Systemic Change, an Introduction

From VincentWiki
Robert Maloney, C.M.

by Robert P. Maloney, CM

A simple concept at the heart of a big idea

Many who work among the poor speak use a phrase that captures a key purpose of their work: systemic change. This potent idea has captured the attention and imagination of leaders of the Vincentian Family. Why? One way to look at that question is to think about the concept of systems.

A place to start is with our common sense, with what you and I already know about a very complex system: our own bodies. Consider, for instance, the effects of a broken bone. If I break my ankle, it hurts. My pain affects my overall happiness and my mood. That, in turn, affects how I relate with others. The broken ankle also distorts how I walk. As I hobble along, my hip or my back might start bothering me. A throbbing ankle and an aching back can be a fast track to headache or grouchiness. My work, my study, and my interactions with everyone – all these might begin to feel the pain of the broken ankle.

But as my ankle heals, I have less pain. I begin to walk better. Gradually, my hip and back settle hack into their normal working order. My headache disappears. So does the grouchiness! I find myself relating better with others. And my effectiveness at work and study improves, as well.

Systems are all around us. We speak, for instance, of the solar system, a railway system, a monetary system, a sewage system, or a system of government. We refer to the nervous system and the digestive system.

We also use the word in the realm of ideas to describe a whole way of thinking, as when we talk of a philosophical system or the Thomistic systern. Sometimes we use system to describe the prevailing way of doing things, as when we say that someone “knows how to work within the system”; or, we use “system” to describe a special well-worked-out way of acting, as when we speak of a system for winning at bridge or at black jack.

Essentially, a system is a whole, a unified composite of things that work together. It functions through the interaction of its parts and is, actually, greater than the sum of its parts. As the parts interact, they affect each other constantly, for better or for worse.

Etymologically, the word “system” comes from two Greek words: s ii “together” + histanai “cause to stand”. A system, therefore, in its root meaning, consists of things that “stand together”. The concept has come to be applied in numerous branches of knowledge, from the philosophical notion of “a set of correlated principles, facts and ideas”, to the medical notion of “a body as an organized whole”, to the computer sense of “a group of related programs”, or an operating system. There are many synonyms for system, such as a whole, a complex, an entity, an organization, a scheme, a setup, a structure, a sum.

In the 20th century, the implicit understanding we have of systems began to be applied more explicitly in a variety of fields. Modern sciences, for example, look continually at systems made up of parts that interact continually and, for better or worse, exert influence on each other. Physicists and astronomers know that when a star explodes, everything in the universe somehow feels the impact. Medicine, too, sees the human body as a complex system. A failing kidney, for example, affects the blood, and the blood that circulates throughout the body affects all other organs.

Society, too, 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.

Increasingly, the various fields of thought and discovery share a common belief in the unified nature of reality. All fields recognize that reality is complex, but at the same time all affirm that “everything is connected to everything else.”

Many who work among the poor share that conviction. They know that changing the situation of the poor requires that our focus must be broader than any particular problem. Important as it might be, for example, to supply food to the hungry, there is a big question that cannot be ignored: why are people hungry? We now know that “quick fixes” prove inadequate in the long run.

Using the example of hunger, the real problem is not how to supply food, but how to address the cause of people not having enough to eat: the socioeconomic system in which they live. Addressing the cause means intervening in a way that results in the system as a whole being modified.

Such an approach is necessarily interdisciplinary. And it involves many different actors within society. Among them: the poor themselves, interested individuals, donors, churches, governments, the private sector, leaders in business, unions, the media, international organizations and networks.

In works among the poor, systemic change has aims beyond providing food, clothing and shelter to alleviate the immediate needs of the poor. It focuses on assisting the needy to change the overall structures within which they live. It looks to their being able to develop strategies by which they can emerge from poverty.

Systemic Change and Vincentian Values

The concept of “systemic change” is a contemporary one. It was unknown in St. Vincent’s time, though Vincent himself expressed many related ideas.

