Text of the presentation by Patricia de Nava at the Vincentian Family Gathering follows. This presentation also received a standing ovation. In the near future it will be available as a podcast and a movie.

Acting together against poverty and its causes

Vincentian Family Gathering 2007
San Francisco, CA


This story started more than four hundred years ago. In Pouy, a small village in the south of France, Vincent De Paul was born. We know very little about his childhood and youth, but many things have been said about his life as a visionary leader, whose spirit is still alive, especially through his followers, an enormous crowd of people inspired by his mission and his teachings.

In the early Seventeen Century, Vincent recruited ordinary people, and ask them extraordinary service. He called a group of society women, actually Ladies of Charity, named AIC all over the world, not only to raise money, but to serve the poor spiritually and corporally in an organized way. He sent Vincentian Priests, throughout Europe and abroad, even before they were ready for the tasks. He hired strong country girls to offer direct service to the poor as Daughters of Charity. He gave high potential people more opportunities, and put them into jobs before they were ready, but he did not abandon them, rather he managed form afar, through 30,000 detailed letters, and so created a sense of belonging, values and culture . He urged these three foundations, to work, collaborating with one another, to alleviate the sufferings of those who suffered from poverty, oppression and injustice. We can say, with pride and joy, that Vincent himself planted the seeds of the first Vincentian Family.

This important fact was often forgotten, and his followers worked isolated, limited to their own organization, without creating links with other Vincentian branches.

II. THE VINCENTIAN FAMILY: A great force to change the unjust situations which oppress the poor

1. A dream, an answer, a challenge

It was in 1995, when the Vincentian Family got together, for the first time at the international level, responding to the invitation of Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., at the time Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission. The Vincentian Family was a dream made real, a way to find better and more effective ways to respond to the cry of the poor, and also a big challenge:

  • To find intelligent and concrete ways to work together for and with the poor
  • To share our similarities and our differences
  • To be faithful, from our own reality and using our own means, to a common mission and charisma
  • To learn to work together avoiding protagonist attitudes and fights to achieve power.

2. Acting together against poverty and its causes: Globalization of Charity.

After a period o mutual knowledge, the heads of the main Vincentian Family branches decided to implement several common projects, under the lemma: Globalization of Charity, and proposed to work together against hunger and malaria, two calamities that often are the product of structural injustice.

In most of the countries where the different branches are present, National Councils of the Vincentian Family have been created. Many common projects have been implemented at the local and national levels.

In the last few years, the International Vincentian Family has proposed a common theme for the International Journey of Prayer, meant to inspire our actions and to find new ways to get organized and serve the poor efficiently. In 2006, the reflexion was centered on creativity. The main challenge was to bring to life Saint Vincent’s words: “Love is inventive even to infinity”.

That same year, Father Gregory Gay, Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission, with his Council, tried to find more creative ways of improving the work of the members of the Congregation, especially of those ministering with the oppressed poor. They arrived to propose a new and creative idea: to promote systemic change, and to include in this process the whole Vincentian Family. To do so, the General Curia named a “Think Tank” made up of qualified confreres and laity, to study and to promote Systemic Change.

At the beginning of this year, the members of the “Think Tank” now Commission for Promoting Systemic Change, were invited to present the work that has been done so far. The presentation of our work was very well received by the heads of the Vincentian Family, so much that they have agreed to make Systemic Change the Vincentian Family theme for September 27th 2007, and to promote it for at least two or three years.

To share this International Vincentian Family Project with you is the main objective of my presentation.


The General Council mandated the members of the Commission

  • To study available material concerning Systemic Change,
  • To discuss their own involvement in Systemic Change,
  • To formulate a series of “best practice” recommendations which will subsequently be shared with confreres from various provinces, more broadly with the members of the Vincentian Family
  • To propose how our “best practice” recommendations (effective strategies) might best be disseminated among the members of the Vincentian Family throughout the world.

To respond to this mandate, the Commission started to reflect about Systemic Change, and how to share the results of our work.

