The UNH Blog

Cuts to Literacy Programs a Major Misstep

Monday, June 01, 2015

by Kevin Douglas
UNH Co-Director of Policy and Advocacy

As Mayor de Blasio, his administration, and City Council grapple with the tough decisions that must be made in a world of finite resources, it appears that adult literacy programming—a lifeline to thousands of New Yorkers with limited English skills and lacking workforce credentials as basic as a high school diploma—is once again poised to be slashed. That would be a mistake, and, fortunately, it’s not too late for City leaders to correct it. The final City budget agreement isn’t due for another month, and it would be wise for the Mayor and City Council consider the following.

Today New York is home to 1.7 million individuals over the age of 18 who lack English proficiency and/ or a high school diploma. Even assuming that all 5.5 million New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 64 are eligible to work—and they aren’t, given enrollment in college, family care responsibilities, disabilities and other barriers—that would mean nearly one-third of the City’s workforce does not have the skills to compete in the local economy, much less the global one. If the Mayor is to truly make strides toward his laudable goal of lifting 800,000 people out of poverty, it makes sense that he start by helping these New Yorkers gain the skills they need to obtain jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their families.

As part of the City’s newly minted workforce development plan known as Career Pathways, the administration has vowed to better knit the patchwork system of adult literacy classes into the broader workforce development system, with the goal of turning New Yorkers into viable candidates for openings in the job market. Yet surprisingly, not only does the Mayor’s Executive Budget not include a substantial reinvestment in these foundational  education programs—a prerequisite to the more commonly emphasized training courses and certifications—but it actually proposes to eliminates classes for thousands of immigrant New Yorkers currently enrolled in the City’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Designed to provide literacy and legal supports to help New Yorkers qualify for federal administrative relief, over 10,000 individuals of all backgrounds have rushed to DACA over the last two years. In redesigning the program this year, the Mayor’s budget proposes eliminating classes for over 4,100 students currently enrolled in the program, meaning that thousands of New Yorkers desperate to learn English, as they are so often implored to do, will have the rug yanked from under them.

If we want to live in a City where every adult who wants to learn English can, where every individual who knows they need to earn a high school diploma has a place they can start, where parents can communicate with their children’s teachers and where individuals can meaningfully engage with medical professionals and the police without a language barrier, investing in adult literacy programs should not be an afterthought, but a priority. Eliminating these educational opportunities should be unthinkable. Recent New York Times coverage of the exploitation of nail salon workers with limited English skills is just the latest example of why literacy classes are essential. There’s still time to get it right, and for the sake of the future of our City, which continues to be built by immigrants, the Mayor and City Council must provide an enduring solution.

Nancy Wackstein quoted in Summer Program rally story

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Fariña hints at a deal on city’s summer programs

More than 100 parents, politicians and activists rallied Thursday on the steps of City Hall to protest Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposed cuts in summer programs for children.

Holding signs and wearing T-shirts with slogans like "Give it Back" and "Keep Your Promise," the group called on the mayor to restore the money.

"We have a mayor ... who has shown extraordinary commitment over the last year to children and families through his pre-K initiative, through his expansion of after school programs for middle-school students. So a cut to summer programs makes absolutely no sense and we call upon the mayor to right the wrong, to take this mistake off the table and make sure that up to 40,000 children have an option for summer camp," Nancy Wackstein, executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, said at the start of the rally.

The Campaign for Children, a coalition of social service groups that organized the protest, has railed against what advocates say was a last-minute decision to yank funding for summer programs that affect as many as 40,000 children.

Read the full article here

Responding to the "Leadership Gap"

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Today, among member agencies of United Neighborhood Houses, the umbrella association of 38 settlement houses and community centers in NYC, exactly half of our 37 Executive Directors are age 60 and over. Over the last 5 years, our small network has seen evidence of the much-discussed generational shift in leadership that has been predicted for the nonprofit human services field and in other industries as well. In 2013 alone, five Executive Directors from our system retired from their positions.  

Cause for alarm? I don’t think so. Over the last several years we have heard the siren song of worry as researchers and pundits predict that the generational shift in leadership as baby-boomers retire or semi-retire will lead to a leadership gap or worse. Predictions abound of rudderless ships, a shrunken or limited leadership supply chain, Gen Xers who don’t know how to stay in one place for more than a  couple of years and, worst of all, corporate émigrés who want to try their hand at “something meaningful” and want to step into these jobs. All reflecting a dire forecast that our sector cannot possibly survive without the baby boomers!

Wrong. And this comes from one of those baby boomers who, in fact, has plans to relinquish her leadership post this year.

