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National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers

National Federation of Settlements

By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

Introduction:  In 1886, Stanton Coit founded America’s first settlement house, the Neighborhood Guild (later renamed University Settlement) on New York City’s Lower East Side. Over the next 15 years, settlement houses were established in cities as places where socially motivated middle-class men and women could live, or “settle,” among the poor.  Settlement house staff resided in the same buildings in which neighborhood residents participated in programs and activities. Living in close proximity, settlement staff regarded the people who used the settlement as “neighbors,” not “clients.”  Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago, Robert Archey Woods founded South End House in Boston, and other civic leaders, including Lillian Wald, John Lovejoy Elliott and Mary K. Simkhovitch, established settlement houses in New York City.

Many of these individuals had been influenced by the founders and staff of London’s Toynbee Hall and other British social activists who believed that students and people of wealth should “settle” in poverty-stricken neighborhoods both to provide services to help improve the daily quality of life, as well as to evaluate conditions and work for social reform. The settlements taught adult education and English language classes, provided schooling for immigrants’ children, organized job clubs, offered afterschool recreation, initiated public health services, and advocated for improved housing for the poor and working classes. The NFS renamed itself the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers in 1949. In 1979, the Federation’s name was changed again to United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA). UNCA continues to advocate nationally for social legislation and work with local member agencies to address social problems at the neighborhood level.

History: In 1911, a “Handbook of Settlements” was compiled by Robert Archey Woods and Albert J. Kennedy and  published by the Russell Sage Foundation.  In that publication, the following description describes what Woods and Kennedy referred to as the NATIONAL CONFERENCES OF SETTLEMENTS.

“A succession of more or less informal national gatherings of settlement workers have been held from time to time since 1892. No continuous or really comprehensive organization was provided for until 1908.

“In May, 1908, a group of twenty settlement residents from New York, Chicago and Boston met to consult about fuller co-operation among settlements. A study of settlement work, of which this Handbook is a result, was decided upon. It was felt that such an inquiry would disclose a sound basis for broader and more concrete community of interest. During special discussions among the settlement delegates to the National Conference of Charities of that year, a strong feeling developed that such separate meetings should in the future be definitely provided for in connection with the Conference.

“The next year settlement work filled the program of several regular sessions of the National Conference, but one largely attended special gathering of settlement workers was held. It was there decided to arrange for a series of settlement discussions at the following National Conference, which was to take place at St. Louis with Miss Jane Addams as its president. To these meetings every settlement house and neighborhood center in the country was invited to send representatives. Three sessions were held, and a national committee of ten was appointed to gather and collate the results of settlement experience as to the most needed and most promising directions of service, and to present a year later (1911) at a similar series of meetings in Boston a platform for united action among settlements throughout the country.

“Settlement Conferences —

1. Plymouth, Mass. (July, 1892)

2. Chicag0, lll. (July 19-21, 1893)

3. New York, N. Y. (May 3-5, 1895)

4. Detroit, Mich. (N.C.C. 1896) (Ed. Note:  In association with the National Conference of Charities)

5. Toront0, Canada (N.C.C. July 7-14, 1897) (Ed. Note:  In association with the National Conference of Charities)

6. Chautauqua, N. Y. (Summer, 1897)

7. Chicag0, Ill. (May 15-17, 1899)

8. Chautauqua, N. Y. (July 7-11, 1902)

9. Portland, Maine (N.C.C. 1904) (Ed. Note:  In association with the National Conference of Charities)

1o. Richmond, Va. (N.C.C. 1908) (Ed. Note:  In association with the National Conference of Charities)

11. White Plains, N. Y. (May, 1908)

12. Buffal0, N. Y. (N.C.C. 1909) (Ed. Note:  In association with the National Conference of Charities)

13. St. Louis, Mo. (N.C.C. May 18, 1910) (Ed. Note:  In association with the National Conference of Charities)

The National Federation of Settlements (NFS) was formerly founded in 1911 by leaders in the settlement house movement, including Jane AddamsLillian Wald, Mary K. Simkovitch,

Planning meeting for the National Federation of Settlements at White Plains, NY, March 30, 1908. Front row: Graham Taylor, Mary McDowell, Robert A. Woods. Second row: Cornelia Bradford, Jane Addams (in striped blouse), Lillian Wald (seated), Elizabeth Williams, Dr. James Hamilton. Back row: Helen Greene, Helena Dudley, John Lovejoy Elliott, Meyer Bloomfield, Mary K. Simkhovitch, Ellen W. Coolidge.
Planning meeting for the National Federation of Settlements at White Plains, NY, March 30, 1908. Front row: Graham Taylor, Mary McDowell, Robert A. Woods. Second row: Cornelia Bradford, Jane Addams (in striped blouse), Lillian Wald (seated), Elizabeth Williams, Dr. James Hamilton. Back row: Helen Greene, Helena Dudley, John Lovejoy Elliott, Meyer Bloomfield, Mary K. Simkhovitch, Ellen W. Coolidge. Union Settlement Association Records, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Graham Taylor, and Robert A. Woods,  The NFS was a social welfare organization devoted to the promotion and improvement of the settlement movement throughout the United States. The social settlement was based on the idea that those who wanted to help the poor would live (“settle”) in the neighborhoods that they hoped to improve, often in a building purchased or donated by a benefactor. Often, settlement workers were young, female graduates of education and nursing programs or women’s colleges. They endeavored to improve the lives of their working class, often immigrant, neighbors though social reform, educational programs, health services, and “friendly example” or “uplift.” The Federation worked with member settlements to strengthen and develop their programs and the well-being of their surrounding neighborhoods, to represent settlement concerns in public affairs, and to educate the public about social issues affecting neighborhoods.

