The UNH Blog

UNH's Settlement House Crawl

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A live palm tree grows inside the building. Its roots push down past the linoleum floor toward a basement level that serves as a work site for teen health services, urban farming projects for youth and older adults, and immigration organizing. The green palm leaves fan out towards ceiling windows, allowing sunlight into two stories of classrooms for 2- through 5-year-olds. We have arrived at United Community Centers (UCC), the first stop in this year’s UNH Settlement House Crawl.


Coordinated and run by UNH Development Associate Erica Basco, the Settlement House Crawl held in May presented an opportunity for UNH Board members and staff to witness firsthand what happens inside two distinct UNH settlement houses: UCC in East New York and St. Nick’s Alliance in North Brooklyn.

They’re both settlement houses in the same way a palm tree and, say, a balsam fir are both trees. Both organizations share the same defining characteristics: they’re both community-based multi-service organizations committed to building community and improving the lives of individuals and families in need. But like any living thing, a settlement house takes root and grows in response to its environment. And the settlement houses we saw on this Crawl were definitely rooted in two very different places, each with its own history and cultural landscape.

Today, she says, the neighborhood continues to face its challenges. She speaks of children whose parents and grandparents are not in a good position to provide for them. “They get their love from the streets,” she says. In response, UCC provides a range of services to care for the neighborhood children. This love was visible in their classrooms. The pre-schoolers I met kindly offered to share their toys with me and excitedly answered my questions about their projects. “We’re baking a cake,” explained a pair of boys working fastidiously with pots and pans in a sandbox, “and we’re putting in lots of sprinkles.” They point to the rows of small plastic sandwich bags, each housing a bright green seedling sprouting from seeds nurtured in moistened wads of cotton. Each boy is eager to show me their work, their voices brimming with pride as they shout, “That one’s mine!”

At UCC, Executive Director Ana Aguirre sat with us and offered an insightful and personal account into the history of UCC and its roots in mid-1950’s East New York. As the first community based organization in New York City funded and run by tenants in NYCHA facilities, UCC has seen a lot of changes. Ana shares stories of her early days with the organization in the early 90’s when the neighborhood trees would often be spotted with its knot-holes filled with cement in an effort by police to curb the exchange of drugs by filling these  covert deposit and pick-up points for dealers and their clientele.  “One month after I first started working here in the 90’s, my car was stolen,” Ana told us in describing her relationship with the neighborhood. “They didn’t know it was my car,” she said. But as the neighbors began to recognize her and the services that her organization was providing for their community, she no longer had any problems driving a car into the neighborhood. “After they know it’s my car, I don’t have a problem.”


As our group is led outside UCC, we see a mural spanning an entire wall of the organization’s two-story building; in the mural, residents of all ages are gathered in a garden beneath a banner that reads: East NY Farms! Ana tells us that East New York is home to the largest concentration of gardens in New York City, as she opens the chain-link gate to welcome us into a vast plot of land about half a city block in size. Small garden beds lie side by side. Nearby, the 2 train pulls into the New Lots station on elevated tracks overlooking the neighboring houses and businesses. The land serves as a site for a non-traditional senior-center, a paid internship site for teens, an environmental sciences classroom for middle school students, the home of three active beehives, and a local food-source. “It’s not just science or gardening,” Ana says, “it’s a social space.”

Unlike our tour of UCC, which was localized to a single site, our tour of St. Nick’s Alliance took us through different regions of North Brooklyn, as Executive Director Michael Rochford provided an overview of how St. Nick’s Alliance has developed. Mr. Rochford accompanied us in our van as we traveled on a route from East New York toward the Greenpoint/Williamsburg area.  We pass by a workforce development center, three different community centers, and supportive/affordable housing facilities before reaching a building that houses both a senior center and an early childhood education center – all part of St. Nick’s Alliance. Michael speaks about each site as if speaking about an old friend, each with their own story and personality.


