The UNH Blog

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.

Blueprint for Neighborhoods

Friday, June 28, 2013

On Tuesday, UNH will release a new report, a “Blueprint for Neighborhoods” that outlines policy recommendations for the next Mayor that will help keep New York City  neighborhoods strong, stable and vibrant.   One of its key points is that the human services the government pays nonprofits to provide in communities across the city are as essential as other municipal services like police, fire and sanitation.  While these “uniformed services” are always included in Mayoral budgets and, in fact, often receive increases in their spending authorization, services that are equally important to community health and well-being, like child care, afterschool programs, English classes and senior centers, continue to be cut and continue to rely on reduced, unpredictable, often one-year funding.  This approach not only jeopardizes the stability of the nonprofit agencies the City relies on to deliver these services, it puts entire neighborhoods at risk.   

When New Yorkers turn on their light switches they expect the electricity to flow.  When they open their faucets, they expect the water to rush out.   These are utilities that we have come to count on.  Similarly, we need to provide “social utilities” to the many hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who need predictable child care and senior care, to name but two.  When an older adult walks down the block,  she needs to know the doors of her senior center are still open.  When a young mother looks for affordable child care, she needs to know there will be a spot for her child in her neighborhood.   It is time to start treating these services as “discretionary”.  They are not.  Just like police and sanitation, they are part of what makes New York City a strong, stable and livable city. 

Hurricane Sandy Affirms the Critical Value of NYC Settlement Houses and the Enduring Value of the Place-Based Approach

Friday, November 30, 2012

One month ago Hurricane Sandy hit the New York City area with unprecedented force.  The impact of the “superstorm” was immediate, but recovery in many of our communities will take months, if not years.   Nonprofit agencies, among them member agencies of United Neighborhood Houses, acted decisively, effectively and quickly to meet the needs of their clients and neighbors; indeed, staff from nonprofits accurately can be described as critical “first responders” too.     As the head of the federation of New York City’s 38 settlement houses and community centers, I was enormously impressed by the work of our members who provided relief, and enormously proud of their leadership. 

The 38 member agencies of United Neighborhood Houses in New York City come from varying traditions.  Some are the original settlement houses in the United States, now over 100 years old.  Others are younger community development corporations, founded to promote housing and economic development.  Others began as community action agencies or food pantries.

No matter their origins, all UNH members today are multi-service hubs of social service, education and recreation in their communities, serving as safe and welcoming centers of community life, primarily focused on assisting and engaging their low and moderate income neighbors.

With the exception of 9/11, no other event in recent New York City history has highlighted the critical importance of these agencies and their place-based approach more than Hurricane Sandy. While the storm had an impact on many different neighborhoods in the City, there is no question in my mind that the neighborhoods that were best able to deal with the storm’s impact were those that had a robust nonprofit infrastructure, in fact those that had a settlement house embedded in their community. 

Before FEMA, before the National Guard, before the City or State government, our agencies were on the front lines, delivering food, blankets, flashlights, comfort and support.  And after these governmental agencies move on to the next crisis, our agencies will remain as anchors in their communities to help them with longer term recovery activities like  mental health counseling, housing assistance, and benefits and entitlements navigation.

The reason our agencies were and will continue to be so effective is that they really know their communities.   When the storm hit, our agencies knew exactly which apartments and public housing developments housed vulnerable older adults or disabled people, so supplies could be delivered to them in a targeted way, even if it meant staff walking up 12 flights of stairs in the dark and cold.  Staff from our agencies knew which doors to knock on to find the pre-school children enrolled in the child care centers that were flooded, so they could make sure these children found a place in other programs right away and their parents could get back to work. 

I am firmly convinced that there is intrinsic and enduring value when nonprofit organizations like ours fully understand the residents and neighborhoods in which they work, in many cases over decades.  Hurricane Sandy reminded us once again that this is an important and very tangible truth.   

NYC Settlement Houses Fulfill Their Mission After Hurricane Sandy

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Dear Friends of UNH,

 I write to you to send a few thoughts and updates about UNH and our member settlement houses following the storm last week.

 
First, although the UNH office was closed all last week, without power or access to email and phones, we happily returned to the office on Monday morning with full capacity. Our staff are safe, and everyone braved the numerous transit challenges to get here. UNH staff members are a terrific and dedicated group.

 
But even more significantly, I want to share what will not be surprising to any of our friends and supporters. The agencies that comprise the UNH membership have and continue to act heroically - there's no better word - to address the multiple needs of their communities and of our City's most vulnerable people. Last week, despite absence of transit, shortage of fuel, and lack of electricity, the staff of settlement houses walked, biked, and hitched rides to get to their agencies, even when they found cold and dark buildings when they got there.

