Leader to Leader: Susan Stamler on the evolution of the settlement house movement and where it stands today

The executive director of United Neighborhood Houses speaks with NYN Media

Photo courtesy of United Neighborhood Houses

If there were an official capital of the American nonprofit sector, it would probably be New York City. No other city can match the size, breadth, and innovation of New York nonprofits.

The strength of the local nonprofit sector has its roots in history. And settlement houses are a big part of that history.

Starting in the late 1800s, progressive reformers created a wave of settlement houses in New York City to provide desperately-needed support to low-income and immigrant communities. These organizations, many of which are still thriving today, have served as the backbone of the human service industry in New York City for generations.

Susan Stamler is the executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, an organization that advocates on behalf of dozens of settlement houses in New York City. Greg Berman of New York Nonprofit Media recently talked with Stamler about the evolution of the settlement house movement, the fight to ensure that local nonprofits are paid on time and in full by city government, and how to balance “troubleshooting and troublemaking.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Berman: I guess I wanted to start by admitting that I have maybe a high-school history class level of understanding of the settlement house movement. I understand the settlement houses to be a progressive reform from the turn of the last century that was particularly focused on aiding immigrant communities. Do I have that right? Do today's settlement houses still keep faith with what they were one hundred years ago?

Stamler: So when we talk about today’s settlement houses, it's really fair to say that they are your grandfather's settlement house. When the settlement house movement came over to the United States in the late 1800s, it was on the Lower East Side. The vision was to create a place for the community that not only provided services, but also offered local residents a chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves. 

In New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s, people had great needs. Immigrant families needed to figure out how to be part of this new country. They had to learn the language. They needed childcare and support for their families. They needed job training and career assistance. And they needed healthcare and access to services. Settlement houses sought to meet these needs. The early settlement house pioneers also believed that the settlement houses ought to be filled with art and music and recreation.

Today, we all need safe places for our children. We all need afterschool programs. We all need support as we age. Some people have the resources and can do it on their own. And other people need help to make that happen. Settlement houses are non-stigmatizing and normalizing places. Those are clunky words, but it basically means that settlement houses tend to be trusted messengers and trusted voices in their community.

Berman: Am I right that the term "settlement” comes from the idea that the people who work at the houses would also live there?

Stamler: That's correct. Back then, the workforce truly believed that they needed to live among the people with whom they were working. If you go to Henry Street Settlement, you can still see the little room that some of the nurses lived in. The initial settlement house workforce came from outside of the community. Today, there are more than 20,000 people who work at settlement houses. Many of the staff live in the communities they serve. And many actually went to the programs that they're now working in. So there's this real connection where we have people who are speaking the language of their community and are familiar with the cultures and the issues of the community. 

Berman: I guess I'm still a little confused about where one draws the line of what's a settlement house and what's not a settlement house. To my ears, what you have described could easily be a community development corporation or a youth service agency or a community center.

Stamler: It is true that not all of our members have "settlement house" in their name. It’s easy to look at University Settlement or Henry Street Settlement and know that they're a settlement house. But in New York City, we have members with names like Chinese-American Planning Council, and Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, and Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation, and Project Hospitality. And so you ask a very real question, what is a settlement house?

To be a settlement house means agreeing to a set of beliefs. It means seeing yourself as part of a larger, international movement. It’s about lifting a neighborhood, not just providing a service. One of the key definitions is that it's multi-generational. If you only run a childcare center, you would not be considered a settlement house.

It used to be that a settlement house lived in a particular building in a particular place. Today our membership is more dynamic. Our 40 New York City members operate programs in hundreds of locations, including schools and hospitals and NYCHA developments. Our collective membership has a budget of more than a billion dollars. These are not little community centers. These are long-standing organizations, multimillion-dollar businesses running an array of programs in their neighborhoods from early-childhood programs all the way through senior programs. Or, as we sometimes say, "From twinkle to wrinkle." 

Berman: Talk to me a little bit about the joys and challenges of running a membership organization. From my perspective, one of the great strengths of running a membership organization is that it gives you legitimacy. You have immediate standing because you are speaking on behalf of a large constituency. On the other hand, when I talk to my friends who run membership organizations, they often complain about the difficulty of making decisions because their members are all independent actors coming from different perspectives. What has it been like for you?

Stamler: What an easy question to answer. I should start by saying that we were founded by our members in 1919 because settlement houses in New York City wanted to have a space to come together to talk about the issues of the day and how they could work to address them. That principle has guided our work for more than 100 years. What we did then is what we do now. Remember, our members pay us dues, so we need to make sure that we're performing for the members and doing what they want. 

Berman: And do the dues pay for 100% of your expenses? 

Stamler: No, we have to fundraise. 

Berman: How do you do that without cannibalizing your own members?

Stamler: It hasn’t really been an issue. First of all, unlike our members, we’re not doing direct service, so we don’t compete with them there. And even though some of our members also do advocacy work, I think that funders are smart enough to recognize that you need both voices. 

Berman: Are there fault lines amongst your members? Does everyone agree on which issues to pursue and how aggressively to pursue them?

Stamler: The hardest thing is to balance troubleshooting and troublemaking. I think both are really important. If one of our members is having a problem in communicating with government, we need to know which door to walk in and how to get them help. But we're also here to make sure that government is making the right decisions. I'm not afraid to use the lobbying word. We lobby government. Over and over again, government staff come up with program designs that may or may not work in the community. Our value add is that we can tell government what's happening on the ground. We help make city services better because we're bringing real-life experience of what's happening on the ground to better understand how government needs to change and where government should put its money.