Central to the history of East Williamsburg is the migration of individuals and families from various regions of the globe. Michael says, “You get a sense of the demographic change just by comparing the first floor (the senior center) and the second and third floors (the early childhood education classrooms).” Sure enough, most of the participants in the organization’s senior center reflect the neighborhood’s role as a site where Jewish and Italian newcomers first settled into the U.S. Upstairs, the many Latino and black students exemplify more recent demographic shifts in the North Brooklyn community. Children upstairs greet us with songs. The community residents in the senior center smile at us and welcome us warmly. On all floors, meals were shared and eaten family-style.

As we ate the lunch they graciously provided, Youth and Education Division Director Debra Sue Lorenzen gave a presentation of the many literacy programs for young children and teens, which were all part of Nabe 3.0, an initiative that integrates St. Nick’s services in housing, employment and education through one-on-one coaching for residents of North Brooklyn. Many of the programs aiming to foster student achievement rely on what are known as “transformational coaches” - social workers who work individual with students who are experiencing any number of barriers that are affecting their school attendance and academic performance. Services can include case management, family supports, advocacy, tutoring, and individual and group counseling As a result, people from parents to teachers to social workers are drawn into St. Nick’s Alliance and lives are, indeed, transformed.

Sometimes the services come directly to the people, as they do through the BK Story Voyager, which we on the Crawl had a chance to check out. On the outside, it looked like a very hip purple bus. Our jaws dropped as we stepped inside. More colorful and interactive than any library I saw growing up, the BK Story Voyager featured a range of books from Dr. Seuss to Suzanne Collins, as well as touchscreens and headphones for interactive learning games. This mobile book-lending program in a purple bus may not resemble the libraries that provided the first settlement house programs in the late 1800’s, but they share the same tradition of collaborating with children and families to strengthen their neighborhood, one story at a time.


As we left each settlement house, the executive directors made sure we received gifts reminding us of the communities we visited. Among the items they gave were a cookbook from UCC which showcased recipes from community residents using ingredients grown in UCC urban gardens and a beautiful BK Story Voyager mug and spoon set from St. Nick’s Alliance. Both belong in my kitchen in their own unique way.

And both UCC and St. Nick’s Alliance belong to a rich history of settlement houses, building community in their own way.

For more photos, click here!


Letter from UNH to Member Organizations

Wednesday, June 15, 2016
June 15, 2016

Dear Settlement House Staff,

We at UNH were and remain horrified by the attack at Pulse nightclub in Orlando over the weekend. UNH condemns the violence and hatred that fueled this tragedy and which members of the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ people of color, often face. We remember those killed in Orlando and elsewhere and share in the nation’s pain and grief.

As we try to process this event we take some solace in knowing that settlement houses are in our communities. You advocate for vulnerable populations, including our LGBTQ, immigrant, Latin-American, and Muslim neighbors most affected by these events. Settlement houses participate in anti-hate marches, hold sexual health workshops and counseling, and run senior centers for gay older adults. You provide English classes, job training, and legal services for immigrants. You lead youth in advocating against gun violence, hold mediation sessions, and stand up for an inclusive New York City and nation in many ways including a statement against Islamophobia.

As neighbors we are bound to one another by proximity, but through settlement houses we are bound by community. Thank you, settlement house staff, for the work you do every day. We are here for you and continue to support you.

On behalf of the staff at United Neighborhood Houses,

Susan Stamler

Statement from Susan Stamler, Executive Director of United Neighborhood Houses On Mayor de Blasio’s FY 2017 Executive Budget

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mayor de Blasio’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Executive Budget proposed several important and necessary investments in key services throughout New York City. However, the Budget proposal fails to adequately address critical challenges facing New York City’s low-income communities in the areas of summer programs, adult literacy, youth employment, and early childhood education. 

