The term systemic change is used increasingly at sessions on a variety of topics at the United Nations (UN). There is a growing awareness that many of the problems of the world cannot be solved with increasing aid without changing the structures and systems which mire people in poverty. The Vincentian Family, of which all of us are members with almost 2 million other people around the world, is well aware of the need for systemic change and is actively engaged in training Family members throughout the world.

Since 2006 when a Commission for Systemic Change was established for the world-wide Vincentian Family, multiple workshops have taken place throughout the world: Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Cameroon, India, the United States and several sites in Europe. These workshops were designed to provide leaders within the Vincentian Family with a basic understanding of systemic change and the tools to begin looking at ministry through a system change lens. Workshops are now being offered at regional levels, not only for leaders, but also for those with whom and to whom they minister.

Society has come to be viewed by economists and sociologists as a system. When elements that influence the lives of people within the system — family, institutions, jobs, housing, food and drink, health care, education, moral values, spiritual development, and more — function together positively, people thrive. If one or several of these elements are lacking, the whole system begins to break down. Systemic change seeks to understand the root causes of poverty and provide people with the tools that will enable them to lift themselves out of poverty.

If we think of the two feet of Christian service, charity and justice, systemic change is the justice element. Charity is a direct response to a need. For instance, after a hurricane or tornado people have immediate needs that necessitate direct service. But when generation after generation of a family continue to return to the soup kitchens and food pantries it is a sign that the problem is of a systemic nature and, therefore, a different type of response is required. Systemic change responds promptly to human needs while respecting the individual’s right to determine his/her own future. The goal of systemic change in the Vincentian Family is a more just world order.

Ten Principles That Facilitate Systemic Change 

  • VISION: Have a holistic vision that addresses both individual and social needs, as well as spiritual and physical needs. Clearly articulate your hopes and dreams. Ask the question: “Where do we want to go?”
  • PARTICIPATION: Invite everyone to the table who has a stake in the outcome: administrators, staff, those living in poverty themselves.
  • GATHER DATA: Invite input from as many sources as possible to provide a clear picture of the situation.
  • IDENTIFY ROOT CAUSES: Look for the underlying factors which are causing the problem(s).
  • NETWORK: Explore other agencies and/or persons who might have resources available; collaborate and engage in coalition building. Construct a shared vision with diverse stakeholders: poor communities, interested individuals, donors, churches, governments, NGOs, the private sector, and the media.
  • CAPACITY BUILDING: Provide training and resources to all participants to enhance their ability to participate in their own development, both as individuals and as members of the organization.
  • DESIGN: Design a project or program which will meet the needs of your situation and help to eliminate the root causes of poverty.
  • IMPLEMENT: Put your project or program into action involving all stakeholders.
  • EVALUATE: Create an evaluation process which engages all stakeholders; set up measurement criteria as an ongoing evaluation strategy.
  • FOSTER TRANSPARENCY: Invite participation in preparing budgets and in commenting on financial reports, while promoting good money management and maintaining careful controls over the use of assets.
Reflection/Action:
  1. Learn more about systemic change. Go to the Vincentian Family Website (click on VinFormation, then systemic change resources) for power point presentations and teaching modules about systemic change.
  2. If you are in active ministry, ask yourself, “Is this ministry promoting systemic change?” If not, what steps can I take to move towards systemic change? All ministries are good. The question is, “Can they be better?”
  3. Plan a regional workshop on systemic change. Contact Sr. Cj at the NGO office (cjwilliengo@gmail.com) or Sr. Julie at the SC Federation office (scfederation@gmail.com) for more information.
  4. Plan to attend the National Vincentian Family gathering in Indianapolis from October 25-27, 2013.
  5. Say the Vincentian Family Prayer for Systemic Change daily: We praise and thank you, O God, Creator of the Universe. You have made all things good and given us the Earth to cultivate. Grant that we may always use created things gratefully and share them generously with those in need. Give us creativity in helping those living in poverty to meet their basic human needs. Open our minds and hearts so that we might stand at their side and assist them to change whatever unjust structures keep them in poverty. Enable us to be brothers and sisters to them, in their struggle for fundamental human rights. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen
“To understand systemic change is to understand that everything is connected to everything else.”

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