  • At the beginning of the process, each one of the members of the Commission wrote a story based on his own experience, where Systemic Change has been implemented.
  • In each one of the stories presented, we identified some “best practices” or strategies that might be used in working toward Systemic Change in our projects among the poor.
  • We placed particular emphasis on self-help and/or self-sustaining programs so that the poor themselves will be active participants in the planning and realization of the projects envisioned.
  • We gave great importance to the Spirituality that lies behind the Vincentian Family Systemic Change approach
  • We proposed and have been working on the different ways to disseminate the work done by the commission:
    • A book: Seeds of Hope, Stories of Systemic Change, that will be published in various languages and distributed throughout the world
    • A Tool kit; brochures, short documents, proposals for workshops, CDs, etc..
    • A special issue of Vincentiana or other periodicals dedicated to the publication of the “best practice” recommendations
    • Courses, seminars and workshops for leaders and multiplying agents
    • Proposals for promoting better money management among ourselves and among the poor we serve, with a special view toward addressing the root causes of poverty


1. Some concepts to clarify Systemic Change

  • A system is an entity that maintains its existence and works as a whole through the interaction of its parts
  • The system’s elements are kept together and affect each other constantly when they interact in order to achieve a common goal
  • Systemic is an adjective that refers to an entity as a whole, more that to the parts that integrate it
  • Systemic change avoids the tendency to unconsciously employ the same mental models that cause the problems we intent to solve
    • It offers us tools to interpret our experience, focusing in the relations between the system’s elements, and not in the contents of such elements
    • It is a process that favors an structural change of a whole system
    • It is a change that leads to a radical transformation of the life of the excluded, through needed specific strategies, indispensable to produce such changes.

This process gives us elements “to learn to see the world anew”

We can illustrate this process with “The Perfect Storm, one of the stories on Systemic Change proposed by Gene Smith, from the USA Saint Vincent de Paul Society.

“That is exactly what happened in San Jose de Ocoa in the Dominican Republic. Systemic change occurred in this community, when, thanks to a visionary leader, a number of positive elements intersected resulting in a transformed community. A “perfect Storm” of jointed efforts and events, transformed the lives of many poor people.

Traditionally, twinning in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul is sent from one Conference to another, so the members in the poor countries can give direct assistance to a few of the most needy. Jack, the leader, came up with the creative idea of “cluster twinning” whereby large numbers of conferences and councils in the United States would send twinning support to the project through San Jose de Ocoa Conference and, subsequently other new conferences in the Dominican Republic.

In no time, large sums were sent for needed equipment to build the aqueducts and buy pipes. Work brigades of people from many villages were formed. When Jack returned to Ocoa, after two years, he could not believe what he saw. Everything was green and the water system had grown. He saw one village helping another and so on. There was a holistic effect.

The excellent work led to many spin off projects: Aqueduct and irrigation work, water purification plants, provision of private/shared potable water, replacement of thatched roofs, with zinc roofs and dirt floors with cement in many homes, creation of the more varied home gardens for greater nutrition, farming cooperatives, building of latrines for sanitation, home building.

Now water flows to more than a hundred villages. By bringing water to the villages, nutrition and health improved, opportunities for work resulted and the communities grew closer”.

2. The spirituality that lies behind Systemic Change

Saint Vincent de Paul is at the core of the Vincentian Family Systemic Change approach.

There are three key phrases in the Vincentian tradition, that today are moving us more and more, in our various branches, not only to assist the poor in their immediate needs by providing food, clothing and shelter, but also to assist them to change the social system within which they live, so that they might emerge from poverty.

