“We are called upon to start actions, especially political actions, to eradicate the causes of poverty and unite in solidarity for justice in favor of the poor, because unjust systems created by selfish hearts have caused social, political and economic poverty. (Very Rev. Gregory Gay, C.M. ASD 2005)
“Systemic Change” is a concept that is at once both universal and uniquely Vincentian. It is related to advocacy and the Vincentian approach to working with persons living in poverty, which is never a quick fix, but rather is creative, practical and sustainable. The Systemic Change approach is a tool, a method of doing social or political charity. It can help to stimulate our actions and bring about change. [AIC “Why Should We Act with a Systemic approach in Mind?” Training Booklet n.12 (October 2008)] It requires integrating concepts which confirm an individual’s dignity, encourage personal growth and self-determination, and alleviate societal issues that hinder a person’s full participation in society. It requires analysis of the root causes of a situation and planning for their removal. Considering the whole as well as the parts of an issue or problem and devising practical, sustainable solutions must drive systemic change, which looks to create long-term effects for people and communities.
In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict wrote that “The mission of the lay faithful is to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competencies and fulfilling their own responsibility. … Charity must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as “social charity”. In the Vincentian tradition, charity can only exist “politically,” that is in concrete works and social structures. (See “Political Charity” by Julio Suescun Olcoz, CM, Vincentiana, July-August 2008 52nd Year, N. 4.)
So whether we call it “political charity” or “social charity”, we include the systemic change approach in our work with people who are poor to alleviate the conditions of immediate distress and to create the conditions in which persons can achieve dignity and participation in the community with access to basic human rights. “Political charity implies three things: (1) to be aware of the political situation in which we live, (2) to analyze it critically, and (3) to respond to that situation.” (See “Political Charity in the Context of Inter-Religious Dialogue,” Paul A. Bharathi, C.M. Vincentiana, July-August 2008, 52nd year N.4).
The Systemic Change methodology includes three steps.
- Step One: See
In the Vincentian Tradition, relationship with people in poverty is our first and primary goal. We need to see with their eyes. We must view the world from the vantage point of the people we seek to help. We must enter their struggles, feel their pain, and understand the barricades that hinder their full participation in the community. We must work with poor persons, allowing them to articulate their needs, concerns and potential solutions. We must work with them, as they are the primary stakeholders in order to advance toward a more just society.
- Step Two: Judge
In furtherance of our Vincentian formation and knowledge of Catholic social thought, how should we view the situation of the poor? Can we accept their plight, because “the poor will always be with us”, or must we analyze cultural, social (educational and economic) and political structures to see why persons in our community are poor and struggling? We need to analyze the parts to see the whole with a new vision. For example, if a family is hungry is this due to a lack of food, an inability to pay for food or an inability to grow the food. Analysis of the problem will help to enable us to creatively seek solutions in justice. Our love must be as Vincent said, “Creative unto infinity.”
Step Three: Act
After analysis of the problems and the situation that the poor are in, we can develop a plan. The plans can encompass both meeting the immediate needs of the person(s) or family(s) and community(s), and looking at long term solutions. Critical to the planning is to outline ways we involve all stakeholders, collaborate with others and set specific goals and measurable objectives. Further, our action steps must be evaluated against the goals of systemic change.
As Ladies of Charity USA we have a serious and important responsibility in the 21st Century. As part of a globalized world, we live in a privileged nation. Yet we know that women both in our country and throughout the world suffer from poverty, discrimination, violence and exploitation. In a recent magazine section of The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called the situation of women globally “the human rights issue of our time.” (August 23, 2009) The Ladies of Charity USA, with our sisters in the AIC must commit ourselves to address and change this unjust condition. As followers of Vincent and Louise, as Catholic women in “solidarity” with all women, let us commit to reconciling the situation of women locally and globally. The Ladies of Charity, USA have the organization to positively effect change. We are compelled by our Vincentian spirituality and the Church’s Social Teaching to strive to make the world one of peace, built on charity, justice and human rights for all.
“The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbors, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practice this charity… This is the institutional path—we might also call it the political path—of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly.” (7) Caritas in Veritate