Ancestry and Pancakes

I have a page in my goes-with-me-everywhere notebook titled “Blog Post Ideas.” I pulled it out the other day to get the writing ideas flowing, and saw that I had written “Blueberry pancakes and Sabbathing.” I have no idea what this means.

If I had a conversation with you about blueberry pancakes and/or practicing Sabbath, and you can tell me what I was thinking about when I wrote it down, drop me a line. It sounds like it could be an interesting bit of writing, if only I understood it.

Anyway, since I had to set that one aside, I’m going to tell you about settlement houses.

Settlement houses began in London in 1884 and spread to the United States not long after. The original concept of the settlement house was that college students, recent graduates, and other young adults would move into a neighborhood that was challenged in some way and live together (usually in a multi-resident building like a group of apartments or tenements). They got to know the neighbors, and worked alongside them to make everyone’s lives better. The goal was to create holistic change, rather than just offering one or two services targeted to a specific group of people.

Sound familiar yet?

The settlements were mostly in areas with high concentrations of recent immigrants; if you remember your history class, it was at this time that literal boatloads of people were coming to the U.S. from Europe, and the settlements worked hard to help those new Americans find a home here. All over the country, they worked together to create the nation’s first ever kindergartens, first Head Start programs, and the first banks that would serve the immigrant community. They led the way on social reforms such as fair labor practices for children and women, women’s voting rights, public parks and sanitation policies. As a social worker, they’re near to my heart because it was in the settlement houses that the profession of social work had its beginnings and many of its refinements. Jane Addams of Hull House was a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in Chicago.

Most importantly, in my view, was the fact that the settlement house workers lived with and among the neighbors they sought to serve. They shopped in the same stores, walked the same streets, called the same people “friend”, learned new things together, and bore one another’s burdens.

It’s no exaggeration to say the settlements changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

There are still descendants of the settlement houses around today—in fact Hull House, which might be the best-known in the world, closed only a few years ago. Toynbee Hall in London, the ancestor of them all, operates to this day. The biggest change is that very few, if any, of the current settlements has kept the “in-house” resident aspect of their work alive. I wonder what we’ve lost by letting that go.

Please understand, I’m not disparaging their hard work; I have no doubt that settlements continue to enrich the lives of the neighborhoods where they are. What I do know is that when I’m talking with a neighbor whose kids play with my kids, it’s a much different relationship than if that same person were coming to me as “a client with a problem.”

Lori Thornton and I spoke at a seminar recently, and were asked to talk about the “settlement houses in Abilene.” The person who invited us later told me he meant to say “Friendship Houses,” but I’m so glad he made the mistake. It’s been a fascinating revisit to a topic that we don’t have much time to cover in social work studies, and I’ve loved looking at this part of the ancestry of the Friendship House. I think there’s rich learning material and I like the thought that we can look back in time and get great ideas about how to serve our neighbors better.

Hmm. Do you think Hull and Toynbee Houses ever had blueberry pancakes? Sounds like a tradition I might need to begin again.