Are we Finished with Systemic Change?

by | Jul 22, 2020 | Formation, Vincentian Family at the U.N. | 7 comments

Apparently some in the Vincentian Family think our systemic change (SC) work has run its course. That thinking may represent only a minority view. It seems to be largely unspoken but nonetheless needs to be addressed.  Several reasons for this thinking include the following:

  • Some are tired of the term SC. They want to move on after fourteen years or so of articles and workshops on SC thinking and action.
  • Others indicate how busy they already are. “My plate is full and now I’m supposed to take on what exactly?  A new ministry?”
  • I once heard a Vincentian, then in a significant position of leadership, say that systemic change is really for the “Third World.”
  • Some believe they are already doing SC.

First of all, given our often limited attention span, SC, to be effective and actually accomplish something, must be a permanent way of thinking about and approaching ministry and service of others especially the impoverished. It first changes us in the way we see and analyze problems, how we judge issues and how we respond. We have to constantly check ourselves to be conscious of applying SC methodology to the work we do if in fact we wish to help those trapped in poverty to create a better life.

I know the Vincentian Family is busy! If we encounter hungry persons, they first must be fed, before we analyze, hopefully with them, why this is so and what must be done. But the issue is whether our response gets to the root causes of social problems or stays solely on the surface of things. Our initial Charity must move on to bring about a measure of Justice through changing structures. Advocacy is often part of this effort, but to change anything thoroughly and permanently it must be creative and bold. St. Vincent offers such compelling examples of creativity and transformational work. Can we adopt that spirit and engage in bold advocacy for and with the impoverished, our chosen lot?

SC is needed everywhere. Certainly in the developing world but I often think that the entire world would greatly benefit by SC that transforms the systems and structures, the decision-making, of wealthy nations. After all, poverty is a policy decision, a deliberate choice. Poverty is not inevitable and can be eliminated.

The last argument is key. Everything we do is NOT SC. The incredible charity work our Family is well known for can be wonderful person and family promotion, but not SC in its full sense. The scale is limited, the change often only temporary. If we really see that everything is connected to everything else, forming systems we live in, we would have broader insights into effective ways to introduce elements of change leading to radical transformations. Charity, Blessed Frederic Ozanam reminds us, is simply not enough.

We could all challenge ourselves a bit more about the long-term effects of what we do, and certainly could profit from a continued reflection on what constitutes real and lasting change:

Systemic change for people 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 our way of thinking.

Jim Claffey
UN NGO representative of The Congregation of the Mission.


  1. Tom M

    Very convincingly presented.

  2. Ross

    Thank you, Jim, for the reminder. Let me just offer this prayer-pledge from St. Vincent:

    O God, by your loving kindness you have called us; may your infinite goodness, please, now help us persevere. For our part, with your holy grace, we will try with all our strength to summon up all the service and all the faithfulness that you ask of us. This is what I ask of you through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  3. Gregorio Bañaga, Jr., CM

    Firstly, congratulations Jim for your new appointment to be the CM representative at the UN NGO. I know you will do well at the UN. Will pray for you.

    Secondly, thank you for your article on SC. It seems it has truly ran its course. In some places, the SC teams have not gone beyond giving seminars. No projects that are really and truly SC have been initiated. I think it is crucial to show that SC works by having operational and viable SC projects.

  4. Jack Murphy

    I would offer that systemic change has not run it’s course. It just takes a very long time. Vincentians have been doing important direct service for 175 years. You don’t change that behavior very quickly.
    Our Neighborhoods of Hope work in Texas has taken several years to get off the ground. We are just now getting neighbors engaged in identifying the barriers to employment and finding ways to mitigate those barriers.
    Not every person in our parishes wants to visit people’s homes to give assistance. But we are thankful for their prayers and support. Not every home visitor wants to work to get to root causes along side people in need. But we are thankful for their service. Not every neighbor in need can see the horizon beyond this month’s rent. It takes time and patience to engage people in helping solve their problems.
    Don’t give up.

    • Ross

      Thank you very much for the encouraging words, for the idealism tempered with realism.

  5. Giulio Grecchi

    Your recent articles attest to how much you care about Systemic Change. Yes, we have barely scratched the surface of addressing poverty through Systemic Change.

    Poverty is not one issue, but the result of many other unattended problems. What we find as root-causes are mental and physical illnesses, disability, addiction, incarceration, exploitation, unfair wages, and unreliable or ill-conceived government assistance programs and so on.

    As a team of about 40 Vincentians, we addressed many issues at the local, state and federal level through Voice of the Poor and we had some successes. Through Getting Ahead and Mentoring, we touched deeply the personal life of over sixty people and their families – some developed great success stories, others are still on their way towards self-sufficiency, a few gave-up. Collaboration with local organizations helped us in finding needed resources. The challenges encountered forced us to develop a deeper spirituality. Relationships of mutual respect have been at the base of everything.

    However, after many years of working very hard on all of this, we realize how much we have underestimated the effort and the time that it takes to make a real difference at the individual and at the community level. This work is often three steps forward and two steps backwards.
    Addressing Systemic Change as a small team of committed individual, as we have done it, can only go so far, before the team eventually will exhaust itself. We need a jump in the quality of programs and the involvement of the whole organization. As you say “to be effective and actually accomplish something, Systemic Change must be a permanent way of thinking about and approaching ministry and service of the impoverished.”

    So while still embracing this work full-heartedly, we are looking forward to learn better ways towards Systemic Change.


    • Jim Claffey

      Giulio, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. Your comment and Gregg Banaga’s go directly to the critical reflection our commission is having now. The world is changing and we cannot even predict what life will be like post-pandemic. We have begun dialogue among ourselves about how we might have to adjust our work going forward.
      But let me take this opportunity to ask you to forward your ideas based on your experiences in this arena as we go about this. Thanks again,

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