The NFS developed out of nearly 20 years of growing inter-agency cooperation and informal conferences. As early as 1892, pioneers in the U.S. settlement movement met to share their experiences, hopes, and enthusiasm, and collaborated on national issues of concern to them and their neighborhoods. Seventeen settlement leaders who met in New York City in 1908 took initial steps toward forming the NFS. Instrumental at this meeting, and in later years, were Jane Addams, Gaylord S. White, Robert A. Woods, Albert J. Kennedy, Graham Taylor, and Lillian D. Wald. After two years of planning and fund raising, the NFS was launched in June, 1911, at a meeting attended by roughly 200 delegates from settlement houses around the U.S. Jane Addams of Hull House in Chicago became the first president of the new organization. Its first executive secretary, Robert Archey Woods, was associated with Boston’s South End House. New York settlement leaders John L. Elliott, Lillian Wald, and Mary K. Simkhovitch also played prominent roles in the new organization. Despite its small and largely voluntary staff, the emerging Federation quickly became involved in a host of progressive social issues that concerned its members. The Federation’s general policy, as stated in its 1920 articles of incorporation, was: to federate the social settlements, neighborhood houses and similar institutions for the purpose of promoting the welfare of the settlements and the neighborhoods in which they were located; to encourage the development and maintenance of settlements in cooperation with neighborhood residents; to organize conferences, groups and studies; to cooperate with private and governmental agencies; to consider and act upon public matters of interest to settlements and their neighbors and to act in an advisory capacity to settlements and neighborhood houses.

Founding Members of NFS in 1911
Founding Members of NFS in 1911

Many early NFS initiatives anticipated continuing activities in the decades that followed. Influential in the 1912 founding of the United States Children’s Bureau, the Federation would later express a repeated interest in day care services (1942, 1965-67, 1971-72). Its early report, Young Working Girls (1913), foreshadowed such subsequent NFSNC initiatives as the 1962-1965 series of Training Center courses on youth employment. Its 1917 resolution in favor of national health insurance was reiterated by comparative studies of the British health system in 1938 and, again, in 1954. Its 1920 conference focus on housing anticipated the formation of an NFS Housing Division in 1933 and its major report on public housing in 1955.

Early social meliorism was dampened by concerns regarding the potentially explosive immigrant areas that settlements served and by efforts to provide special wartime services during World War I. During the 1920s, a more individual and cultural focus in settlement work joined the social and political emphasis of the preceding decade. A Music Division was founded in 1922; a Dramatics Division appeared in 1926; and in 1930 the trend culminated in the creation of a Division of Visual Arts. But the cultural emphasis did not completely preclude continuing social involvement. In fact, the 1926 report, Settlement Goals for the Next Third of a Century, placed primary emphasis less on arts projects than on the need to transform charity into social education and action. In keeping with this insight, the Federation produced major studies of prohibition (1927) and unemployment (1930-1931).

In the 1930s, the NFS pressured New Deal officials to pursue progressive measures in employment, social security, and labor policies. Internally, the organization struggled with the consequences of the Great Depression. It recognized the financial hardships affecting its members, who were often on the “front lines” in dealing with the results of the Depression. Consequently, it waived delinquent membership dues. In spite of this measure, and though it was attempting to broaden its membership base, the Federation retained only 160 of the 230 houses that were members in 1930. NFS also lost its constituency of music school settlements during the 1930s and failed to include a significant number of African American settlements, which were represented by the National Urban League.

The 1930s also saw a significant change in leadership. Early NFS executives, Robert A. Woods (1911-1922) and Albert J. Kennedy (1923-1933), were replaced by Lillie M. Peck (1934-1945), whose career was heavily identified with international initiatives on the part of the Federation. NFS had been involved in the formation of a parallel International Federation of Settlements (IFS) in 1921. A string of international conferences in the 1920s and 1930s was interrupted by World War II, but contacts were resumed almost immediately after peace was declared. Lillie Peck became the first postwar president of the IFS (1949-1951) and the organization once again had American leadership from 1963 to 1971, when NFS executive Margaret Berry presided. NFSNC arranged for reciprocal visits of social workers; for cooperation with the United Nations, especially UNESCO; and maintained contacts with a growing number of international settlements.