I have full confidence that there is a supply of talented leaders who wait in the wings. I believe new leaders will help inject new energy and perhaps even new meaning into the work. Just as my generation – mainly folks who were in college in the late l960s and early l970s who became imbued with the spirit that we could “change the world” and “make a difference” through our participation in the explosive social movements of that era that forever changed our world view—anti-Vietnam war, equal rights for women, African-Americans, the LGBT community -  so too are there people now in their 30s, 40s & 50s who come with the same set of values and ideals as we had. And who might even be smarter about managing people and technology than we were. As quiet as it’s kept, we baby boomers really do not have the monopoly on compassion, commitment to social justice or very hard work.

I am convinced there is a new generation fully prepared to assume leadership roles in our sector, with the right and relevant experience, possibly better equipped than many boomers were when we took these positions. Moreover, not only do they have passion and a sense of mission, but they Tweet and Instagram too!  

What is my cause for optimism? Every day at UNH I meet people with incredible drive, great credentials and a tangible passion for social justice. Some of them work right beside me at UNH, and some come to see me because they are looking for help finding a job in our field. They want to do this work! And they are so impressive!

They are chomping at the bit to help nonprofits succeed and achieve their missions. I spend a lot of time counseling these new leaders against the entrepreneurial pull to start their own nonprofits, and instead join agencies like settlement houses which, despite their longevity and size, still provide incredible opportunities for people to innovate, to try new approaches, and to make a difference.

I am bullish about the future leadership of our sector. I hope the Boards of Directors who do the hiring of the next crop of Executive Directors in our system recognize that diversity in leadership – age, gender, race & ethnicity, sexual orientation – is a tremendous advantage for their organizations, and that they will come to see what I do: A glorious and exciting future for our field.

Nancy Wackstein
United Neighborhood Houses
Executive Director

Letter to the Editor:

Wednesday, March 04, 2015
To the Editor:

Howard Husock’s commentary on Leonard Nimoy’s background and education in a Boston settlement house in the l930s and 40s leaves readers with the incorrect impression that the era of flourishing settlement houses has ended.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In New York City today, there are 38 vibrant and dynamic nonprofits who identify as settlement houses and community centers.  They are in diverse neighborhoods throughout the City, continuing to serve immigrants, working families and older adults… and pretty much everyone else.  In fact many of them have been doing this community work for over 100 years and not only have survived, but have thrived.  They thrive because they continue to adapt to the needs of their neighborhoods as those communities themselves change.  Today, immigrants to New York City tend to be Asian and Latin American, rather than European as was the case when Leonard Nimoy was a boy.  But our agencies still provide the English classes, the job training and placement, the basic education, child care and other supports that allow immigrant families to integrate successfully into American life.   We are helping to bring up the next generation of American leaders and strivers, much as our colleagues did at an earlier time.  To paraphrase Mr. Nimoy’s most famous character:  settlement houses have lived long and prospered!   
Nancy Wackstein, Executive Director of United Neighborhood Houses

Read the original article here. 

UNH Responds to Mayor's FY16 Preliminary Budget

Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Statement of Nancy Wackstein
On Mayor de Blasio's FY16 Preliminary Budget

There is much to applaud in the Mayor’s preliminary budget proposal announced yesterday and in the administration's work over the past year to fight inequality.  United Neighborhood Houses and its member agencies – New York City’s settlement houses and community centers – are nonetheless disappointed that this budget proposal shortchanges the needs of many of the City's lowest paid workers, those in the nonprofit workforce.   Nonprofit employees are the people who work day in and day out to teach our children, care for our homeless people, and aid our older adults.  As the City moves forward in addressing income inequality they must not continue to be left out.
The preliminary budget is the first of two budget proposals the Mayor submits.  We call on Mayor de Blasio to include meaningful wage and benefit increases for the nonprofit workforce when he releases his Executive Budget this spring.
The Mayor rightfully takes credit for settling 71% of the City's outstanding open labor contracts he inherited.  However, employees of nonprofit human services agencies working under City contracts see the progress the City has made in other sectors and continue to ask why they, too, are not deserving of wage increases, bonuses or retroactive pay that the City’s unionized municipal workforce has received.  Unfortunately, little has changed for most of the nonprofit workforce even as they carry out and make real many of the Mayor’s succesful initiatives and top priorities.  This contrast is particularly stark for staff in city contracted child care programs whose responsibilities and qualifications are on par with teachers in the public schools, but are often paid tens of thousands of dollars less.  Most of these workers -- teachers, classroom assistants and other staff -- are women of color who  have not received a pay increase since 2006.
UNH member agencies, under extraordinarily tight deadlines, were thrilled to participate in the Mayor’s exciting new initiatives last year: we launched new pre-K programs, we kept community centers open last summer in New York City Housing Authority developments, we opened dozens of new middle school afterschool programs.  Yet when it comes to fairness and equity for our underpaid workers, New York City remains, sadly, a tale of two workforces.  The City must use this year's budget to end these disparities.
UNH is pleased to continue to support Mayor de Blasio and his administration as they expand programs important to low and moderate income communities, as outlined in the preliminary budget.  We are particularly pleased to see a continued commitment to expanding Pre Kindergarten and after school and  investments  proposed for:
·        the summer youth employment program;
·        rental subsidies for homeless families and  homelessness prevention activities;
·        Increased and improved training for child welfare workers;
·        summer programming for elementary school students;
·        Increasing the NYC minimum wage to $13.13/hour
These investments are critical.  Equally critical is an investment in the workers who will carry out these new and expanded initiatives in the coming years.