Important Investments

United Neighborhood Houses (UNH) applauds Mayor de Blasio for making a much needed investment in Beacon Community Centers, which Mayor Dinkins brought to New York City in 1991 as part of his Safe Streets / Safe Cities Initiative. Despite the significant and expanding work performed in Beacon Community Centers, funding has been largely stagnant and is actually lower than it was in the 1990s,  forcing many Beacon Community Centers to scale back their programs and services at a time of growing community need. Today’s proposal corrects this longstanding shortfall and will help Beacon Community Centers offer improved services for multiple generations of New Yorkers.

UNH also commends the increase in funding for case manager salaries in programs funded by the Department for the Aging (DFTA). This investment will help community based providers retain and train hardworking case managers in order to cultivate a skilled workforce that can address the City’s elder care needs. 

Areas in Need of Correction

Summer Programs

UNH is extremely disappointed that the Executive Budget proposes ending summer programming for more than 31,000 middle school students. Without these programs, young people will not have a safe and stimulating place to learn when school is out, and working parents will be hard pressed to find an affordable option for their middle school children. The Mayor must not wait until the Adopted Budget in late June to restore programs that start only days after the Budget is passed, and must act immediately to prevent this cut from impacting 31,000 New York City children.

Adult Literacy

The Executive Budget fails to restore critical adult literacy programming for thousands of New Yorkers who lost services last year, and misses an opportunity to capitalize on the talent and potential of immigrant New Yorkers. English language proficiency and other services provided by adult literacy programs are essential to help New Yorkers integrate in their communities and find better and higher paying jobs. In order to address a growing gap in services, the Adopted Budget must commit $16 million for community-based adult literacy programs to ensure families and hardworking New Yorkers have an opportunity to fully engage in the civic and economic opportunities of the City.

Youth Employment

More than 130,000 young people apply every year for jobs through Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) and more than half are turned away. Regrettably, the Mayor’s Executive Budget makes no further investment in youth employment programs such as SYEP and Work Learn & Grow (WLG). UNH urges City leaders to invest in expanded employment opportunities for young people in this year’s budget.  Last year, SYEP provided summer jobs to 54,263 youth ages 14-24 in New York City while Work, Learn & Grow was successfully piloted, providing 6,400 paid jobs during the school year for SYEP participants.   UNH urges City leaders to use this budget to invest in the youth workforce, both through SYEP and Work, Learn & Grow.

Early Childhood Education

While the City has begun to make strides to correct many longstanding inequities in the human services workforce, there remains a crisis in the City’s early childhood education system. Educators, staff and directors in community based early childhood programs are paid far less than their counterparts in public schools, forcing many educators to choose between the work they love and making ends meet. The City must use this year’s budget process to address this longstanding inequity and finally achieve salary parity for the early childhood workforce.   

UNH looks forward to working with both the Administration and the City Council to forge a budget that will truly achieve the important work of reducing inequality and strengthening New York City’s neighborhoods.



Lynn Appelbaum on Settlement House History and Future

Thursday, April 14, 2016

by Lynn Appelbaum

Good things happen when people come together to think, share ideas and questions, solve problems, create, learn and explore new opportunities, play, provide comfort and advice, and celebrate progress and achievement. These good things happen every day at settlement houses and at United Neighborhood Houses. We are places of community, opportunity and learning.

I’m sure there’s no better way to change the world for the good than to be part of a community and a place that provides support, brings neighbors together, helps people learn and encourages them to develop connections, skills, and a sense of confidence. That’s why I am so committed to settlement house work. It’s why I am so honored and humbled to have been part of the UNH family for more than 20 years. And, it’s why I’m so excited and privileged to have the opportunity to join the staff of UNH and work with my colleagues here, our Board, and with staff at all levels across the UNH network, to strengthen New York by strengthening New Yorkers.

I was convinced of the benefits of the settlement house approach long before my first day at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House back in 1994. That conviction grew each day through the work I was so fortunate to do on the staff at Lenox Hill and then Educational Alliance and through Board service at Moshulu-Montefiore Community Center. But my settlement house connection goes back a century.

