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Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.

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COVID-19 Reveals the Need for Systemic Change

In this moment, we have the opportunity to transition from harmful systems to healing ones.

By Michael Kourabas on April 17, 2020

As the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic spread and deepen, many of us are awakening to something that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities have always known: our dominant systems are designed to oppress, and need to change. These systems include capitalism and institutional racism, for example, as well as their seemingly benign outgrowths, like global trade and “development.”

When our politicians and media repeat the lie that this disease is “the great equalizer,” we know better. Rather than “equalizing” society, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed wealthier, white-identified communities to the kinds of health, safety, and economic risks that oppressed communities confront daily.

We have before us the opportunity to seize this moment—to create new systems that are regenerative and healing and not premised on endless growth, the subjugation of the planet, and the oppression of the vast majority of people. As we take a collective global pause, we have the opportunity to re-imagine our world and provide not only temporary emergency Band-Aids, but to also go deep and change the systems that helped create and exacerbate the deadly impacts of this virus.

Tackling the Root Causes of Harm

Like any other crisis, this one significantly compounds the pre-existing inequities created by prevailing systems. This is especially true, for example, for the thousands unjustly held in crowded immigration detention centers, where social distancing is impossible and there is limited access to healthcare and basic hygiene items, and for the millions of families stuck in refugee camps, from Bangladesh and Bosnia to the Greek Islands and the U.S.-Mexico border.

This is why, when UUSC responds to any crisis, we start by understanding how systemic inequities are being exacerbated, identifying those most impacted, and ensuring that they have access to immediate support and the tools they will need to build a long-term, equitable recovery. It is also why our responses are not limited to addressing immediate harms, but aim to tackle the root causes of those harms as well.

Systemic Change Is Our Work

As a human rights organization, we have an obligation to combat the systemic forms of oppression, not just in times of crisis, but also in our ongoing work. In part, this is because we understand that the causes of human rights abuses can invariably be traced back to our dominant systems and the worldviews on which those systems were built. If we were to address the harms without holding the systems accountable for creating the harms in the first place, we would effectively be incentivizing the root causes of injustice to persist.

Dismantling systems of oppression and replacing them with just, equitable, and regenerative alternatives is therefore critical to preventing the human rights abuses of the future.

So, How Do We Do It?

Of course, this begs the question: How does a relatively small organization like UUSC change dominant systems? For one, we recognize that systemic change will require each of us to transform, along with our institutions, communities, and the structures that govern society.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many of us are experiencing first-hand some of those transformations. We are disengaging from destructive behaviors (driving, flying, and consuming less), re-prioritizing what really matters (community and a social safety net), and more clearly perceiving the systemic nature of oppression. Leading people and communities to these kinds of transformative actions and realizations is a core part of UUSC’s activism and justice education work.

Because systemic change at the structural level is about the redistribution of wealth and power, large institutions, invested as they are in the status quo, will never get us there. Or, if they do aim to change the system they will change it for their benefit, not the benefit of the people. Instead, real systemic change is only possible when it is led by strong grassroots movements. Organizations like UUSC, therefore, can contribute to structural change by supporting the grassroots movements and activists around the world who are challenging systemic oppression and working towards systemic alternatives.

What’s more, our grassroots partners and allies have helped us understand how best to support that systemic work. We do this in part by:

  • Following the leadership of directly impacted communities.
  • Fostering connections among activists to build and strengthen movements.
  • Ensuring that our partners have meaningful access to decision-making power.
  • Providing flexible, long-term, and responsive support to our partners.
  • Leveraging our resources to go beyond the grant dollar.
  • Amplifying our partners’ stories and experiences.
  • Sharing our analysis to shift some of the harmful practices within the nonprofit sector.

At UUSC, supporting and working alongside our grassroots partners in these ways is foundational to how we work— not just in times of crisis, but always. Everyone has a part to play in collectively responding to this crisis and doing so in a systemic way. We hope you will join us!

Photo Credit: iStock – elenabs


About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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