When I was young, I remember hearing President Lyndon Johnson announce he was instituting the War on Poverty! The goal was to eliminate poverty in the United States. I clearly remember his optimism and belief this war could be won! I still recall being excited that we could truly be a country where everyone was valued and had the same opportunities.
Fifteen years later, as a young social worker, I wasn’t hearing leaders and policymakers talking about ending poverty anymore. Instead, there was much talk about how we would manage poverty through programs and services that would provide the poor with food, clothing, shelter, etc. The government and nonprofit sector created food shelves, battered women and homeless shelters, crisis counseling, and other programs to assist those struggling with hunger, homelessness, family violence and other issues.
In my late-twenties, I became the Director of a very small (5 staff) family crisis assistance agency. We had a food shelf, a clothes closet, short-term counseling, and a small amount of funding to assist individuals and families that needed short-term emergency housing. All of our services were free to those who needed them. I was proud of the services and assistance we provided because it did meet individuals and families’ immediate needs in a crisis. In addition to food, clothing, and 2-3 days of motel rent, our social worker provided referrals to county government social services and other resources. The goal is to be an important resource for immediate needs and a steppingstone to long-term help.
However, even though we were a short-term crisis assistance agency, I began seeing the same families repeatedly. They reported that after they received our assistance, they couldn’t gain government assistance in a reasonable time, couldn’t navigate the system or even find other local community resources to help them improve their situation. Many went back to living in their cars, parks, church basements, or temporary shelters (the very few at that time).
I was especially troubled by one group of clients who returned again and again. Our agency was located close to, and had a great working relationship with, what was then called a battered women’s shelter. We had an agreement with shelter staff that women and children who were leaving their very short term (and over-crowded) shelter, could come to us for food, clothing, and (very) short term motel vouchers.
When these women (most often with young children) couldn’t make the transition into a safe, stable environment, many felt their only option was to go home to their abuser. We would see some of these families again and again as they fled from their abuser back to the battered women’s shelter, often only with the clothes they were wearing. Because they came back to our program on several occasions, we would get to know them. I clearly remember talking to one of the women who had left her abusive husband on many occasions and struggled with what to do next. Our staff spent significant time trying to advocate for her in a complex and overburdened social service system. She left us, thankful for the time, effort, and tangible assistance provided.
About a month later, our social worker came to me with tears in her eyes. She reported the family we had recently worked with was unable to make that critical transition to affordable and safe housing. As she had done before, she and her family went back to the abuser. However, this time, our social worker had heard the abuser beat and killed her in front of their children.
She left the room, and I put my head on my desk and cried. I cried for the woman and her children. I cried out of guilt and shame that we were part of a system that failed her. I cried because we gave her hope when there wasn’t often much hope for women in this situation.
At that moment, I also pledged to myself…I would never again work for an organization or institution that didn’t address the root-cause, systemic problems (lack of affordable long-term housing, transportation, child care, among others) that must be addressed through movement-building, advocacy, education, changes in policy, and laws. While charity does provide essential resources for those with an immediate need, we will only see real, long-lasting social change — real social, racial, and economic justice, when we acknowledge and address the need for systemic change.
Thirty-plus years later, I continue to hold to that pledge. Within Walden University, faculty and students often study systemic issues and problems, with the goal of having the results of their research applied to make a real difference worldwide. Students, faculty, and staff are committed to advocacy and volunteerism for charity and systemic change. Walden’s Global Days of Service are a call-to-action for both charity and systemic social change.
I’d like to challenge our community (alongside the Center for Social Change) to be the systemic change we want to see!
Gary Kelsey, Ed.D.
Dr. Gary Kelsey is a Senior Core Faculty/Residency Coordinator in the School of Public Policy and Administration