Advocacy and Systemic Change

by | May 10, 2017 | Formation, Systemic change | 3 comments

“Speaking truth to power….Making our voices heard—”    

Advocacy: the process of supporting a cause or proposal, pleading or arguing in favor of an idea or policy.  Advocacy is active, not passive, and can take many forms.  But for Vincentians it means taking the side of the poor and oppressed.

Advocacy is a word that describes the ways we can effect change, working with people living in poverty, to change not only their personal situation but the systems that have contributed to their situation.  Advocacy is a type of “social” or “political” charity. (Ladies of Charity, Primer on Advocacy)

St. Vincent was an active, vocal advocate for the poor at court, with the powerful of his time, seeking changes in favor of those mired in poverty.  It is our legacy to be advocates for the poor in today’s world.  Advocacy is an integral part of systemic change.

The bishop of San Diego, USA, recently called for Catholics to be advocates as “disruptors” (of unjust systems) but also rebuilders, a striking way to describe the prophetic call to denounce but also announce.

Advocacy is both art and science.   

It involves science because advocacy demands much research and preparation, deep and complete social analysis, and some community organizing.  If we do not adequately analyze the situation we live in, in all its inter-connected factors, we cannot present a solid argument for change.  If we have not enlisted significant community support for the cause, we will be dismissed as lone voices.

Advocacy is an art as well because so much depends on our creativity, our presentation of ourselves and the issues.  Do we have a brief, clear and compelling way to synthesize our cause?  A symbol, a phrase, an image that reaches people and rallies support?

Advocacy is a significant tool for systemic change.  The fourth strategy identified as successful in Seeds of Hope, Stories of Systemic Change develops the importance of participation, networking and political action to effect structural change.  Advocacy is the best example of this approach.

We can advocate for others, for the poor, for those without a voice in society.  But today we know that the most effective advocacy happens when those who suffer poverty and injustice are empowered to speak for themselves.  Only they can really change their own situation, and they have shown over and over that they can do so.  Advocates such as Vincentian Family members committed to justice can accompany, can assist, can help prepare the poor to advocate for the changes they need and deserve.

A simple way to begin to foster advocacy for systemic change in the lives of the impoverished and marginalized might be to help them research the rights they already have but are completely unaware of, like rights enshrined in national constitutions or municipal regulations, e.g. for renters, for the physically challenged, for children.  Help people speak up for what they already have a right to, moving on to more difficult issues.   This is political action, and non-partisan, and shows people what they themselves can accomplish in changing unjust structures and systems that keep them mired in poverty.

Jim ClaffeyJim Claffey just retired from the St. Vincent de Paul Society on Long Island, where he served as Director of Formation and Programs. Jim currently serves as the executive secretary of the Vincentian Family’s International Commission to Promote Systemic Change.




  1. Elske de de Visch Eybergen

    As a former child advocate, I was taught that it is important to use your head, mouth and heart in advocacy work. Much requires that we understand how to navigate systems and educate those we serve how to ask questions, to achieve what they want. By listening to understand, we can empower those with whom we journey, to have better lives. In Ontario,Canada it is critical for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, to stand together with others to ensure that people have access to adequate income, stable housing and food security. We should not work alone but in conjunction with other like minded organizations and people.

  2. Sr. Martha Beaudoin,D.C.

    We here in Emmitsburg have used the Getting Ahead program to enable the investigators in the program to study the resources available to them. They also study the social classes, their rules and language to determine the best ways to approach those in power. Instead of just giving a hand out, we believe that a hand up is more effective. In the coming months and years we hope to effect real change in our community.

  3. Sr. Martha Beaudoin, D.C.

    The website listed in the above comment is incorrect. Please see the correction below.

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