Why occupational therapists need to stop romanticizing about Hull House

The settlement house movement originated in England in the late 1800s and was a mechanism for supporting poor people through social and cultural integration.  The model was translated to the United States by the efforts of social reformers like Jane Addams who founded Hull House in Chicago (later supported by the efforts of future occupational therapist Eleanor Clarke Slagle) and Robert Woods who pioneered the South End House Movement in Boston (supported by the design efforts of future occupational therapist George Barton). 

These efforts were notable for their philanthropic origins; that is, they were primarily funded by the private and charitable efforts of socially-minded people who genuinely wanted to improve the living conditions and outcomes for poor people.  As turn of the century immigration grew the ability of private philanthropists to address urgent needs was strained.  Hull House is a good example of an institution that started off being funded through charity and then later became a focal point for advocacy to the government and eventually a recipient of money spent by the government on social welfare efforts.  Unfortunately, Hull House also became a model for the problems associated with replacing private charity with unreliable and strained government funding.  Hull House 'ran out of other people's money' in 2012.

Occupational therapists have been proud of their historical association with Hull House in particular (and perhaps unaware of even earlier association with the settlement movement in Boston).  On the recent Rose Bowl parade float that was largely sponsored by occupational therapists, Hull House was featured prominently on the design of the float.

Romanticizing refers to a mindset of describing something in an unrealistically inflated manner.  The efforts of the settlement house movement are something to be celebrated, but more importantly they are something to be critically appraised because in some ways our society in the United States again has issues to contend with regarding poverty, immigration, and assimilation - all of which were issues that the settlement house movement were designed to alleviate.

There is a hue and cry from many modern day people who share the spirit of Jane Addams - people are currently concerned about the official stance of the United States related to immigration policy.  However, outside of political theater related to safety and security, there is also the reality of funding - who will pay if the United States continues a trend toward open immigration?

People like Jane Addams and Louise deKoven Bowen poured their family fortunes into their philanthropic efforts - before they turned toward lobbying the government (and other people).  This is a significant disconnect in the argument of current open-immigration supporters.  It 'feels good' to support the ideas of open immigration but there is not a lot of evidence of personal investment other than social media rantings - now popularly referred to as 'hashtag advocacy' or 'elitist slacktivism.'

The issues are very real in some communities - Buffalo's Lafayette High School has been turned into a modern day settlement house community - except that there is a disconnect on philosophy and funding to sustain the effort.  A balanced perspective will identify the good intentions and solid efforts of local folk who are trying to make things work, but critical analysis also indicates the severe strain that is created by elites who would locate these new 'settlement houses' in places where they are not living themselves - burdening the already strained communities that can ill afford the attempt.

What happens to the existing population that was strained at the start of the new settlement house movement?  Occupational therapists should care deeply about this problem.  As an example, children who were already socioeconomically disadvantaged were living in those areas, with corresponding higher rates of learning difficulties and need for educational supports.  Getting services for that population was already difficult - and is now exponentially complicated by introducing a population of distressed refugees.  This is a recipe for social disaster.

Here is a street level perspective of the problem: in a 30 mile radius of my private practice I have wealthy families in suburban districts who seek out occupational therapy services for children who have (relatively) minor incoordination or attention problems - and they are accustomed to their school districts being responsive to their (relatively) minor concerns.  Also in this 30 mile radius are schools that can't cope with the problems associated with immigration efforts. There is very little hope that anyone can receive help in these schools.

There is nothing romantic about a historical connection to a settlement house movement particularly when the modern day incarnation of these efforts is the source of so much human suffering and societal strain.

It is easy to make a float and it is easy for suburban districts that are 90%+ white and middle to upper class say 'We support ALL people.  OUR schools are welcoming to EVERYONE.'  That is the definition of hashtag advocacy and elitist slacktivism.

If the occupational therapy profession wants to celebrate settlement houses and if they want to support open immigration policies then its members should come to Buffalo NY or work in similarly distressed communities.  What is the current reality?  Non profit human service agencies struggle to find people who are even willing to enter these neighborhoods.

That is not a demonstration of values consistent with Hull House.

Please read embedded links - all containing very important context.


Scott Harmon said…
Very well said.

Another missing component that I see is local churches are, for the most part, not behind a push for open boarders. Sure, many churches talk a good game but the congregation is not behind it. People are not digging into their pockets to give to the cause.

Our bishop is very vocal about the need for open boarders but then does not back legislation for school choice which I would be a significant tool tool to help these poor immigrants.

Another point. The people who are coming to the US are fleeing a bad situation. I would do the same thing if I needed to provide for my family. These are mostly good people. These are the people who would rise up in their home country to effect change. If all of those people who are willing to do something as drastic as move their family to another country leave their home then who will be left to make that change in their home country?

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