UNH Responds to Mayor's State of the City Speech

Wednesday, February 04, 2015
United Neighborhood Houses applauds the proposals outlined in the Mayor’s State of the City speech today to create more affordable housing as the anchor for safe and stable neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs.  As an organization that has been dedicated to creating safe, stable, economically integrated neighborhoods across NYC for over 90 years, we are particularly impressed with the Mayor’s understanding that strong neighborhoods must include affordable housing, but NOT ONLY affordable housing.   Access to parks, transportation, schools, shopping, and community centers also are key ingredients for successful neighborhood life and the sense of community that supports residents across the income spectrum.   UNH member agencies – settlement houses and community centers – provide important community services like child care, afterschool, senior centers that also are essential to the health and well-being of a neighborhood.  We look forward to working with the Mayor and his administration to make sure that every neighborhood in the City has the housing and social supports that create the kinds of neighborhoods every one of us would like to live in.   

Governor's FY2016 Budget: Progress, but still work to be done

Thursday, January 22, 2015

United Neighborhood Houses (UNH) applauds Governor Cuomo for several noteworthy aspects of his FY 2015-16 budget proposal, but remains deeply concerned with the overall lack of investment in human services, and policy proposals that fall short.

We welcome and largely support the Governor’s 10-point Anti-Poverty Opportunity Agenda.  In it, Governor Cuomo proposes dedicating significant resources to address the housing affordability and homelessness crises New Yorkers have been grappling with for years. However, on two other key fronts—addressing the State’s inadequate minimum wage and lack of capital resources for nonprofit human service organizations, the proposed budget does not go far enough. 
While pleased that the 10-point plan includes the nonprofit human services infrastructure fund UNH championed with our partners, the $50 million investment represents just a fraction of the $500 million we proposed as necessary to truly begin to address critical sector needs. In addition, while the Governor’s proposal of a statewide minimum wage of $10.50/hr. and $11.50/hr. in NYC appropriately recognizes regional cost of living differences, it falls short of the $13.13 city wage proposal that more closely tracks to the true cost of living in NYC, and was endorsed by the Governor last year. 

There are some bright spots in the Governor’s budget for our communities.  We welcome the $25 million proposal to pilot Pre-Kindergarten for three-year olds living in high need districts, which serves as an important step toward ensuring every child in the State has access to high quality early childhood education. The Governor is also right to continue advancing the concept of raising the age of criminal responsibility to the age of 18 in New York, and we support the $25 million proposed investment in diversion and probation services toward that end. UNH also welcomes the Governor’s support of the NY DREAM Act as an effective means for cultivating and harnessing the potential of all youth seeking a college education.  The passage of the NY DREAM Act should not be linked to the passage of unrelated education reforms.

In terms of the key funding sources nonprofits rely on to deliver services to their communities, the FY 2015-16 budget truly presents a mixed bag. As a result of the Governor’s imposed 2% cap on budget growth, the budget does not recognize the increased costs of providing human services over time— or the demand for them. Cuts to the Adult Literacy Education (ALE) program, Advantage Afterschool and the Youth Development Program (YDP) are harmful to NYC’s communities.  Once again, comprehensive cost of living adjustments to human service contracts were left out at a time when so many workers in our agencies are struggling to make ends meet. 

Further, at a time in which the older adult population in New York continues to rapidly expand and a pre-existing backlog for services exists, the level funding of the Community Services for the Elderly (CSE) program is tantamount to a cut that jeopardizes the State’s ability to help older adults age at home. In addition, while we welcome the Governor’s modest $2.5m enhancement to the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), it does not fully reflect the costs associated with the change in the State minimum wage, nor does it allow growth in this highly successful and oversubscribed employment program. 

