Stop saying it is the fault of The System when it is the fault of many systems (plural!)

Why we call it “The System”

Years back, I think we (popular society) realized we couldn’t blame our hard problems only on specific individuals in power. I think we came to terms with the fact that there was a larger set of factors at work, driving homelessness, crime, corrupt politicians, and prison recidivism rates, for instance. However, as we properly identified these issues had a systemic causes (and were therefor not the fault of individual humans), we nevertheless personified or anthropomorphized that “System” as an evil entity somewhere along the way. Now, millions of people are up in arms to “bring down the system” or “change the system” — and billions of dollars are going to politicians and causes which scapegoat that System that promise to fight “the system”. Some have even begun to wrongly equate The System with specific rich corporations, their CEOs, or more broadly: anyone with more affluence than they have themselves — people who are “benefitting from The System” and therefor protecting it. I’m not here to say powerful corporations and CEOs are blameless, but I am here to say this: we’ll always fail to solve a problem if we don’t take the time to understand its real nature. No amount of good intentions are going to substitute for the homework needed to actually understand our societies problems and their very real systemic causes.

Why we need to say “systems” instead of “The System”

Scapegoating is a popular and lucrative industry, but it rarely produces real change in our society. If we want to make progress on a specific problem, say homelessness, or improving the child foster system in the US, we must start by properly labeling and diagnosing the problem. And the first step in real systemic change is to acknowledge that there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of systems in place today which drive our societies very real problems. I think the reason this message is so hard for people to hear and internalize is that it feels so demoralizing and intimidating. It is far easier for us to imagine a single evil than it is to imagine hundreds of distinct — and possibly unrelated — systemic flaws.

A story from my personal journey

I grew up poor and often hungry, a member of the “lower-middle class” in central California. My mom had to give my half brother up for adoption when I was 8 because she couldn’t afford to raise another child. When I was around 11, I spent one night in a group home because my already divorced parents were both arrested for assaulting each other. That night I spent in a group home was my first experience with the US group home system, but even then I wouldn’t actually know how the foster care system worked until I worked in it about ten years later. When I got to college, I knew I wanted to help kids so I took a job at an afters-chool program in inner-city LA (Watts, CA) to help teach kids how to use computers and how to program. Then I worked for a group home, for 8 hours at a time being the temporary parent (they called us “staff”) for six 9-to-12 year old boys. These were the orphans of our society. I did the best I could for them but I learned very quickly there was magic solution to instantly solve their very real problems.

So what can we actually do that will help?

I’m going to suggest three specific steps that anyone can do today if they want to see real change in our society.

Don’t tolerate lazy language

Our language about a problem affects how we try to solve that problem more than anything else. Join me in calling out politicians, non-profits, and even our friends when they start to blame the The System. Remind them kindly and gently that our problems are harder and more diverse than bringing down a single System or corporation. While it may be discouraging at first to refocus our energy like this, it is nonetheless necessary if we actually care about solving those problems.

Study the systemic problems (plural), then decide how to act

Once we’ve been specific with our language, the next step is to study the problem. If you’ve read this far, it won’t be any surprise that I have some ideas on how to improve the foster care system. I decided that this was a systemic problem I wanted to work on, and I study the related systems carefully and try to see how I could improve it. I know I can improve it with my presence: by working in a group home, being a foster parent, supporting and encouraging other foster parents, and by working as a child advocate. But how could I “fix” the system itself? The simple answer is that we cannot magically fix it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve it by injecting new systems into the existing ones.

Propose specific improvements and support those improvements proposed by others

This is not rocket science. Once we’re honest with ourselves that there are many problems in society, and that there are many overlapping systems in play, the logical next step is to work on improving those systems.

  1. Require additional oversight measures for any foster parents housing 5 or 6 children, similar to how group homes of the same number of children already are subject to inspection and oversight. When I’ve heard “foster home horror stories”, they rarely are from homes with one or two children. After 4+ kids, however, the government income for raising those children becomes the equivalent of a full time job, and therefor I think we should regulate and train those parents as if they are full time employees of the foster system.

Let’s be real

The point is, if we want to make real change we have to be honest with ourselves that there are multiple systems involved. We can’t dismantle or “bring down” a system if that system is actually composed of hundreds or thousands of distinct separate systems.

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