Blessed Frederic Ozanam said "You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis; you must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty, with the aim of long term improvement”
This is an amazing statement, especially when one considers that it was written in the mid-1800, a time when democratic systems as we know them did not yet exist in Europe or were just starting to be developed (the first European parliamentary democratic Constitutions were proclaimed in 1848).
Ozanam wanted to improve the situation of the people he helped on a permanent basis; he was not content with applying band-aids; he wanted to spend his time and available resources in a way that ensured that those people would then be able to function on their own, ultimately without his help, avoiding dependency.
This work consisted in removing obstacles and making available the tools, skills and circumstances that would allow people in poverty to take responsibility for their own future and commit to improve their life. In many ways, this approach is totally consistent with the traditional American belief that people need to be self-reliant and pull themselves-up by their boot straps. What Ozanam wanted is to give them the boot straps to pull themselves up with.
We Vincentians have a powerful tool that allows us to do this well: Home visits. While listening carefully to those we serve and develop mutual trust, we learn over time both: (1) the immediate needs of the family and (2) the reason why they are in that situation and the sequence of events that caused their poverty.
With this information, our help can be well articulated to address the situation effectively; three things are required: (1) Immediate Assistance for the family to survive day by day, (2) Long-term Programs for the family to develop / rebuild marketable skills and a sustainable situation, (3) Formation of Social, Organizational, Leadership and Entrepreneurial skills for their full empowerment.
Most of us know how to do Immediate Assistance, either by our own direct aid or through referrals to existing public and/or private aid programs. SVdP direct assistance is necessary, because often it takes time to apply and qualify for public and private programs. Ultimately, SVdP assistance has to be temporary: we cannot continue to serve the same people because our attention has to go to new people that knock at the door every day.
While our goal is to move people out of poverty, lets’ be clear, not everyone we assist is able to become self-sustaining again; there are people who are just too ill or too old to return to self-sufficiency. The larger society should take responsibility of these through public assistance.
Key to all other people in poverty is the removal of obstacles or the acquisition of skills that would allow them to rebuild a sustainable situation. This involves: Affordable Education, Job Training, Care of mental illness, Basic health coverage, Addiction recovery, Restoration for crime victims and for convicts that have been released from prison, Affordable housing, Public transportation, After-school programs for children, etc. Often, in these areas, there is just so much that SVdP can do directly. Our role here is primarily one of referral and of making sure that such programs are available. When programs are not present or are insufficient, then SVdP advocates for their availability. For this, Voice of the Poor provides the Society with the needed advocacy expertise.
Willingness by people in poverty to commit to programs that will improve their circumstances is the key first step to personal freedom and responsibility.
The last step is to provide those who, while still in poverty, reach at least a relative stability with those social, organizational, leadership and entrepreneurial skills that brings self-empowerment. Here, the Society can play a key role in teaching the skills that people need to be able to represent themselves in the societal bargaining process, to advocate, and to initiate economic initiatives that benefit themselves and their community.
This is what Systemic Change is all about: in Systemic Change people in poverty themselves engage in the identification of the root causes of their poverty and create strategies, including advocacy, to change those structures which keep them in poverty. It is called systemic because to change structures and to resolve issues, individual or local, awareness of the system-wide influences and behaviors that are key to that structure or issue is necessary.
When we provide direct assistance and even when we do advocacy, it is still us (SVdP) doing something for them (people in poverty). In the beginning phases of our involvement, this is necessary, as the people we serve cannot do it themselves. Soon, however, we need to step back, because real change happens when they will finally be able to take their own initiatives, whether economic or political in nature.