About 100 years ago my grandmother, my father’s mother, was in elementary school. She was the first of her family to be born in the United States. Her mother didn’t speak English. Her father had died. And every day, after school, she went to her neighborhood settlement house (University Settlement) because she and her mother knew that was where she would be safe, where people cared about her, and where she would learn. Several decades later, my grandfather, my mother’s father, was working at Hudson Guild and on the Board at Educational Alliance. Soon after that my mother’s maternal aunt began work at UNH. Settlement houses are in my heart and in my DNA.

I’m so excited to deepen and expand the work UNH does to provide professional development, peer learning and to promote and share the many innovative, exciting, successful programs our members offer. We’re going to keep doing what works in bringing people together in formal and informal settings to learn and share ideas and we’re going to find new ways, based on the suggestions and requests of settlement house staff across the City, to capitalize on the expertise and dedication of staff in member organizations. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to make a difference. And we’re going to do it together. So please let me know your ideas and requests!



Love Blooms at UNH Emerging Leaders Program

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Alissa Tyghter, 30, is a Residence Director at UNH member agency Bronxworks, and Justin Gerald, 29, manages the adult education department at a different UNH member agency – Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. One year ago, on April 1, 2015, they met during UNH’s Baruch Emerging Leaders professional development program. On April 1, 2016, they’ll be married.

The program, supported by the Pinkerton Foundation and the Barker Welfare Foundation, aims to engage key staff members from UNH member agencies to strengthen their leadership skills and develop management tools. Participants complete 13 sessions and earn a certificate in nonprofit agency leadership.

Justin and Alissa may have been brought together by their work with settlement houses, but they first bonded over a shared love of running. Alissa remembers Justin being very bright, inquisitive, and prepared for the class. Justin remembers thinking Alissa couldn’t possibly be single. She was, and after using the class contact sheet to email her, Justin asked Alissa out for brunch. They’ve been together ever since.

Alissa said she isn’t surprised she ended up falling in love with a fellow settlement house employee. “I always wanted to meet someone through work so they understand the day to day stuff that occurs in social services,” she said.

Justin agreed. “It helps to have a partner who is doing the same or similar things because it gives me the confidence to follow what I believe in,” he said.

Justin proposed, after only four months, in Central Park where they went on one of their first dates.

While Alissa said she enjoyed the Emerging Leaders Program, it’s understandable that meeting Justin was the best part. “The program brings together a lot of likeminded people with similar personalities and aspirations so it was overall a good experience, but certainly to meet him was amazing,” she said.

Maybe the topics covered in the UNH Baruch Program, like budgeting, teambuilding, and communication, will help this fabulous couple in their marriage. We at UNH wish Justin and Alissa all the best for a lifetime of happiness.

Justin Gerald participates in a final project at the UNH Baruch Emerging Leaders Program

Justin and Alissa get their diplomas with former UNH Executive Director Nancy Wackstein

Social Worker Month Speech

Wednesday, March 23, 2016
On Wednesday, March 23, UNH Executive Director Susan Stamler spoke to a group of social work staff from Lower East Side settlement houses for Social Worker Month. Here is the text of her speech:

Thank you to Henry Street, Educational Alliance, Grand Street, Chinese American Planning Council and University Settlement/The Door for inviting me to celebrate social work month with you. I am fortunate to lead United Neighborhood Houses, the federation of 38 settlement houses in NYC, and I want to let you know that you are involved in a movement larger than your settlement house and bigger than the Lower East Side.

First, a little history. In 1919 a group of settlement houses joined together to create an organization that would truly address issues and change communities from case to cause. Those early settlement house leaders believed that they needed a table where they could talk about what they saw in their neighborhoods and begin to build support for change.

The backdrop for this settlement house movement was the unfolding of the twentieth century and the Progressive Movement. The movement grew into a political movement and they were people who believed that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace. Progressives lived mainly in the cities, were college educated, and believed that government could be a tool for change. They concentrated on exposing the evils of corporate greed and political machines, combating fear of immigrants, and urging Americans to think hard about what democracy meant.