 
Settlement house staff worked evenings and weekends to get food and water, flashlights, blankets, and ice to neighbors who were alone and afraid.  Hundreds of volunteers joined staff as they knocked on doors and ran up and down dark stairwells to make sure their clients and other community residents had what they needed. Agencies opened their doors to welcome people to get warm, get information, and get counseling...regardless of whether they would get reimbursed for doing so.

 
I believe I can say without reservation that New York City settlement houses truly fulfilled their missions last week... and I have no doubt they will continue to do so in the weeks to come. They do so without certainty of reimbursement or payment. They do it because it is what they do, without fanfare and media attention. Our agencies are anchors in their communities, assuring that neighbors have a safe and caring refuge. There has hardly been a time in our City's history when this sense of refuge was more necessary, and I am enormously proud of their efforts.

 
Please continue to check back on our Hurricane Sandy Volunteer & Donation Needs page, which we will keep updated as the needs of our member agencies and their communities evolve. There, you will also find some news stories about the incredible work our members have done in the past week. 

 
Thanks as always for your support.

 

 Sincerely,

  Nancy Wackstein signature

Nancy Wackstein

Executive Director

Neighborhood Revitalization in NYC and Beyond

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Earlier this month I had an interesting, even compelling, opportunity to learn first-hand about what 
neighborhood revitalization really means, and in the process to actually learn something new!   In early August I attended the Neighborhood Revitalization conference in Washington DC sponsored by the United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA), the national organization of which UNH is a member and on whose Board I sit.  I generally don’t go to very many professional conferences because they’re usually not worth the time out of the office, but I must say that this one felt almost inspiring to this jaded New Yorker, who usually believes that all innovative and interesting work happens exclusively in NYC.  (Yes, I’ve been accused of being a New York exceptionalist!)   I heard repeatedly, through plenaries and workshops at the UNCA conference, some important and recurrent themes and phrases that seemed to be on the lips of government and nonprofit presenters alike: 

“anchor institutions”

“resident engagement”

“cradle to career”

“sustainable communities”

What I walked away believing is that our settlement houses here in NYC can and do easily fit into the latest thinking about neighborhood revitalization and in fact are leaders in this critical work, having already embraced these cutting-edge concepts as part of their community building missions, in some cases over decades.

  • They already are anchor institutions, leading coalitions in their neighborhoods, honest brokers focused on bringing other critical institutions like schools and health care providers together.
  • The most successful UNH agencies are the ones that already have a profound commitment to resident engagement, involving neighbors in decision-making and planning.  Arguably, settlement houses invented “civic engagement” even before foundations adopted the term!
  • Cradle to career?  The early settlement house pioneers used the term “cradle to grave”, but with the increased emphasis today on getting young people decent jobs, this seems like a new twist on our theme and an important way to frame our work with children and teens.
  •  And of course our agencies know that truly sustainable communities are those that have access not just to social services but to transportation, mixed-income housing, health care and parks as well.

At the UNCA conference I learned of impressive neighborhood revitalization efforts going on in other U.S. cities, like Memphis, Cincinnati, Houston and Detroit.  As noted above, I’m usually dismissive, thinking that NYC is so much larger than every place else that no other models ever are relevant or replicable here.  But I was reminded that the key is “neighborhood”, often a matter of a few square blocks.  Neighborhood revitalization CAN and IS happening here, because NYC is nothing but a series of unique neighborhoods and nonprofits that chunk off do-able local efforts are the ones that can succeed.   

It’s refreshing to know that there are in fact a few good ideas happening outside our NYC community … but equally refreshing to know that our agencies are leading the way in their neighborhoods, exemplars of the latest thinking, best practices… and even the newest jargon!

Settlement Houses: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Wednesday, June 20, 2012
These are my remarks from the UNH Annual Meeting, held on June 12 at Hudson Guild: 

Even though I am now blogging, I am no novelist, so I will borrow without shame from the great Charles Dickens. For NYC settlement houses, these are the best of times and the worst of times.

The best because our agencies continue to be recognized as innovators and leaders in the City in pursuing new approaches to helping those in need and starting new initiatives that build on their history of helping communities by providing holistic and comprehensive services. In fact, the settlement house approach - now called place-based by the Obama administration among others - has re-emerged among policymakers and thinkers in our field as the best answer to addressing poverty. Though generally calling themselves something other than "settlement houses", the most effective nonprofits doing community work today are using our experience and our lessons and building on our successes. They have learned what we already have demonstrated: that piecemeal strategies don't work, because in reality people's lives are not fragmented into separate buckets the way funding and government agencies are. Whether housing, child care, recreation, physical and mental health... these are all the things that most people need, and most of the time they are best delivered when found locally in friendly welcoming places staffed by people who look like them.

The locavore movement in food has become so popular in NYC today that it's hard to find a restaurant that's not calling itself "farm to table". Settlement houses are the locavore institutions of the social services field! We have the freshest approaches because we are closest to the ground. We know the problems that are emerging, we know the problems that are not going away, and we involve local people in trying to solve them.

