Buzzword Compliant or Kool-Aid Drunk?

The National St. Vincent de Paul Council and its subsidiaries have an honorable history of addressing serious social problems at their roots, within the family, using a holistic approach long before the concept of a “holistic” approach was in vogue. If ever there was an organization engaged in a compassionate and genuinely helpful response to poverty, this would be it.


Last spring, the National Council elected a new president, Sheila Gilbert, who launched her vision to “End Poverty Through Systemic Change.” “Systemic change” – like “holistic” – is one of those trendy terms that people sometimes use simply because they like the “mouth-feel” of hip-speak. Using such words feels “cutting edge” and “in the know” – “buzzword compliant,” as employers say ironically of a jargon-laced resume that is all too obviously short on real experience.

Or, perhaps, the St. Vincent de Paul Society is going the route of other “Catholic” charities – giving up some or much of its charitable work in exchange for political activism and a worldly viewpoint.

Evidence of the latter crops up in a Society of St. Vincent de Paul USA (SVP) PowerPoint presentation, “Transforming Lives: Ending Poverty through Systemic Change,” (1) which is being used to help local chapters (conferences) catch the vision. It explains that SVP will be challenging its “conferences to help educate parishioners about the Church’s social teaching, engage them in advocacy, and utilize them as supporters to help mentors connect individuals to the resources they need to build their work and life skills.”

Which sounds benign until one tracks down the actual resources that SVP-USA chapters will be using in their work with the poor. Bridges out of Poverty is the primary program referenced by this particular presentation which focuses on “class” structures and differences, examining how the various social strata use language, value education, spend money, and so forth. Bridges’ “Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’ By World” curricula “is instrumental to the new [SVP] mentoring program design” another SVP document (2) explains.

A visit to the Bridges Out of Poverty website (3) emphasizes how utterly secularized this vision is. Other than passing mention of Catholic Charities in several minor contexts (e.g. as part of the biographical information of one of the program’s consultants), there is nothing about Catholicism, Christ, or Jesus to be found here. The term “church” is used to remind church-going supporters that the program can be implemented in their faith communities – in other words, churches are a target demographic for marketing the Bridges program – but it has no other significance here.

Small wonder, then, this emphasis on class distinctions is a primary educational “tool” for addressing poverty. We are no longer asking Christians to respond charitably to the poor but to accept a Marxist construct of social inequity that must be “systemically changed.”

Changed to what?

The materials are vague. There is discussion of restructuring SVP “conferences” that, in partnership with “a local church or entity” in a given neighborhood, initially just mentoring but eventually having “neighborhood block captains.” The advocacy arm of SVP, called Voice of the Poor, is exploring new channels for extending its reach – and it has very specific positions, all of them coming from a progressive perspective, about healthcare, immigration, federal spending, nationalized education and workforce systems, etc. (4) “[A]advocacy,” we are told, “will become much more important at all levels of our Society so that laws and policies that discourage self-sufficiency can be challenged and overturned.”

This makes SVP a social engineer. “Where can we find the best practice tools and processes to develop a community-wide plan?” the FAQ document asks, rhetorically, as it already has explored the answer that will be imposed on its members. “Community-wide planning and action will undoubtedly require extensive collaboration with other churches, secular social service agencies, business, and government partners.” It will involve members in “mentoring, advocacy, or community organizing,” with different training for these varying “roles.”

And still, amid all this description of collaborative planning, there is no clear explanation of where we are going, other than to say we will “end poverty.” That is as vague as someone saying “I will bring home money tonight.” Will he earn it? Will he steal? He doesn’t say. We don’t ask. We are too busy enjoying thoughts of how we will spend the promised windfall.

SVP assures the reader of its FAQs about Systemic Change that it will keep its Catholic values close. It will be conscious of them in its collaborative efforts. It will turn to resources such as JustFaith – a sorely deficient attempt to introduce Catholic social teachings. This is not comforting.

The SVP Summer 2013 newsletter, Ozanam News, is no more enlightening. “Systemic change” is mentioned numerous times. Sheila Gilbert tells readers that the move toward systemic change will “make us stronger, better able to serve, and better able to invite participation in our work” (p. 3); SVP’s National Episcopal Advisor Bishop John Quinn column simply repeats that the SVP vision is to “end poverty through systemic change.” (p. 5) One learns that the 2013 National Midyear SVP Meeting had a presentation about “the intent for systemic change” (p. 7) and two Voice of the Poor officials wrote an article about “New Directions for the Society” that assures us that “collaboration, proactive initiative, and advocacy were all practiced by early Vincentians” (p 12), as they undoubtedly were. However, there is no real explanation of the “new tools and resources” being proposed.

So, are promises of “systemic change” empty words that are really not well understood by those who tout them or are SVP volunteers are being prepped to accept – and foster – particular political solutions “to help the poor.” Aside from a dozen, one-two page Voice of the Poor position papers, collectively arguing for greater government control of a citizen’s life, where can one turn to discover what SVP is actually proposing?

Or…is that the systemic change?


(2) “End Poverty Through Systemic Change Vision Statement – FAQ
(4) Current SVP position papers on these various issues and others can be read at its website.

This article, Buzzword Compliant or Kool-Aid Drunk? is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Stephanie Block

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