In the United States, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is expanding advocacy efforts to be a more effective Voice of the Poor. We are doing that with two major initiatives: growing leadership at diocesan levels and better engagement of those we serve in advocating for themselves. Our goal is to raise up the voices of those often ignored in the political process and help them better influence issues that most directly impact them and their communities.
This isn’t a new approach. People have been organizing communities and developing local leaders for many years. And we have learned a lot from that work. We know that we can’t just have people who live in nice neighborhoods advocating for affordable housing. We must also have people who live in substandard conditions standing shoulder to shoulder with us at a city council meeting helping civic leaders understand the problems. To accomplish that, we use our influence and social capital to open doors for those we serve. And, in the process, transfer that social capital.
We aren’t doing this because it’s the nice thing to do or to get points with St. Peter. We are doing this because empowering people is what our Rule teaches:
Vincentians endeavor to help the poor to help themselves whenever possible, and to be aware that they can forge and change their own destinies and that of their local communities” Rule 1.10
And it is one the most effective ways we can get folks out of need.
“The more assets a person has, both internally (conflict resolution skills, sense of purpose, etc.) and externally (housing, transportation, etc.) the more likely they will succeed.” Dr. Donna Beegle, See Poverty…Be the Difference
This approach requires us to systemically change our thinking. We do wonderful work on home visits. But, all too frequently, it is a “doing to” the person process. We pay their rent or their utilities. Then pray and hope for the best. More and more Vincentians, however, are asking deeper questions during the home visit and looking for ways to enkindle the family and to link them with resources to move them to financial stability.
Since 2012, when a small group of us became certified in the AHA Process workshop Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World, Vincentians have connected hundreds of financially vulnerable people with community resources that will help them move closer to stability. This approach is being utilized in more than 35 US cities. In addition, we have initiated programs to reduce recidivism for formally incarcerated people and helped them advocate for removing employment and housing barriers for these returning citizens.
We have done much more than dipped our toes in the empowerment pool. Now, it’s time to do a deep dive.
As I was preparing this piece, a song played in my music rotation that seemed like a benediction. It’s from the early 70’s and the title is the instruction: “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People.” When it was released, it was thought of as a protest song. Now, I believe it’s talking to us!
Jack Murphy is the president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Conference in Alpharetta, GA. He serves as the U.S. National Chair of Systemic Change and Advocacy. If you would like to see the two grandkids that he and his wife Nancy hold is great esteem, find him on his personal Facebook page. Otherwise, please connect with the Voice of the Poor Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Voice-of-the-Poor-147163592040872/).
Editors note: This is a group of Vincentian Family members who meet regularly at the request of the leaders of their respective branches. Their reflections do not represent Vincentian Family policy, but are shared to spur our reflection and action. Look for these contributions the third Thursday of each month. Comments are very much appreciated.