  1. The first phrase is that our love is to be both “affective and effective.” St. Vincent repeated this theme over and over again. He says, for example, “The love of a Daughter of Charity is not only tender; it is effective, because they serve the poor concretely.”
  2. The second phrase is that we minister to the poor “spiritually and corporally.” St. Vincent uses this phrase in speaking to all the groups he founded: the Confraternities of Charity, the Congregation of the Mission, and the Daughters of Charity. He tells the Daughters of Charity that they should tend not only to bodily needs, but also share their faith by their witness and their words. And he warns the members of the Congregation of the Mission that they should not think of their mission in exclusively spiritual terms. Rather, they too should care for the sick, the foundlings, the insane, even the most abandoned.
  3. The third phrase is that we are to proclaim the good news “by word and work”. St. Vincent was deeply convinced that what we say and what we do must reinforce one another. First, do. Then, teach. That is St. Vincent’s rule for “effective” evangelization. In other words, Saint Vincent sees preaching, teaching and human promotion as complementary to one another, and as integral to the evangelization process. Today, the unity between evangelization and human promotion, so much a part of St. Vincent’s spirit, is one of the main emphases in the Church’s social teaching.

In light of these three phrases, so fundamental in our family’s spirituality, we have reflected on the appeal that Pope John Paul II addressed to the General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission in 1986. He said this: “Search out more than ever, with boldness, humility and skill, the causes of poverty and encourage short and long-term solutions—adaptable and effec-tive concrete solutions. By doing so you will work for the credibility of the gospel and of the Church.”

Almost four hundred years later, Vincent’s followers continue his mission serving the poor. Vincent empowered others, like Saint Louise de Marillac, to act according to the vision.

3. Effective strategies and Stories about Systemic Change

The Strategies for Systemic Change; an approach to changing the unjust structures which oppress the poor. We consider these strategies are very important, if not indispensable, to give place to real and deep changes in the projects and services of the members of the Vincentian Family.

For a better comprehension, we divided the strategies, according to their orientation and main objectives: Mission oriented, task oriented, people oriented, and solidarity and net working oriented strategies. After each group o strategies, and in order to illustrate them, I am going to present some of our Systemic Change stories.

1. Mission oriented strategies (motivation and direction)

  • Consider poverty not as the inevitable result of circumstances, but as the product of unjust situations that can be changed, focusing on actions that will break the circle of poverty
  • Design projects, creative strategies, policies and guidelines that flow from our Christian and Vincentian values and mission,
  • Evangelize and inculturate Christian and Vincentian values and charisma, by maintaining a profound respect for the local culture

Akamasoa. “City of the Good Friends”

This story takes place outside of Tananarive, capital of Madagascar. The poverty of its inhabitants is a true scandal and a threat to human rights and against the dignity of God’s children. In this project several strategies for change are combined, but a fundamental factor is fidelity to the Vincentian mission.

When Father Pedro Opeka C.M. first arrived to Madagascar, he couldn’t believe the misery around him, and asked himself: “What is there to do for the hundreds of families that live in outrageous conditions on top of the garbage?

He started searching for a solution with some members of the community, and they discovered that working on the quarry could be a good departing point. Soon they started building appropriate boulders for construction. The work of the women was very important at this stage, and has continued been so in every way. With the money obtained, the workers bought rice and building tools, and they were able to build their own lodgings.

Today, those first settlements have become real urban communities, with services as water and public lightning, individual and collective lodgings, workshop, collective kitchens, school cantines, nurseries, dispensaries, a hospital, maternities, administration offices, meeting and recreation centers, places of worship, sport fields and three cemeteries.

Nothing of this could have been possible without a strong individual, family and social discipline, grounded on personal responsibility and a firm belief in Providence. As this work has been known around the world, the Akamasoa’s project has been extended to seventeen towns, thanks to their work, the guide and support of their leader, Padre Pedro, the Congregation of the Mission and the generous help from individuals and international organizations.

2. Task oriented Strategies (organization)

  • Start with a serious analysis of the local reality, flowing from concrete data, and tailor all projects to this reality
  • Have a holistic vision, addressing a series of basic human needs — individual and social, spiritual and physical, especially jobs, health care, housing, education, spiritual growth — with an integral approach toward prevention and sustainable development
  • Implement coherent strategies, starting modestly, delegating tasks and responsibilities, and providing quality services respectful of human dignity
  • Systematize, institutionalize and evaluate the project and its procedures, describing measurable indicators and results
  • Make the project self-sustaining by guaranteeing that it will have the human and economic resources needed for it to last
  • Be transparent, inviting participation in preparing budgets and in commenting on financial reports. Maintain careful controls over money management.

