Changing the System

The house is small and dilapidated; heat radiates from the slabs of tin that serve as walls and roof.  The bathroom floor slopes ominously—it was constructed as an afterthought, precariously balancing on an eroding hill.  We sit around the table and listen to 34 year-old Maria share her story.  She has experienced the gamut of hardship in her life– abuse, addiction, extreme poverty, and loss.

Her husband works full time as a janitor and both he and Maria repair shoes from home whenever they can find clients.  After paying rent, water, and electricity, the family of four is often left with little to no money to buy groceries or other basic necessities.  They work hard, comply with the law, and yet remain stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty.

Is Maria an outlier?  Her situation the exception and not the rule?

No, rather it is the norm.  I experienced this story, and so many stories just like it if not worse, on a daily basis while living and working in Costa Rica.

So it’s just Costa Rica?  Issues of developing nations?

No, wrong again.  In our own country there are people, very much like Maria, who are deeply entrenched in poverty.  People who are marginalized, sold into slavery, and oppressed.  The difference is that the United States is one of the richest countries in the world. The United States has more resources than most countries could dream of.  And yet, in the United States, there are over 13 million children who do not have consistent access to the food necessary to have a healthy lifestyle, there have been over 22,000 reported cases of sex trafficking since 2007, and over half a million people are currently experiencing homelessness.

Bob Sutton writes how “the rule of crappy systems trumps the rule of crappy people”.  He alludes to evidence that shows how ordinary people can excel in top-notch systems, and how even superstars can fail in bad systems.

So this is what I am proposing–many of the systems in our country, social and otherwise, are broken.  We have evidence that even broken people can succeed in effective systems, and yet millions of people are not succeeding. In order to alleviate poverty, to obtain some balance of social justice, to improve our society, we need to change the systems.

How to change the systems :

  1. We need to create awareness. To educate ourselves and our society on the brokenness that exists
  2. We need to care.  To see the individual person who is suffering because of the broken system. To view them as our brother or sister.
  3. We need to question.  To question why systems are in place.  To question who created them and with what motive.  To question what they ultimately achieve.
  4. We need to act. To take a stand against injustice.  To talk to our political representatives.  To engage with someone who is different, who makes us uncomfortable.

So let’s do it.

It’s not a hard task, at least not to get started.  Let’s educate ourselves on existing systems.  Let’s talk to people who are different from us.  Let’s make eye contact and engage with the panhandler on the corner.  And let’s question the systems that got him there.


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