“Where do you live?” has always been one of the first questions Vincentians ask when someone calls for help. This question is obviously a pragmatic one simply because without the address we would not know where to bring the voucher.

Systemic Change does not change the question, but it fundamentally transforms its meaning. Now we don’t bring a voucher, instead we move in, ready to do anything that the condition we find asks us to do. Now we do not come with all the answers but we come with suggestions. Now we do not come with a pocket full with money, but we come with an attitude of respect and patience.

In the Gospel according to John we read how the first disciples asked Jesus that same question. “Where do you live?” Jesus did not give them his address. He only said, come and see. Ironically Jesus did not show them anything and yet they saw. They saw so well that the next day these first disciples encouraged others to come and see too. Throughout this Gospel it becomes clear that anyone who wants to be a disciple and thus “live in Jesus’ house” can’t keep anything and also must be prepared to share that space with the outcast, the poor, the lepers, the lame, and those who are blind in whatever way these conditions manifest themselves today.

Systemic Change will ultimately lead us to recognize that the only place we should live is in the house of the poor, which, by the way, is the same house were Jesus lives.

Eddie Alkemade offered the above as part of a report/reflection on a recent systemic change workshop in Canada.

The report…

What is Systemic Change?

Systemic Change, in simple terms, refers to altering the components of a system.

Systemic Change as a means to alleviate poverty starts off from the notion that each person lives within a network of systems i.e. family, neighbourhood, village etc.

Each person also lives within a personal “system” that encompasses:

  1. education/training;
  2. job/career;
  3. level of income;
  4. need of food and shelter;
  5. health and well-being.

Not only do these components directly affect one’s life, they are also the means through which each person interacts with other systems in which she or he lives. Moreover, these components interrelate in an immediate sense whereby a change in one directly causes a change in the others. For instance, even a moderate decrease in income has an immediate effect on at least some of the other components. On the other hand, it follows that the improvement of any one of these components has an equally beneficial effect on the other ones as well.

Why Systemic Change?

  • charity (however necessary at times) by itself will never eliminate poverty:
    • charity empowers the benefactor who controls the resources;
    • charity fosters self-helplessness and dependency;
    • charity creates a gap between the donor and the recipient (each lives in a different world).
  • advocacy (indirect political action) is the indispensable component of the endeavour to eradicate  poverty:
    • advocacy requires a realistic vision;
    • advocacy demands patience;
    • advocacy cannot deal with the immediacy of poverty.
  • systemic change seeks the direct involvement of those living in poverty to
    • identify the fundamental cause of poverty;
    • work together with others to find sustainable solutions;
    • use all available resources except charity;
    • become active in the political process;
    • lead others.

In summary, how well we function within our world depends totally on the integrity of our personal system. If any one of the components of this system does not function well, then it is very difficult or at times almost impossible for someone to function within any system. It should be obvious, therefore, that improving the most available component of that system will eventually lead to the betterment of the whole system. For someone living in poverty, it will be the gate to a life without poverty.

However, the most essential feature of Systemic Change is that it redefines poverty itself. Poverty no longer is perceived as an unassailable condition of which only the symptoms can be remedied; instead poverty is understood to be merely the result of a set of identifiable causes that can be managed and altered.

The Implications of Systemic Change

For Systemic Change to function successfully within the Society of St. Vincent de Paul it is imperative to recognize that, first of all, just as the method of Systemic Change seeks to alter or eliminate the causes of poverty on the personal level, it also affects the way the Society views poverty and its reaction to it.

Secondly, Systemic Change necessitates that Vincentians transform themselves from “giving to the poor” to “living with the poor”. Vincentians who choose to participate in the process of Systemic Change must realize that the nature of their service to the poor cannot be determined by tradition but instead must be based on the circumstances of the poor person who leads them.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul

As the application of Systemic Change widens throughout the Society, the need for resources will grow also. Consequently, the Society must allocate adequate funds to help those Councils and Conferences who have committed themselves to the process of Systemic Change. These funds should be freely accessible without undue administrative restrictions. In addition, the Society must develop adequate methods of formation to prepare and assist those who embark on the process of System Change. It is exactly because within the realm of Systemic Change the very essence of assistance to the poor is evolving from “giving” to “living” it would be a great tragedy if the very Society that identifies itself with the poor would allow its structure to stand in the way of Systemic Change.

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