Friday, January 27, 2012

The closing of Hull House: social change? or social work?

The closing of Hull House hit the national airwaves with the story on today's Morning Edition that marked today, Friday, January 27, as the last day for the organization begun by Jane Addams in 1889. Since I have thought, read and written about the social settlements, their long-lasting achievements and their shortcomings, I picked up my ears.
This demise, which is wreaking havoc in the lives of thousands of families in Chicago who need the services that the Hull House Association has provided, is, I think, part of a century-long debate about just what the social settlements can and should do. The inherent tension in the movement came when the settlements were at the height of their success. Questions then arose about institutionalization, funding, professionalization and mission. Boards of directors, increasingly concerned with the bottom line, with keeping the much-needed programs going, made decisions that fit the increasingly corporatization of 20th century life. One hundred years ago -- roughly 25 years into the life of the social settlement movement -- decisions were being made that move the settlements away from the original mission and on the path toward the dissolution that we see happening today in the still struggling neighborhoods of Chicago.

The settlements were founded by young college graduates -- in this country, with Hull House in Chicago and the College Settlement Association on the eastern seaboard, mostly women -- who burned with desire to DO SOMETHING to help the teeming masses of factory workers, immigrants and sweatshop laborers who flooded into American industrial cities. These young women had no idea what they were doing. They found houses to move into, and then they waited. They wanted to help, but they didn't know how. The work of Hull House began when neighborhood women knocked on the door of the genteel, middle-class home Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr had set up, and asked them to watch their small children while they went to work. The cruel irony of today's news story on NPR was its focus on a much-needed, high-quality day care center in Lincoln Square. One mother, who told the reporter she had been promised help finding a new place for her child, seemed skeptical. "In my case it will be very difficult because my son has autism," she said.

It was not so original that 19th century, middle class women wanted to help the poor. What was astounding was that they started this helping project by desiring to become neighbors to the poor, by living right next door to people their families would consider dirty and dangerous. The settlement workers were rank amateurs, but they had eyes, ears, hearts and education. They came to know and love their neighbors, and they came to know from the point of view of "the working class" that something was very wrong with industrial America. Their fathers and uncles, the men who went to church with them and who funded their pioneering women's colleges, were getting very, very rich exploiting the labor of the very people the settlement workers knew as neighbors and friends. The settlement workers started out as distant do-gooders; they ended up in social solidarity, working together for deep and lasting social change. If your milk is safe to drink, if your garbage is collected regularly, if your child goes to elementary school and not to work, then you have the settlement workers to thank.

How to sustain success? Non-profits even today struggle with the same dilemmas. An organization starts out with passion and commitment, and when you grow, and find you have to hire staff, and buy buildings, and please donors, who might not agree with your vision of radical social solidarity, then you begin to make decisions which take you farther from that original passion and commitment. Jane Addams, over her long and extraordinary life, moved away from the direct service she engaged in as a young woman. In Boston, the pro-union activities of the long-time head worker of the Denison House social settlement made the upper-middle class women who funded the organization too uncomfortable to keep her in the work that was the definition of her life. As that first generation of settlement house workers moved on, something of their passion and their commitment to social solidarity left with them.

Environments change, and certainly the years since the founding of Hull House have been tumultuous, socially and economically. Social service agencies have become increasingly dependent on state and federal contracts for the services they provide, and counting on one big donor leaves an organization vulnerable to collapse. Hull House is not at fault for being successful at bringing vast social needs to the attention of the wider society. There are likely to be other places the Lincoln Square families can find to replace the Hull House school, although with the additional cost to them of stress and disruption. The publicity surrounding the end of Hull House may cause other activists to rise up and work for new solutions.

But what is the nature of social service? Even 100 years ago this was hotly debated in places like Hull House, for the social settlements were also places of inquiry and debate. How could a movement like the settlements maintain their passion and the transformative power of people living as neighbors, working together to improve their communities? The magnetic pull of the corporate 20th century -- the professionalization of social work, the bureaucratization of funding, the institutionalization of "meeting needs" -- proved too strong to resist.

One of the lessons of the end of the Hull House Association is to look back at its origins, at its founding passions, and at the remarkable women of the social settlements who cast aside the comforts of their middle class lives. They went the cities to help, and yet came out transformed, neighbors and allies with the immigrants and working people who became the citizens of 20th century America.