Many progressive leaders encouraged Americans to register to vote and to fight political corruption. They called for regulations of corporations through antitrust laws, promoted women’s suffrage and reformed local government. And in NYC settlement houses they were a growing force in the fight for public health laws, public housing, public education and lifting up over-crowded immigrant neighborhoods.     

And we saw what happened on the Lower East Side:

  • University Settlement, in 1886, was the first settlement house in the United States, and offered its neighbors the first public bath and the first kindergarten programs in New York.
  • Henry Street, beginning as Nurses’ Settlement in 1893, opened one of the first NYC playgrounds to get kids off dangerous city streets, and paid the first salary for a public school nurse. Members of Henry Street started a credit union to secure loans from the credit union instead of loan sharks.
  • Grand Street Settlement began in 1916 and focused on the needs of immigrant families. They ran clubs for young men and women to learn sewing and dance. They ran a kindergarten program for children of working parents and taught household management and child-rearing.
  • The Educational Alliance began in 1889 and focused on ways to help the immigrants on the Lower East Side by offering English and civics classes for children and adults. They also taught stenography and cooking.
  • And, with the huge influx of Chinese immigrants to lower Manhattan, after the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, the Chinese American Planning Council was established to provide case assistance to families, help recent immigrants navigate the school system and adjust to their new homes.

I admire NASW’s theme for this year, Forging Solutions out of Challenges – as it honors the work that settlement house staff do every day in their communities. But what makes settlement houses so special, however, are the dedicated staff members (front line workers, supervisors and administrators) who truly believe that solutions to our city’s biggest health and welfare problems can be found by building stronger and healthier communities.

And settlement houses continue to be the backbone of their communities today:

  • When one-fourth of Chinatown residents were out of work after 9/11, the Chinese American Planning Council started job training programs.
  • After the NYC blackout, settlement houses reached out to homebound elderly to make sure that they were safe in their homes.
  • When United Community Centers in East New York saw how difficult it was to find fresh produce in their area, they started East New York Farms.
  • When Hurricane Sandy hit, settlement house staff turned meals–on-wheels into meals-on-heels and Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach became a FEMA center.
  • The Center for Family Life worked to have a public high school built for their growing community in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
  • And the list continues…

Very few organizations are able to adapt to stay relevant. But settlement houses, for more than 100 years, believe in community engagement and listen to neighbors to find solutions. Settlement houses and social workers continue to focus on the causes of poverty rather than the flaws of the poor.

As Martin Luther King said about poverty- “We now know it is less the failure of the poor and more the failure of a system that perpetuates poverty.”

March is also Women’s History Month, and settlement houses provided some of the first opportunities for women to become influential leaders of society. Jane Addams and Frances Perkins moved into national affairs through their management of settlement houses. Settlement house workers were pioneers in the kindergarten movement, taught English, and were connected to public health like our very own Lower East Sider - Lillian Wald. And the noted city planner and social worker Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch was one of the founders of Greenwich House, the NYC Housing Authority and the Association of Neighborhood Workers, which later became UNH!

Mary Simkhovitch believed that the development of the neighborhood was the social unit of our urban life. In 1926 she wrote, “The aim of the settlement house or neighborhood house is to bring about a new kind of community life. It is the home of friendly neighbors, and a center of information, organization and service. It is in the community or neighborhood that people seek and fight for solutions to their concrete, daily, local and immediate problems.”

And, using her social worker lens, she said, ”Although the community remains the focus of the settlement’s attention, it is through the personalized and direct involvement with the individual in the context of the family – often throughout a lifetime – that the settlement fosters and supports the values of fellowship and mutual support.”

We are at a unique moment in time. Perhaps we even have a little déjà vu. We have seen frightening immigrant backlash, angry workers barely living from paycheck to paycheck, the unaffordability of higher education and rent, and corporate greed seems to be on steroids. Could we be on the dawn of another Progressive Era?