Homeless People’s Federation Philippines

When this project started, several branches of the Vincentian Family, the Fathers of the Mission, the Daughters of Charity, the AIC, the SSVP, and the Marian Youth, started working together in Payatas, in the slums of Manila. After a serious analysis of the local reality, they started a holistic project, intended to satisfy the primary needs of the people working in the enormous garbage dump of the capital. The central element that agglutinated the whole community was a savings program, that worked 24 ours a day, coordinated by Father Norberto Carcellar, CM. A whole on going formation process was started in order to empower the poor themselves, so that they became the main agents of their own development.

From a simple savings and loan program in Payatas, the work of the Homeless People’s Federation Philippines (HPFP) has evolved into mobilizing urban informal settlers and slum dwellers around shelter and land tenure issues. A critical component of this mobilization work had been that of creating the space for people and communities to construct their own social institutions wherein people define the means to mobilize their resources and to allocate them to meet identified needs. Out of this space, have emerged capacities and mechanisms that allowed them the means and the confidence not only to engage in community-based processes but also subsequently to participate in city-level platforms.

As its work grows, the HPFP has found ready partners and collaborators among various institutional stakeholders, namely, professionals, academicians, local governments, national agencies, international organizations, and multi-lateral institutions. Gradually, a broader system of support is evolving out of its continuous engagement – a social system created out of networks of communities implementing strategies to manage community resources, defining terms of engagement with the private and public sectors, and participating in the growth process of their cities. Through the work of HPFP, one sees the possibilities of mobilizing informal settlers, not just as symbols of the social cost of development, but as active partners demonstrating how cities can work for them.

3. People oriented Strategies (focusing on the poor as the persons who are most capable of changing their own situation)

  • Listen carefully and seek to understand the needs and aspirations of the poor, creating an atmosphere of respect and mutual confidence and fostering self-esteem among the people
  • Involve the poor themselves, including the young and women, at all stages: identification of needs, planning, implementation, evaluation and revision
  • Educate, train, and offer spiritual formation to all participants in the project
  • Promote horizontal learning processes, forming effective multiplying agents and visionary leaders in the local community, to be servant leaders inspired by Saint Vincent de Paul
  • Construct structural and institutional models, where communities can identify their resources and needs, make informed decisions, and exchange information and effective strategies within the community and among various communities
  • Promote engagement in political processes, through civic education of individuals and communities
  • Support and respect the mechanisms for promoting solidarity that exist among the community members

I have a D.R.E.A.M.

The acronym DREAM signifies “Drug Resource Enhancement against AIDS and Malnutrition”. Since 2002, Project DREAM has been applying in Africa, with extraordinary success, the standards of treatment now used in developed countries. Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) chose it as a case study for treating AIDS.

This project is coordinated by Father Robert Maloney, at the request of the Daughters of Charity and the Community of Saint Egidio, main partners in this important project.

Giving particular attention to the sufferings of the sick persons, DREAM provides treatment to children and adults who are HIV-positive, but its special focus is to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS from a pregnant woman to her new-born child and to maintain the on-going health of the mother. The method used is highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART), which is sometimes called the “triple therapy” because of the three drugs administered. DREAM’s success rate is very high: 96% of children born to HIV-infected mothers taking part in the project are born HIV-free.
DREAM has been creative in inventing means for keeping the adherence-rate of participants high. Its goal is 95% adherence. The principal incentive, of course, is the success of the therapy itself. Other means are home visits, a day hospital, a mother/child healthcare center, and a day-care program to which pregnant women bring their children, thus guaranteeing their presence twice a day for medication, at drop-off and pick-up times.

When Ana Maria first arrived to participate in DREAM she weighed a skeletal 64 pounds. Upon discovering that she was HIV positive, her husband had left her and her neighbors isolated her. As she struggled to take care of her six children she realized that she was dying. Today she and her children are well. In fact, Ana Maria is filled with fighting talk and enthusiasm as she promotes the struggle against AIDS, fuelled by her awareness that she would be dead if she had not received treatment.

