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Is it Individual or Systemic?
June 25, 2020

People often have difficulty distinguishing individual level concerns from things that occur on a systemic level, probably because when you’re in a system, it’s difficult to see the structure as a whole. It’s part of the reason why travel can be so enlightening. The further outside you get from the system you’re used to, the easier it becomes to see it.

In this piece, we’ll talk about three major systemic issues to discuss how they operate on the systemic level. All play a part in why trafficking is such a huge, global problem.


Systemic Racism

For example, when tackling racism, people often talk about needing to confront that “racist uncle.” What this misses is the extent to which everyone has been exposed to racist ideologies, and the way those ideologies have created policies that affect different groups in unequal and unfair ways – like redlining, which was a policy of assigning lower property values to Black neighborhoods relative to others, thus making them unattractive to business or development, thereby making it more difficult for people in those neighborhoods to gain or maintain wealth. You can teach the uncle to be less racist, but even if everyone were no longer racist, you would still have systemic racism unless policies like these were fundamentally changed.

This is why you can feel like you never experienced racism or believe that you yourself are not racist, but are still part of a system that, without your knowledge or consent, actively makes life much harder for some people and not others. This matters deeply in the context of trafficking because, time and again, globally, the people who are most marginalized in society are those who become most vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation.


Systemic Patriarchy

Systemic issues extend to other things too: patriarchy and poverty, for example. Women are surrounded by messaging that tells them, as individuals, they’re never good enough. There’s always a way to be thinner but not too thin, prettier but not too pretty, nicer yet more powerful, a better mother while still having the career and the time for socializing and the time for yourself, and still be conscientious about your impact on the world around you. There is a lot of money to be made in telling women they need to do more, buy more, and be more, in order to be worthy. Meanwhile, there is messaging that violence against women is justified “if she deserved it.” If she dressed or acted in a way that was “asking for it.” As Brittney Cooper put it in Eloquent Rage, “If every woman and girl learned to love herself fiercely, the patriarchy would still be intact….Individual blame isn’t enough to solve the problem….It’s not enough to teach women how not to attract violent men. We have to spend our time teaching young men how not to be violent men and partners….In every part of their lives, young men need access to conversations about what it means to be a man in ways that are not rooted in power, dominance, and violence.” 

This is why we do not only give scholarships to those who identify as girls. Anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, and also everyone is susceptible to violent gendered ideologies. We have workshops for all of our students focusing on how to have healthy relationships so all of our students understand what respect for their partner looks like. Just as a marriage can’t be healthy if only one partner acts in healthy ways, a society can’t function in healthy ways if only some are taught how.


Poverty as a System

Poverty is another area where institutions tend to perpetuate different treatment across different groups. Most people are aware that income inequality is rising; that is, the gap between the poor and the rich is widening. This has a real impact. “Since the 1980s, mortality has declined among college-educated white women but has actually increased among white women with less than a high school degree, largely because of growing differences in economic well-being.” (Putnam, 2015) As the economic gaps have widened, so too has de facto class segregation. In political scientist Robert Putnam’s book, “Our Kids: American Dream in Crisis,” he details how more and more families live in uniformly affluent neighborhoods or uniformly poor neighborhoods, which leads to segregation in schools, which then determines friendship networks and other social resources, so that increasingly Americans marry partners from the same socioeconomic class. “Two generations ago, extended family gatherings might bring together small businessmen and manual workers, professors and construction workers” but now, extended families are increasingly of the same socioeconomic class. “Class segregation means that members of the upper middle class are less likely to have firsthand knowledge of the lives of poor kids and thus are unable even to recognize the growing opportunity gap.” It becomes harder and harder to see the lives of people unlike us.

Here is an excerpt from his book, “Our Kids: American Dream in Crisis” that helps illustrate the impact of systemic poverty:

A recent study of California high school teachers’ daily classroom routines made vivid just how different the learning environments are in high-poverty and low-poverty schools. Stressful conditions from outside school are much more likely to intrude into the classroom in high-poverty schools. Every one of ten such “stressors” is two or three times more common in high-poverty schools than in their low-poverty counterparts–student hunger, unstable housing, and economic problems; lack of medical and dental care; caring for family members and other family and immigration issues; community violence and safety concerns. One consequence is that even though the nominal number of instructional hours doesn’t differ between high-poverty and low-poverty schools, over the course of the average week teachers in high-poverty schools spend roughly three and one half fewer hours in actual instruction, and over the course of the academic year high-poverty schools lose almost two weeks more to teacher absences, emergency lockdowns, and other challenges concentrated in such schools. Formally, high-poverty and low-poverty schools may be given the same resources, but the ecological challenges facing the former render them much less effective in providing quality instruction to their students.

Students from impoverished backgrounds face far more challenges, from the physical (for example, undernourishment from living in food deserts) to the emotional (for example, trauma from more exposure to violence) that, through no fault of their own, affect their ability to dedicate time and attention to learning. Meanwhile, they often have fewer resources (tutors, therapists, extracurricular activities, parental engagement, etc.) to help overcome these challenges. This is only a snippet of the range of damage poverty inflicts on entire communities and Putnam’s book is well worth the read to learn more. While he focuses on the American context, many of these processes function similarly on the global scale. This is why for our purposes, alleviating poverty to combat trafficking is not just about the direct scholarships to keep children in school, but also the deeper support to overcome these other challenges that present barriers to success in school and leave children vulnerable to traffickers who prey on them by offering what seems like easy fixes to what’s missing (emotionally or monetarily) in their lives.

Why a Systemic Lens Matters

The reason we need to be clear about what happens on an individual basis versus what operates on a systemic level is two-fold: first, people tend to ascribe blame on the individual level. When something goes wrong, people leap to blame the person – regardless of how unjust the outcome. They say things like, “She should have known that that job was clearly fake” or “she should have known not to talk to strangers online” or “only bad girls do things like that.” But is there really any way in which a child might behave where sexual violence against them is justified? We need to interrogate the assumptions hiding behind these kinds of claims. A systemic focus would instead look at questions like, “Why is it lucrative in our society to buy and sell people without their consent?” or “What drives the impulse to use young children and why is there such large-scale demand for this in the first place?”

Second, if the problem is systemic, we cannot solve it through individuals alone. If whole classes of people, through poverty, sexism, and ethnic discrimination, are vulnerable to traffickers or engaging in trafficking, combatting it through individuals is like trying to bail out a flooding boat with a coffee cup. You might make headway but you won’t solve the problem until you can plug up the leak.

Note too, that we’re talking about the difference between anecdotal data and collective data, stories versus trends. One person can buck the trend, but the trend can still exist and vice versa, just because a trend exists doesn’t make it impossible for one person to buck the trend. This is why the story of one person overcoming incredible odds, or saying their life hasn’t been affected by these systemic things are not adequate evidence.

Raising our awareness of systemic issues like these can be very empowering, when you can begin to see how what looks like an individual event might actually be part of something larger. Larger problems need larger, more holistic solutions, but we can’t get to those larger solutions until we can see the problem rightly. So when you see a conflict unfolding, you can begin to take a step back and examine it: Are the people involved really responding to the situation that is actually unfolding before them – or are they acting in ways they’ve been conditioned to, that may not be appropriate? Is this something that’s really just individual, or is it something systemic?


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