Berman: One of the recurring themes in the interviews that I've been doing is the ongoing fight to make sure that nonprofits in New York City are paid on time and in full by local government. You have been an active participant in this fight over the years. What’s your sense of the state of play at the moment?

Stamler: It is reprehensible that government does not fully pay contracts and does not pay on time. When you have organizations that are mission-driven, as most non-profits are, it is really easy for government to take advantage. 

Part of the problem, I think, stems from the very real sense that the nonprofit sector is identified by a tax status and not by the value of the work that it does. Just because I'm a nonprofit does not mean that I don't have real-world responsibilities – paying rent, paying staff, and making sure that my work is getting done. And that's a systemic problem that we have to fix, because otherwise we're going to have a crumbling infrastructure at the very time that we need these organizations most.

Eric Adams’ administration and the comptroller (Brad Lander) have put together a group to address many of the critical contracting issues that we face. I believe that government understands what the problem is. I really believe that. Now I am going to hold accountable the mayor, the comptroller, and the City Council to realize solutions that pay contracts on time and pay them fully.

Berman: I agree with the analysis that the nonprofit sector's mission orientation has been weaponized against it by government, but I also have been frustrated by what I perceive to be the political weakness of the nonprofit sector. I don't feel like nonprofits have political power commensurate with what I think the sector's impact is on the city. I’m curious whether you share that perspective.

Stamler: I do share that frustration. I really think it goes back to being movement-focused. I've been in many, many meetings where nonprofit leaders are extremely frustrated about their own fiscal situation and the fact that they're not able to pay their staff more money. And every time the conversation comes around to the idea of, “We should strike, we should close,” we then hear, "Well, the shelter's not going to close. The people who are delivering meals are not going to stop delivering meals." The real frustration here is that the people who are most honor-bound to their work are penalized because they care so much about their communities.

I have to say that I've been in this field a long time, and I’m so tired of asking for a seat at the table. I'm tired of saying, "Recognize us," because these organizations are the ones that keep our communities going, not only through COVID, but 9/11, Hurricane Sandy. You name the issue, whatever is happening in New York City, it is the human service organizations, including the settlement houses, who have been there. They see themselves as community builders and delivering essential services that make their neighborhoods stronger, and that makes New York City the great place that it is. And I think they're taken advantage of because of that.

Berman: I liked your expression about getting the balance right between troubleshooting and troublemaking. As I have talked to a lot of nonprofit EDs over the last couple of years, I have found that there has been a marked shift within many organizations towards troublemaking. At many nonprofits, staff are agitating internally for an adversarial relationship with government, rather than a collaborative one. Are you seeing any of these dynamics within the settlement houses? Is there more of a desire to take aggressive stances than there was, say five years ago?

Stamler: I have to say, in the social service delivery area, I've not yet heard that. It might happen. We always look for solutions within the way the systems operate. I think part of it has to do with the fact that we are in the business of providing real services like access to food and shelter. It's easier to have an adversarial approach if you're not a direct service provider. I think that changes things. But one of the things we have seen is that people are interested in stepping up their civic activism. We have a lot of settlement house participation in rallies for COLA increases or raising the minimum wage or ranked-choice voting. 

Berman: Looking at your bio, one of the things that struck me was that you worked at United Neighborhood Houses (UNH) previously, left and then came back. I’ve often been advised that “you can’t go home again” – that it is difficult to return to a place once you have left it. How have you experienced your return?

Stamler: I was running the policy and advocacy department at UNH and after 10 years I thought it was time to step back and do something else. I went to work on a juvenile justice campaign that sought to keep young people out of the system and to make sure that when they were in the system that they got the treatment and the support they needed. That was a five-year campaign. When that ended and I was thinking about next steps, this opportunity presented itself. 

For me personally, I've always wanted to have jobs where my voice could be loudest and where I could make the most difference. I mean, it's simple as that. And I've been fortunate in my career to have always been part of organizations that were positive, that made change, believed in democracy, and believed in lifting individuals and communities. And I couldn't think of a better place to come back to. I feel fortunate every day that I get to come to work at UNH.

Berman: Talk to me about making the jump from senior staff to executive director. When I made a similar leap, I was surprised at what a psychological difference I felt there was between being a deputy and being the executive director. 

Stamler: When you are the head of an organization, it all sits on your shoulders. It doesn't mean you don't have a great team and a strong board. I'm lucky that I have both of those. But one of the hardest differences for me as I’ve become an administrator is that I miss doing the actual work. My background is doing policy and organizing and being a troublemaker. Now I have a really different orientation and a different set of responsibilities. My job is to make sure that we're a fiscally sound organization, that we raise the money, that the board is engaged and informed. And, just as importantly, I'm always in sync with our members, because that's really critical. It's very different from my old job, where I needed to know what was happening in the state legislature and at the City Council on a daily basis. And sometimes I miss that work because that's my true calling. 

Berman: You got your start with NYPIRG. What influence did that experience have on how you see the world?

Stamler: It had every influence on my life. I was able to be part of an organization that taught me lobbying skills, organizing skills, and analytical skills. And I had the chance to work with an amazing group of people. It forever changed how I thought of myself and the work that I did. To appropriate John Lewis, I really believe strongly in "Don't get lost in the sea of despair.” I'm an optimist. I believe in social change. I wake up every day and try to figure out how to make that happen.