Joaosinho has become a symbol of DREAM and one of its most loved pacients. He was the 1000th baby born to HIV-positive women receiving treatment. Like other children born in DREAM before and since, he now has the chance to lead a healthy life.

Joaosinho has another reason to rejoice as he faces the future: his mother is alive and healthy and will take care of him in the years to come. Treatment helped her so much that, as her medication was phased down, her inmune system became almost normal.

4. Co-responsibility, networking and political action (participation and solidarity)

  • Promote social co-responsibility and networking, sensitizing society at all levels — local, national and international — about changing the unjust conditions that affect the lives of the poor
  • Construct a shared vision with diverse stakeholders: poor communities, interested individuals, donors, churches, governments, the private sector, unions, the media, international organizations and networks, etc.
  • Struggle to transform unjust situations and to have a positive impact, through political action, on public policy and laws
  • Have a prophetic attitude: announce, denounce, and, by networking with others, engage in actions that exert pressure for bringing about change

AIC-Madagascar. To be transformed in order to transform

The AIC in Madagascar, a mission country towards which Vincent de Paul channeled great efforts, keeps his charisma alive to this day. Recently, this association changed from a few unrelated disarticulated groups into an important national network, part of the international AIC. Actually there are thirteen groups, whose members are all poor women, who work very hard to alleviate the poverty of their own families and that of their own communities.

Networking is one of the association’s guidelines and this has allowed us to reach goals that could have not been achieved otherwise. Madagascar’s internal net links with other nets, above all with the Fathers of the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity, which participated in the founding and follow up of the association in the country. The net collaborates and receives support from international organizations, like UNICEF, that helps through subsidies, didactic material, school materials and food.

AIC-Madagascar has been recognized by UNICEF as a privileged partner and Madagascar’s volunteers have been invited to speak in international meetings sponsored by this and other international organizations. They have had the opportunity of speaking and sharing their experience and projects to support children and their nutritional projects have been selected as pilot projects.

In several occasions, the women responsible for the association in Madagascar have been invited to organize workshops about their projects in UNESCO and ECOSOC (in New York) and the PNUD (United Nations Development Project) and “Manos Unidas”, from Spain, among others. Their proposals pertaining to nutrition of children, maternal care, and violence prevention, have been listened and taken into consideration by decision makers.

Listening capacity, on going formation, empowerment, political action and networking are at the basis of Madagascar volunteers’ work. Their struggle against violence against women, the responsible paternity project, and many others, show their clear commitment in a global effort to eradicate poverty.


The first thing I would like to underline, is that real changes will never be achieved without the participation of the poor; they should be at the center of our efforts to change unjust situations.

We must imitate Jesus Christ, the evangelizer of the poor.

By implementing Systemic Change, we respond to the Church’s Social Doctrine and to the teachings of our founders:

Social thinking and social practice inspired by the Gospel must always be marked by a special sensitivity towards those who are most in distress, those who are extremely poor, those suffering from all the physical, mental and moral ills that affect humanity, including hunger, neglect, unemployment, and despair…

You will also want to seek out the structural reasons which foster or cause the different forms of poverty in the world…so that you can apply the proper remedies.

(John Paul II´s invitation to the Congregation of the Mission)

By implementing Systemic Change, we are also faithful to the teachings of Saint Vincent, our founder and model who used his leadership to maximize the potential of people and to assist them kindling the fire within their souls in order to move the world and give meaning to life.

We imitate Saint Louise de Marillac, who understood clearly that the ultimate goal of a servant leader is fulfilling others’ needs.

The poor person is first in the church. He is the prince and master, being a kind of incarnation of the poor Christ. We must therefore serve him with respect, no matter what his character is like, no mater what his defects. And we must love him. (Saint Louise de Marillac)

To work as a Vincentian Family, having the poor as the center of all our projects, we must work first on ourselves, with a new mentality and wider perspectives, to transform ourselves in order to transform others.

Patricia Nava (AIC)
Member of the Commission
for Promoting Systemic Change

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