Charity vs Justice

What I’m reading… “Stories from the Shadows” by James J. O’Connell, M.D.


Dr. O’Connell’s book documents his path as a physician to the homeless population in Boston. In “The Shoulders of Giants” he speaks fondly of Kip Tiernan, his mentor, and the founder of Rosie’s Place, the oldest women’s shelter in the country. She “demanded that our program embrace social justice and not charity: ‘Never forget that charity is scraps from the table and justice is a seat at the table’.”


This quote really resonated with me. I find that charity assumes so much – assumes what other people want or need, assumes to know what is good for them, assumes that we understand them. However, understanding what another human being needs and wants is a complex thing. It requires focused, active, nonjudgmental listening. To truly listen you must be self-aware of your own biases and prejudices. True listening takes time. It can be quite uncomfortable. It will challenge your world-view.


I learned a hard lesson one day when sitting with a patient who said her father died; I said “I’m sorry that must be very sad for you”. She glared at me, and I learned that the father was horribly abusive and that the father’s death triggered a complex mix of relief, anger, sadness, and regret. So much for my assumptions.


So how do we give everyone a seat at the table to achieve justice? First: representation. Second: true listening. Only after these two steps can the work of justice begin.

Dr Jennie Byrne © All Rights Reserved