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Encountering Systems While Going Upstream

By Josal Diebold

Babies In A River

I imagine no FJV (or Jesuit-educated individual) has escaped their volunteer or educational tenure without hearing what I affectionately refer to as the “babies in the river story.”  An individual sees a single baby perilously being swept down a river. After quickly intervening to save the baby from a doomed fate, there is another baby, and then more. Then even more babies in the river. Their friends come to help. They all work around the clock plucking the babies from the river, but the problem becomes unmanageable and the question persists: why are the babies in the river in the first place? What systems are in place allowing this? What is happening upstream?

My first year as a JV, I worked at a foster/adoptive agency in Houston, TX.  Kids came into care having been inexplicably abused, neglected, and damaged. During a second year, I helped to coordinate an after-school program for refugee youth; forced to flee their own country, it was apparent how the kids and their families faced economic, social, and educational obstacles. And the question persisted: why? What is going on in areas of Southeast Asia and Africa that displaces people from their homes, friends, and families?


A photo of Josie while serving in Houston, TX.

Questions That Continued

It was easy to adopt an isolated focus of the problems at hand – the child’s problematic behavior, the refugee youth’s school struggles, the babies in the river. As a Jesuit Volunteer my community and I lifted the hood to look beneath observations and surface-level assessments. Together, we plunged into the pains we were witness to in order to ask…what is causing this to persist…indeed, to exist at all? It was uncomfortable, confusing, and frustrating work.  It changed me entirely.

Plucking the babies out of the water is needed; yes, the issues demand our attention and response.  As JVs, we were committed to working for and with the discriminated, marginalized, and oppressed. We entered into relationship and saw, heard, loved, and respected these individuals. But the work only began there.

In giving a year, two years to be exact, as an additional year JV, the scales over my own eyes became tenuous and, as the ruin continues to manifest. The scales are falling away. Years after my JV experience ended, I’ve reflected more urgently and seriously about the privilege I possess, and just how much I have changed. I’ve taken stock of my skin color: white. And what that truly means. I’ve begun to really see the systems, structures, and social norms that not only disadvantage the vulnerable, but do so to the advantage of others – namely, me and my whiteness.

Systems Of Privilege While Up Stream

In the past, I fancied myself aware and in-tune with social injustice as a JV, but I didn’t notice it all – and I still don’t. I didn’t have the words then, and I still mightily struggle with language now. There are invisible and intractable barriers curtailing the humanity and dignity of people of color. I’ve seen the struggle to be real as a JV. But it has taken time to appreciate how it is mine to take responsibility for. It is my privilege that contributes to the system.

Josie seated in front of her community’s home in Syracuse!

In my privilege and advantage, I have obligations to go beyond placing Band-Aids on the world’s ills. I can, and must use my voice to work among others like me. Those who are white, power-wielding folks whose silence ultimately supports the systems where people of color suffer endemically. Recently, I became involved in anti-racist organizing with the group, Showing Up for Racial Justice. One of the key values in SURJ is to call people in as opposed to calling out. We do not shame, blame, or ‘should’ all over other folks for implicit or explicit bias.  Rather, we work to engage them in hard, deep conversations about race and racism.

SURJ focuses on how we are a part of this system of dis/advantage, and how we must dismantle the problems that exist. The journey upstream is not clear or self-evident – there’s brambles, boulders, downed trees, misleading paths. And so, calling people into the journey to the source is essential for addressing the actual problems. Without community and bringing people in, we are apt to grow weary of plucking the babies from the raging water and miss the systems that benefit from their distress.

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Josal (“Josie”) Diebold is currently a MSW/PhD student at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.  After graduating from Canisius College in 2009, she was a JV in Houston, TX, working as a foster parent at a foster/adoptive agency, Casa de Esperanza.  She completed a second year in Syracuse, NY, as a Refugee Youth Worker at Northside CYO, a refugee resettlement and community agency.  Her academic interests are studying whiteness, white racism, and institutional white supremacy.  She likes to run, bike, swim, be silly, and hang out with friends and family.