Vincentians are called to serve our neighbours living in poverty. Traditionally, we have done this by acts of charity. But also, we are called to help our neighbours to change the circumstances of their lives by helping them remove the barriers which keep which keep them in poverty. We call this part of our work, systemic change.
The definition of systemic change adopted by the Vincentian Family in North America is: “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 key element here is to empower those who live in poverty to participate in, and even direct, the process of identifying the root causes of their condition. They are the experts on their own situation and we need to respect their expertise in the face of our own biases, preconceptions and even our well-meant solutions. When we encourage our neighbours living in poverty to express their needs and participate in developing solutions, they and we become partners in the struggle for justice.
Sometimes, the solutions can be implemented at the personal level. A Vincentian might help the neighbour in need access a resource that will help her escape poverty. Helping someone enroll in an education program is an example. Sometimes, the solution can be found at the community level when we support the provision of affordable housing or an important health care program that can help the person to a better quality of life. Sometimes, the solution requires change at higher levels of government. We can advocate for labour standards that will make it possible for workers to afford their basic needs. We can promote minimum standards for income support that will enable people to keep their health and dignity.
Two key elements of quality systemic change initiatives are that they help change the overall life situation of the person and create a permanent improvement in the person’s life.
How does the home visit fit into the vision of systemic change? As Vincentians we are in a privileged relationship of mutual trust with people who live in poverty. We help with their basic needs and we provide social and spiritual support in a way that no other person or organization does. Because of this relationship, our neighbours in need can be open and honest with us as they express their needs, hopes and frustrations about their lives in poverty. We can work with them to find the best ways to break the cycle. We can be companions and mentors as they find ways to a better quality of life.
The mission of the Society is “To live the Gospel message by serving Christ in the poor with love, respect justice and joy.” To do this effectively, we need to address the issue of poverty at both the personal and systemic levels.
By Corry Wink
Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, Canada