All I know is that elected officials come and go but we have demonstrated that settlement houses stand the test of time. And I know that safe and healthy individuals, strong families and resilient communities make our city and state a better place to live. We must work together to make that happen.

So I’m here today to celebrate you, to thank you for your work and to remind you that you are part of a larger settlement house movement in our City, in our country and throughout the world. In New York City there are 10,000 settlement house staff who work in more than 600 sites throughout our great City. And together, this settlement house movement has kept and will continue to keep our communities strong and healthy.

Happy Social Worker Month.

Happy Women’s History Month.


2016 Spring UNH Baruch Emerging Leaders Program

Friday, March 18, 2016

Congratulations to the 22 settlement house staff members accepted to the Spring session of the UNH Baruch Emerging Leaders Program! Through this program, associate executive directors, chief financial officers and other senior staff participate in 13 sessions on strategic planning, financial management, and team building, leading to a certificate in nonprofit agency leadership. You can read more about the program here.

Below are those participating in this session. Good luck all!

First Name

Last Name

Settlement House






Acting Program Director





Program Dir., Community Health Programs




Cypress Hills Local Development Corp.

YouthLEAD & HSE Program Director




East Side House Settlement

Director of Learning to Work Program




Educational Alliance

Director of Institutional Giving




Educational Alliance

Project ORE/Acting Director Sirovich Ctr for Balanced Living




Goddard Riverside Community Center

Assistant Program Director of The Senate Residence




Goddard Riverside Community Center

Program Dir., Community Ars Associate/Policy Associate




Hudson Guild

Assistant Director, Mental Health Clinic




Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settletment

Director of Immigrant Services




Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settletment

Director of Development and Communications




Lenox Hill Neighborhood House

Assistant Director of Administration




Lenox Hill Neighborhood House

Adult Education Coordinator




New Settlement Apartments

Center Coordinator




Northern Manhattan Improvement Corp.

Senior Career Advisor/Lead Instructor





Beacon Director




Southeast Bronx Neighborhood Centers

Program Director




Sunnyside Community Services

Educational Specialist




Sunnyside Community Services

Intake Supervisor




Sunnyside Community Services

Maintenance Service Supervisor




Union Settlement

Educational Site Director




University Settlement

Senior Site Director


Angela Perry-Spruill on her New Role

Monday, March 14, 2016

by Angela Perry-Spruill

My favorite story about being hired twice at UNH is that both times I was hired on the birthdays of my two sons. Makes it so easy to remember my work anniversary!

I started working here back in the spring of 2013 as the Interim Deputy Director for Member Services, which lasted about 3.5 months while my predecessor was on family leave. My time here as a temporary employee was terrific, so I’ll readily admit that I did a happy dance when I got a call from Ken Walters asking if I’d be interested in the position full time as my predecessor decided to relocate. I was hired about four months later, so all together I’ve been at UNH just over 2 years.

Recently, I got the exciting news of a promotion. I’m now the Director of Member Services! In this role, I will be working closely with and reporting to the incoming Deputy Executive Director, Lynn Appelbaum, as well as with UNH staff and Board members. The Member Services Department works on providing our members opportunities for professional development, peer sharing, and program enhancement. We work to develop ways to enhance and share best practices among member agencies, conduct membership reviews, recruit new members, and help our member agencies confront and resolve challenges by connecting them to resources, information and opportunities.

My hope is that the Member Services department will grow in the next few years. Currently I’m fortunate to have a great part-time team member, Latoya Leslie, who serves as the IBM Safety Net Project Coordinator and Arlen Sue Fox, a part-time volunteer through ReServe with a wealth of knowledge about the settlement houses. One initiative I’ll be working intently on this year is to strengthen our peer and issue groups – I’d like to see these go to a higher level of engagement, sharing of knowledge and experiences in the work, and meaningful training and educational opportunities for UNH members. 