UNH remains committed to working with the Governor and legislature to ensure the final FY 2015-16 budget fully realizes it potential to support New Yorkers in need of human service programs and policies that promote their wellbeing and advancement.

"Best Budget for NYC's Neighborhoods in Years"

Monday, June 23, 2014

This is the best budget we have seen for New York City’s neighborhoods in years.  We applaud Mayor de Blasio and the City Council for preserving core neighborhood services and  for crucial new investments in the Summer Youth Employment Program, free school lunches for middle-schoolers, adult literacy education and the New York City Housing Authority.  However, there remain areas of unmet need and we need to go further.  We are disappointed that the budget does not include needed funding to provide adequate salaries for early childhood education staff. Without equitable salaries, qualified teachers  working with infants, toddlers and three year olds are likely to leave for higher paying jobs in Universal Pre-Kindergarten programs and thereby destabilizing services for younger children. UNH urges the City to work post budget to ensure that community based organizations  providing early childhood education are able to offer equitable salaries to their staff.

Nancy Wackstein reflects on the biennial conference of the International Federation of Settlements

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I’m very glad I went to Vancouver last week!

Last week I journeyed across the continent to beautiful Vancouver in British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada.  The reason I went was to participate in the biennial conference of the International Federation of Settlements, a worldwide group of nonprofit organizations (typically called NGOs, or non-governmental organizations in countries outside the USA) that do similar work to the settlement houses and community centers of New York City that are members of the organization I lead, United Neighborhood Houses of NY.    In other places – Canada and Europe for example – most typically these organizations are called neighbourhood houses or neighbourhood centres.

I have to confess that I hardly ever go to professional conferences, jaded New Yorker that I am, as they take up a lot of time, cost a lot of money and very rarely turn out to be worth these expenditures in terms of knowledge gained or professional relationships created. But I must say, I was glad I went to Vancouver! 

Why?  There was a powerful and consistent theme running throughout the three full days of this conference, and it brought me back, in some way, to the very roots of our settlement house “place-based” work.  The theme – in short - was how important the authentic engagement of neighbors in the work of every community-based nonprofit organization truly is, and how much we’ve lost our way as many agencies have moved toward a “service delivery” model.

Too often we who run organizations that serve forget to genuinely involve neighbors, community residents, clients or do so as an afterthought.  Too often we give lip service to the views of the people who use our services but then go our own way when it comes to program planning and proposal writing. Too often we say we engage in community-building activities but we forget the first principle of successful community organizing, to listen to and engage the members of the community.  Too often we come to believe our own jargon: we say we use “strengths-based” or “assets-based” approaches but fail to see the potential contributions of society’s marginalized people, those with mental illness or dysfunctional families… or who are just poor.

In workshop after workshop in Vancouver I felt and heard the message that this must change and it really resonated with me.  Without genuinely involving the people who are affected by our policies and programs we will ultimately fail or simply become passive arms of government.  Conversely, when we work hard to involve community members in our work – and it is surely time-consuming, underfunded and just plain hard to do so – we ultimately will have agencies that better fulfill their missions and are more creative and innovative as well. 

A brilliant conference plenary speaker, John McKnight, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University, noted that the goal of organizations like ours should be to try to “move people from clients to citizens” by helping to uncover their capacities.  To look at what can they teach us and what agendas they can help us set.  McKnight asked: how can we “enable their power to give” vs. “serving” them?  In essence, how can we who have defined ourselves as service providers “help ordinary people become extraordinary?”  I just love that notion.  And I thank my colleagues from around the world who gathered in Vancouver last week for reminding me of these basic and essential truths.

UNH Responds to the Mayor's FY15 Executive Budget

Friday, May 09, 2014

We applaud Mayor de Blasio’s progressive Executive Budget proposal and are thrilled he proposes investments in many key priorities for settlement houses and the communities they serve including expanding high-quality full day Pre-Kindergarten programs, moving towards universal access to after-school programs for middle school students, expanding summer programs for middle school students, investing in the Summer Youth Employment Program to close the jobs gap created by the state minimum wage increase and the loss of other funding sources, and investing in the New York City Housing Authority.  We also appreciate Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to a transparent and collaborative budget process. We remain committed to working with both the City Council and the administration to achieve salary parity for early childhood educators and an adequate rate for Early Learn programs, rate parity for after-school programs, universal free school lunches, adult literacy resources to help students and educators make the leap to new Common Core standards, expanding and improving services for older adults and an expansion of the Summer Youth Employment Program to serve the nearly 100,000 young people who despite today’s investment will still be turned away this summer.