At home, the Federation continued with social action on employment and economic planning (1944-1946), a committee on housing (1955-1958), and concerted lobbying onjuvenile delinquency (1956-1957). During World War II and the Korean War, services to temporary residents near military facilities or to military personnel was an area of vital concern. Under the directorship of John McDowell (1946-1958), the Federation strengthened its ties with religious-based settlement work. It also developed its educational outreach and professional recruiting functions. In 1949, NFS changed its name to the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers (NFSNC).

John McDowell, Exec. Director: 1946-1958
John McDowell, Exec. Director: 1946-1958

By the late 1950s, NFSNC was pursuing a host of new issues, best articulated in the report of the 1958 Arden House Conference, Neighborhood Goals in a Rapidly Changing World. Education for settlement workers was also important. Federation staff conducted workshops for settlement executives, program directors, and departmental supervisors. It also held institutes conducted by schools of social work with the cooperation of national agencies. In addition, the NFSNC conducted miscellaneous seminars on topics of interest to settlement workers. The late 1950s also saw the institutionalization of the NFSNC educational function in the formation of the NFSNC training center, located initially at Hull House in Chicago. Between 1960 and 1971, the center trained nearly 2000 settlement workers on a wide variety of social problems and administrative skills.

NFSNC’s small staff of about seven full-time professional workers provided a variety of field services to a membership of some 255 member houses and city federations. Experienced professional personnel visited communities that had, or wanted to establish, settlements. On these visits, the NFSNC personnel met with the local settlement workers to exchange information about current programs, appraise the local programs, and to suggest plans of action. They also met with other local figures, such as the heads of community chests and city planning councils, regarding settlement work. In addition, the field representatives screened centers that were prospective members in the NFSNC. Staff also prepared special studies of individual houses or cities, usually a few each year on request of the local agencies. These studies were used to determine locations for new facilities, to appraise services, or to resolve administrative or programmatic issues.

Standards Issued in 1960
Standards Issued in 1960

Social education and action were a major function of the NFSNC. This involved providing information on social issues and legislation of special concern to settlements, coordinating local settlement studies of social conditions, and publishing the study findings. The NFSNC employed a research consultant who prepared maps, population data, city planning reports, housing data, and reports on existing social welfare studies for many of the Federation’s members. These were used in self studies and field reports. The Federation also worked with other national groups, such as the advisory committees of Community Chests, the National Conference of Social Work, and the Consumers National Federation.

Margaret Berry, Executive Director
Margaret Berry, Executive Director

In 1959, The appointment of a new director, Margaret Berry, coincided with a shift in Federation priorities to racial and economic justice. Settlements participated in many of the major struggles of the Civil Rights movement. NFSNC’s Race Relations Project produced a major report in 1967, just as the tenor of the times changed to a note of interracial confrontation. The 1969, the NFSNC “Techniculture” conference brought to a head the demands of settlements’ constituencies of color for greater community control of Federation affairs. The “techniculture” movement reflected trends in the wider society, responding to complex War on Poverty bureaucracies and the professional remoteness of a non-resident settlement staff. Ultimately, the movement accomplished most of its major goals in the years from 1969 to 1971, culminating in the 1972 appointment of the Federation’s first non-white executive director, Walter Smart. Meanwhile, in a more traditional mold, NFSNC channeled settlement aid to a number settlements with minority constituencies in the South during its Mississippi Project.

The social frictions of the late 1960s and the economic problems of the early 1970s cut into NFSNC’s base of financial support, leading to serious administrative problems.

NFS Social Policy Platform Adopted in 1968
NFS Social Policy Platform Adopted in 1968

However, the Federation continued to press for social and economic justice. Its Poverty Program Committee produced a federally funded study of the War on Poverty and community organization strategies in 34 communities in 1968. Beginning in 1972, Walter Smart advocated, with some success, for economic development programs in the minority business community. Once again, the perennial issue of housing returned as a priority item. The Federation also devoted considerable energy to advising its members on strategies for obtaining federal funding. Throughout the 1970s, there was a proliferation of programs involving federal agencies and supported by federal funding. These projects involved such issues as teenage parents, training programs for the elderly and teenagers, and juvenile justice.

Reflecting the increased emphasis on social programs for local neighborhoods, NFS changed its name in 1957 to the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, and then again in 1979 to United Neighborhood Centers of America.

Source: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

Other Resources: An account of the National Federation of Settlements can be found in Peter Romanofsky, ed., “National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers” in Social Service Organizations (Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions, 1978) vol. 2, pages 533-540.

United Neigborhood Centers of America.

University of Chicago Archives.

Handbook of Settlements” by Robert Archey Woods and Albert J. Kennedy and  published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1911.

One Reply to “National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers”

  1. To consider and act upon public matters of interest to settlements and to act in an advisory capacity to settlements and neighborhood houses.

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