When he gathered the first group of women to form a “Confraternity of Charity” at Chatillon-les-Dombes in November 1617, in the Rule he composed for them he stated that the poor sometimes suffer more from a lack of “order” in the help offered them rather than from a lack of charitable persons who want to help. Thus, he encouraged his followers to examine various elements in the lives of the poor to see what their most urgent needs were: nourishment, health care, education, job opportunities, spiritual care. He wrote precise rules for all the groups he founded so that their service to others would he well organized.

There are three key phrases in Vincent’s writings that today that relate to the the various branches of the Vincentian Family.

The first phrase is that our love is to be both '“affective and effective”'. 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.”

The second phrase is that we minister to the poor '“spiritually and corporally”'. 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, hut also share their faith with the poor by their witness and heir 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.’

The third phrases that we are to proclaim the good news '“by word and work”'. 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, 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 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 Vincentian Family’s spirituality, we have often reflected over the last two decades on the appeal that Pope John Paul 11 addressed to the General Assembly of the Congregation of the Mission in 1 986:

Search out more than, with boldness, humility and skill, the causes of poverty and encourage short and long-term solutions — adaptable and effective concrete solutions. By doing so you will work for the credibility of the gospel and of the Church.

In our efforts toward systemic change, we seek not only to assist the poor in their immediate needs by providing food, clothing and shelter. but to help them change the social system within which they live, so that they might emerge from poverty. That work carries forward the heart of Vincent’s direction for the Vincentian Family.

Clarifying Terms

The principle of systemic change, in the context of works among the poor, looks beyond providing food, clothing and shelter. Its particular focus is on assisting the needy to change structures in which they live and on helping them develop strategies by which they can emerge from poverty.

“Systemic change” should not the confused with “systematic change.” The latter phrase refers to a planned, step-by-step process. “Systematic change” can have very positive effects, but it may be limited in its scope, focusing on changing only one aspect of a larger system. “Systemic change” goes beyond that and focuses on the whole system. Put differently, systematic change describes a process: a way of bringing about a result. In contrast, systemic change is a result in which a complete series of interacting elements are transformed.

Although systematic methods may be used to bring about systemic change, systemic change requires tools made to help change attitudes. So, to use a phase often attributed to Albert Einstein, systemic change thinking helps us “to learn to see the world anew”. It provides tools for focusing on relationships among elements of a system, interprets a group’s experience of that system, and promotes structural change within.


Many good projects address urgent, immediate needs, but do not take aim at causes of a problem. Here are five criteria met by projects positioned to bring about systemic change:

  1. Long-range social impact: this is the most basic characteristic of systemic change: that is, that the project helps change the overall life-situation of those who benefit from it.
  2. Sustainability: the project helps create the social structures that are needed for a permanent change in the lives of the poor, such as employment, education, housing, the availability of clean water and sufficient food, and ongoing local leadership.
  3. Replicability: the project can he adapted to solve similar problems in other places. The philosophy or spirituality that grounds the project, the strategies it employs and the techniques it uses can be applied in a variety of circumstances.
  4. Scope: concretely, this means that the project actually has spread beyond its initial context and has been used successfully in other settings in the country where it began, or internationally, either by those who initiated it, or by others who have adapted elements of it.
  5. Innovation: the project has brought about significant social change by transforming traditional practice. Transformation has been achieved through the development of a pattern-changing idea and its successful implementation.

Our time, like Vincent’s, is fraught with war and threats of war. At the same time, a heightened sense of the global community has emerged. This community understands the necessity of global response to local disasters earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. It hears a cry for the opportunities created by access to jobs, education, housing, and health care. It sees a need to eradicate discrimination because of race, tribe, gender religion, age and other factors. It looks for transparency and the elimination of corruption. It looks for peace and justice, seeds of which are planted by projects that bring about systemic change.

In Catholic social teaching, the Church’s call for such change was already evident in Pacem in Terris and in Gaudium et Spes. Pope Paul VI expressed the theme eloquently in Populorum Progressio, and called Christians, in an address to the members of Cor Unum given on January 13, 1972, to commit themselves to enter into “the very heart of social and political action and thus get at the roots of evil and change hearts, as well as the structures of modern society.”

The Vincentian Family’s focus on systemic change has this purpose. And the purpose is why it matters that we learn to aim consistently and with resolve for systemic change.