But all is not coming up roses. (I guess it's time for me to stop this metaphor!) These also are the most difficult and challenging times for our field that I've experienced in my over 30 years doing this work... the worst of times indeed.

The landscape under us shifts continually: new trends in funding; new accountability demands pressing for results; ever more complex reporting requirements to both private donors and government funders; new types of government RFPs with new kinds of mandates.

But perhaps the most challenging reality for settlement houses and other nonprofits today is the shifting commitment we are facing toward helping people in need, especially regarding the role of government in doing so.

The widespread questioning of the historic social contract and the role of government in supporting and maintaining a safety net for low income families and individuals is being fueled by government deficits at the city, state, and federal levels. These are forcing choices about priorities, with services for low income people often caught in the squeeze of deficit reduction. 

I do not believe that these debates will be solved anytime soon, meaning that the pressures on nonprofits will not recede anytime soon either. Both agencies and communities will increasingly feel the impact of funding retrenchment.

A real life example of this threat is the proposed deep City reductions to both child care and after school currently part of the Mayor's budget for the new fiscal year. For decades these programs have been part of the core services offered by settlement houses. In fact, many of the earliest settlement houses in the 1890s got their start as providers of child care to immigrant working families.

Right now, both the early childhood and after school care systems will be reduced dramatically if the cuts contained in the Mayor's budget proposal go through, not only threatening the stability of our member agencies, but the stability of thousands of working families as well.

We must hope that these cuts to core services are not the tip of the iceberg of even worse government budget actions to come, but we must be prepared if it is. There is real urgency about making the case that increased need in communities and increased demand for settlement house help will not go away. We must use facts like these:
  • 1/3 of NYC children live in poverty
  • 40% of NYC households are immigrants, with 2/3 of public school students from immigrant families
  • 1 in 8 New Yorkers are 65 & older; by 2030, 1 in 5 will be older adults
I believe that UNH agencies, when provided with the proper support, are uniquely situated to address the needs of the low income and immigrant population of New York.

Our network today:
  • Is 37 agencies across 5 boroughs
  • Serves 500,000 New Yorkers ever year at over 400 program sites
  • Employs 10,000 staff and 7,500 volunteers
  • Has an aggregate budget of one-half billion dollars, in both private and public funds
But in order to adequately serve people in need in communities across the 5 boroughs our agencies will continue to need both government support to maintain core services and a flow of private and corporate dollars in order to continue to innovate and try new approaches.

I believe these perilous times demand that UNH continue to be the strongest possible voice for the importance of helping all the members of our communities. Yes, those who are in crisis and experiencing homelessness or mental illness, those affected by domestic violence or child abuse, those who are living on the precipice must be our priority if we are to call ourselves a humane and civilized society... but we cannot forget those ordinary people just looking to support their families, who need help finding decent jobs, child care, after school, and elder care. 

Settlement houses recognize that people have their ups and downs and are determined to be there for them when they fall. But in order to function as our City's safety net, our agencies must continue to have access to the kind of support that will allow them to sustain themselves... in the best of times and in the worst of times as well. 

What Makes for a Healthy Community?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Lately, I‘ve been thinking a lot about UNH’s work in promoting “healthy communities”. But, what really defines a healthy community?  Because UNH and our members, which are settlement houses and community centers across NYC, operate primarily in what is called either the human services or social services sector, we tend to name services like child care, after-school programs, and senior centers as essential components of healthy communities. UNH also heavily focuses its advocacy efforts on these types of services, reinforcing this idea.

But, when I think of what makes the community in which I live a stable and healthy one, I begin thinking beyond the critical human services that our members provide. I also think about being close to a safe and well-maintained park (in my case, Riverside Park in Manhattan); a reliable subway line; street lights that work; a building in which the elevator and intercom function; health care institutions that are nearby and of high quality.  The presence of these sorts of community assets is vital, not just for a middle class community like mine, but for every community in our city. It’s time for “human services” advocates like ourselves to begin thinking about what we do in a more expansive and inclusive way.  Yes, we absolutely need services that address the unique needs of people in need or who have been left out and left behind, such as the domestic violence support that Arab-American Family Support Center offers or the new  innovative senior centers  at BronxWorks and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House.  However, we also need a certain basic level of community service for the well-being of all the humans in our city! 

A healthy community is built on many moving parts. The human services that UNH and our members advocate for and provide are essential in creating engaged  community residents, educating children outside of the school day, promoting mental health among senior residents, and much more. However, without resources like safe streets and homes, accessible health care, or clean green spaces, the people we serve cannot thrive to their fullest potential when they leave the doors of our member agencies.

I submit that housing, health care, parks, and schools are as critical as any other human service if we want to create stable communities and a healthy City.   It’s time to include the broader context and redefine what essential “human services” really are!