Though I carry Member Services in my title, I think that all of us at UNH are here to serve our members. I believe my real responsibility rests not just in overseeing and coordinating various projects but in publicizing what we do more broadly. I will be talking with our members often to make sure they are connected with UNH in a way that adds value to them in strengthening their capacity as providers of quality services and creative, innovative, successful programs. My questions for members have been and will likely always be the same: Of the programs and services UNH offers, what’s working for you? What’s not? What can UNH do to would make a real difference in helping your organization, your staff, your board, and the communities and clients you serve? Call me, email me. Let me hear you.

It’s a real year of change for UNH, and I’m so pleased to be part of it. When I log off to head home for the day, even the times when it’s been really busy and I feel like I’ve either walked a tightrope or jumped through a ring of fire, I have true satisfaction that I’ve fulfilled my life purpose to be of service to others by helping someone each day.

Behind the Scenes at Lobby Day

Monday, February 22, 2016

by Kevin Douglas, UNH Co-Director of Policy and Advocacy

It was too early to be awake, too cold to be outside, and definitely too early and too cold to be heading to Albany. And yet, all across the City, dozens of settlement house executive directors and their staff rolled out of bed to join UNH on our annual pilgrimage to the state capital. A rite of passage of sorts for nonprofit providers and advocates, the nearly three-hour trip to Albany is a necessary journey for those hoping to bend the arc of the state budget toward greater investment in human services.

Just a few weeks ago the Governor released his Executive Budget—his first sketch of how he thinks the state should spend some $145 billion—and as usual, it’s a mixed bag for settlement houses. Progressive policy proposals that would benefit our communities? Absolutely: plans to boost the minimum wage, reform the juvenile justice system, implement paid family leave, pass the DREAM Act and improve voter access to the ballot all fall into the "win" column. A budget that prioritizes key services for children, youth, immigrants, older adults and the stability of the nonprofit sector? Not so much. And so there we found ourselves, on the crowded 7:15 a.m. Amtrak train to Albany, reviewing logistics and troubleshooting the last-minute scheduling issues that invariably arise when matching 40 people to nearly 70 meetings over the course of two days.

Bleary eyes aside, the trip to Albany can be quite beautiful if you aren’t a newbie and know to sit on the left-hand side of the train on the way up to soak in the views of the Hudson. The fact that one of our team baked New York State-shaped cookies for everyone to munch on as they review talking points almost makes the whole thing pleasant.

Albany. Sadly, the seat of our state government is often thought to be a place that generally ought to be avoided. Still, for all of the theater, we know that the vast majority of people in state government are there to do the work of the people, and so we and the communities we serve being the people, go.  

So there we were at the Capitol building, each of us eleven dollars and some change poorer since the Albany taxi industry has not yet adopted the concept of a collective fare. We have an important message that needs to be spread, and it’s really a simple one: if New York State is to honor its responsibility to meet the needs of the people, if it is to tap the potential of under-resourced populations, if it is to build strong and prosperous neighborhoods and communities, then it needs to invest in the development of children and youth by providing early learning opportunities and after-school programs, it needs to promote the integration and success of immigrants by providing English language classes, and it needs support the dignified aging of older adults by providing health and wellness services. And if it is to deliver all these programs with any degree of quality and efficiency, it needs to invest in the overall stability of the contracted nonprofit human services sector. In short, our message is that people matter. Budgets need to be balanced, for sure. Proverbial “hard choices” must be made, no doubt. But let them not be at the expense of those with the least power, the greatest need and biggest potential.

And so we got to work. We met with state agency commissioners, legislative conference leaders, committee chairs, and with “the second floor”—shorthand for the Governor’s most senior representatives. We engaged in the poker-like ritual of dealing business cards around the table and then launched into our presentations. We talked about our experiences on the ground serving communities and made earnest arguments for investment in the programs we’ve identified as particularly effective. We handed off our one-pagers that sometimes bled to two, our charts and graphs and maps, our glossy folders, reports and business cards. All in the hopes that after we’re gone, after the corridors of the LOB clear out and the elevators are again a viable mode of transport, the people we’ve met with won’t forget that we were there. That in those moments of candid connection, they discovered or reaffirmed the necessity of their leadership on behalf of New Yorkers who don’t get to sit at the table when the budget is being carved up.

