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. 

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!