiki/Systemic_Change,_an_Introduction)

Coming back to the fact  that many people are uncomfortable with systemic change while others are comfortable with labeling what they have already been doing as systemic change, both these positions tend to have in common not listening to and involving those who are in need.

I remember a few years ago being present at a “listening session” held by a group from the St. Vincent dePaul Society. Someone finally realized it might be good to ask the marginalized people they hoped to serve what they could do better. To make a long story short when they listened to the people they were amazed to learn that their food bank was not open at times when those who needed their services could come.

This is not an example of systemic change  because it did not address the system that created the hunger. But it is a fine example of not involving and listening to the voices of those who are marginalized. (Of course some might say the systemic change was learning to listen.)

Systemic change involves the sometimes the messy project of listening to how people themselves perceive the problem. People often lack the words or confidence.

It is all to easy to come charging in with our ideas of what will work.

Some months ago I read of a celebrity who thought the problem with poor people was that they did not know how to shop economically. She was advocating a program of nutrition education. It sounded like a systemic change approach…until she experienced the problem herself.

When she was challenged to live within a meager budget in a particular neighborhood she discovered that she did not understand the problem people faced. This neighborhood was what is called a food desert. The only option was convenience stores. People did not have access to supermarkets with better quality food. Nor did the have enough money to purchase larger quantities with resultant savings.

The systemic change needed here would be advocacy to make it feasible for a supermarket to survive in that neighborhood.

A systemic change approach is necessarily interdisciplinary. And it involves many different actors within society. Among them: the poor themselves, interested individuals, donors, churches, governments, the private sector, leaders in business, unions, the media, international organizations and networks.

Too often our real problem is with the first on this list. Too often we do not pay attention to the poor themselves by listening to them.

In works among the poor, systemic change has aims beyond providing food, clothing and shelter to alleviate the immediate needs of the poor. It focuses on assisting the needy to change the overall structures within which they live. It looks to their being able to develop strategies by which they can emerge from poverty.

How is all this Vincentian?

Keep in mind that Pope John Paul II implored Vincentians in 1986:

Search out more than, with boldness, humility and skill, the causes of poverty and encourage short and long-term solutions — adaptable and effective concrete solutions. By doing so you will work for the credibility of the gospel and of the Church.

In our efforts toward systemic change, we seek not only to assist the poor in their immediate needs by providing food, clothing and shelter. but to help them change the social system within which they live, so that they might emerge from poverty. That work carries forward the heart of Vincent’s direction for the Vincentian Family.

Some questions about our projects:

  • when did we last ask our “clients” how they saw the problem?
  • did we involve the marginalized in defining the need?
  • how is this project addressing underlying causes and breaking the cycle of dependency ?


  1. Lynn L'Heureux

    Wow! thanks for writing this. You have given me the words I need to change the minds of some Vincentians who think they are doing enough. Listening to those in need is a great idea. Going forward in listening to their advice is the missing link. I once challenged my Vincentian group to live for a month on the income our friends in need have. I also told them I would even allow them not to include their mortgage. The lesson was valuable to maybe 1/4 of the ones who took the challenge. They got it. They formed a group and gave up the finer things giving the money to start a programme to improve our service to those in need.
    Bless you for this.

  2. S Julie Cutter

    Thanks for reminding us of the key practices of listening to those in need and inviting them to articulate what they need. The book Toxic Charity surprised me with examples of how ineffective and disrespectful our service can be if we do not listen and invite solutions before we serve.

  3. rebecca

    Where can we get a copy of the book Toxic Charity ?