It was a hectic day as we trekked back and forth between the Capitol, Legislative Office Building and off-site agency offices. Some of us had a chance to break for a quick bite in the cafeteria, and others lamented that they overlooked my gentle suggestion they pack a snack.  Still, as the hours wear on our messaging becomes more refined and more efficient.  Our teams were gelling and in a groove, but we were also tired, and so eventually we retreated back to the hotel. Over dinner we listened to remarks from a member of the Governor’s administration. We discussed poverty and data, programs and contracts, and generally conclude that all is not lost: the administration hears our message, understands it, and may even act on it. As the evening wore on, the reality of nonprofit leadership took over as phones came out and urgent voicemails were returned, board meetings were prepared for and the deluge of unread emails slowly shrank. Soon enough it was off to bed, and it’s a good thing, because the next day we did it all over again.

After the last notes were scribbled and the last handshakes made, we were on our way back to the train station. Our colleagues from Syracuse, Rochester and Albany piled into their cars and we waved them off. At that point, my first order of business was, of course, scoring a bowl of mac and cheese; aside from the Governor and legislature not fulfilling our agenda, my biggest fear was that I would be rushed onto the train without lunch. That taken care of, and remembering to sit on the right side of the train for the return trip, I gazed out over the river briefly before cracking open my laptop. After all, we had just completed 66 meetings and it would be impolite not to say thank you.

Interested in what we are lobbying for? Check out all our one-pagers here.
Tweet to Kevin Douglas at @douglaskev
Tweet to UNH at @UNHNY

Youth Power Goes to Albany for Summer Jobs

Monday, January 25, 2016
by Andy Bowen

It’s a tradition unlike any other.

Since 2000, the Campaign for Summer Jobs—a coalition of nearly 100 organizations, headed by United Neighborhood Houses and the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition (NFSC)—has brought hundreds of youth, year-after-year, to Albany. The goal? Urging legislators to increase funding for the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), a statewide program that gives many teenagers their first chance at a summer job. Many UNH member agencies are SYEP contractors, which means that the member agencies connect youth to employment, and, in some cases, the member agencies directly employ participants in summer camps, day care, and other vital services.

This year, Youth Action Day will take place on February 1, and hundreds of teens will make their mark on the legislative process.

The planning is extensive. Organizing for the event begins in the fall, as Settlement Houses, community centers, and other Community Based Organizations recruit attendees of their youth programs to sign up for the day. This January, staff from UNH, NFSC, and Good Shepherd Services have been providing training to youth in NYC and upstate about SYEP and how to be an effective legislative advocate for the program.

What will the youth be asking legislators to provide? $48.2 million for SYEP—an increase of $18.2 million above what the New York State government provided last year ($30 million). With an extra $18.2 million, the program can increase by 10,000 jobs while also covering the costs of the minimum wage increase from $8.75 to $9 an hour.  

Demand for the program is enormous. In 2015, a record 54,263 youth from New York City alone took part in the program, but 77,634 youth who applied to SYEP in NYC didn’t get the opportunity to participate. There wasn’t enough funding to fill demand.

SYEP allows youth to earn money, learn about potential careers, and contribute to their local economies. But research has shown that SYEP also reduces a participant’s chances of being a victim of violence. SYEP participants in another study showed higher rates of school attendance, and were more likely than their non-SYEP-participating peers to pass the NYS Regents examinations.

You can bet that the young people taking part in Youth Action Day will tell these things to legislators, and with hundreds of teens already geared up to take part in Youth Action Day, those legislators will get the message.

For more information about Youth Action Day, contact UNH Policy Analyst Andy Bowen at