Where are the Systems stories?

By Lee Stevens

As a frontline social worker, I witnessed many people who overcame adversity, received the help that they needed, and as a result, their situation improved. I see personal success stories in various forms, annual reports, newsletter articles, and evaluation documents. They provide a way for organizations to celebrate their good works. I myself have fond memories of people I have helped, and admittedly it was those success stories that kept me going amidst the crisis of my work. However, if those stories were to be reframed by focusing on the systemic adversities as well as the personal ones we open ourselves up to making an even bigger impact on poverty reduction.

Frontline work in the social services sector is both fulfilling and very stressful.  When you do help someone solve a problem the benefits can be immediate; however, the line of sight between a person’s problem and larger systemic issues is not always clear.

Frameworks Institute founder Susan Bales wrote an article titled “The case for explanatory stories”
(https://www.comnetwork.org/topic/storytelling/), where she identifies this challenge. “We must adapt stories of adult narratives of personal experience into societal narratives of collective experience,” she argues.

Any personal story can be reframed to tell a systems story. Let’s take for instance the story about a young family who is seeking help from a social agency to pay their rent.  Upon further discussion, we find out that dad lost his part-time job in construction because of a work-related injury and is now making ends meet through his side gig as an Uber driver.  Mom works at a restaurant but had to leave her job because the family could not keep up with childcare expenses. The workers at the social agency might support this family by offering to pay their rent through an emergency fund, and maybe dad would be able to find another job through an employment agency.  Now their personal story becomes complete because of some short-term successes; however, like most personal stories the systems that are impacting this young family are missing.

The story about dad losing his part-time job in construction due to an injury and side gig as an Uber driver, is part of a bigger picture about the state of our labor market.  According to a recent study on The Future of Work by the International Labor Organization, “There has been a distinct rise in non-standard forms of employment that includes, temporary, short-term, part-time, and dependent self-employment.”  These types of jobs offer less security and poor working conditions, presumably leading to other social problems that policy makers need to be aware of.  Other systemic issues missing from the story include the lack of affordable childcare.  As indicated in the early learning and child care strategy for Calgary, at the Women’s Centre of Calgary, “Access to affordable, quality child care has long been identified as a major barrier to participating in economic, social and political life, and a lack of early learning child care spaces contributes to the systemic causes of poverty for many women.” And lastly, we must not leave out the issue of housing affordability, an important part of this story.  Not making the rent is an all too common occurrence in our city for singles and families alike.  Organizations like the Calgary Homeless Foundation and the Community Housing Affordability Collective have certainly made the case for additional funding towards affordable housing projects.  Affordable housing was also listed as an area of improvement for the city of Calgary according to the Preliminary Resilience Assessment.

Personal stories are important for public awareness, for fundraising, and for touching the hearts and minds of others, but if we leave out the systems in our stories they might become invisible to us, and we cannot change what we cannot see.


Lee Stevens is a Community Facilitation and Engagement Specialist at Vibrant Communities Calgary. Please feel free to email Lee or comment below.

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  • Joan Farkas

    Thank you Lee for raising an important issue for all front line social workers to consider. How do we work to turn personal problems into public issues? I know that when people are in the midst of a crisis, there is no time or energy to ask the question ” what is the root cause of this problem”? But can we do this when the crisis is over? Social workers can help people understand the larger issues at play and work to link people to advocacy groups and others who are working on policy change. Personal problems are not solely the responsibility of the individual, most often the problem lies at deeper structural issues. Social Workers must look beyond the individual to seek solutions.

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