Four Locality members visited New York in October to take part in a peer learning event with the International Federation of Settlements (IFS)
We were hosted by people that felt so familiar – passionate about their communities and neighbourhoods who wanted opportunities and social justice to be available to all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to New York to visit American settlements which was made possible via the Locality Knowledge and Skills Exchange.

We visited six settlements, based in the Bronx, Northern Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. They ranged in scale and size from BronxWorks (£75m annual turnover) to Jacob Riis Settlement (£5m turnover) and all were broadly delivering similar activity. Much of this would be familiar to UK settlements and development trusts (e.g. ESOL and other adult learning, employment support, parenting support and childcare, youth activities, sporting opportunities, cultural schemes, etc).

It was comforting to know that Locality members have such similar siblings across the pond. However, there were also large organisational differences relating to funding, governance, entrepreneurialism and relationship with public agencies – some of which were positive and to be learnt from and others of which I’m grateful I don’t have to deal with.

Basketball practice

It was these differences that I’ve been particularly reflecting on since my return to the UK and which I wanted to share in this blog. So, let’s start with the areas of inspiration, the main one for me being about scale of ambition, determination and achievement. Perhaps this is a basic difference between the States and the UK, but it was this area that really impressed me. It was evident in a number of different ways:

The numbers of schools and children that were being supported via after school and holiday programmes. 

Most settlements worked with all primary and secondary schools in their areas and offered after-school provision. They offered a range of activity including additional support with learning and social groups. Once children were older, this morphed into practical work experience and mentoring, coaching and encouraging aspiration to access further/higher education. There was a real sense of ambition for young people and the approach was very much rights-based i.e. about young people asserting their right to a good education and taking up post-school opportunities.

Most settlements had teams of community organisers based in the communities they served, listening to residents and businesses and supporting collective mobilisation to address issues of concern and opportunities.

They took a campaigning and practical action approach; leading to ambitious changes such as the securing of funding for a high school within the local community (the Centre for Family Life in Sunset Park) or being part of community action to prevent ICE immigration raids.

The sheer size of some of the organisations we visited and the scale of the activities they delivered was quite extraordinary.

It’s always a difficult balancing act to combine growth and scale with connection/ownership within the community the organisation serves and I think it was a challenge for our US sister organisations (see the less positive points below) but the ambition and opportunities that this scale provided did give me food for thought. Is being big a problem or is it fine as long as you stay rooted in, led by and accountable to the local community? I’m still not sure but plenty to cogitate on….

The final useful piece of learning for me was the role that the boards of the settlements take.

Governance is very, very different in the US and one of the areas that emerged was that the boards are much more focussed on income generation (including taking a role in securing philanthropic donations) than on the quality and achievements of the day-to-day work of the organisations. I know that UK not-for-profit boards vary hugely in terms of how involved the directors/trustees get involved with raising income, but it was the focus on this and not about helping to set delivery strategy that surprised me the most.photographs of beneficiaries

Differences between the UK and US

There was a surprisingly massive reliance on public contracts.

Apparently New York is atypical in this regard (i.e. high levels of public expenditure) but some of the settlements we visited reported about 95% of their income coming from the City Council. It came in the form of lots of separate contracts from different departments – some of which were quite long-term – but it still meant that one entity was behind most of the funding.

Connected to this was the relationship with NYCHA, the city’s housing authority. Many of the community buildings where the Settlements were based were on long-term lease from NYCHA and were in a really poor state of repair and decoration. NYCHA has a very poor reputation and the settlements (like the residents they serve) had to wait years for repairs to be carried out. I found myself contrasting this with development trusts in the UK which in the main are in decent accommodation which we often own or are on a long-term lease. At Halifax Opportunities Trust we are quite rude to our beloved Hanson Lane Enterprise Centre which was a BT maintenance department in a previous life and probably never expected to be housing light industrial units, a nursery, employment support, adult learning and multicultural community events. It is not the most beautiful building but my goodness it’s ten times nicer than some of the centres we visited!

I suspect part of the reason for the state of the buildings is the lack of social enterprise we encountered at the settlements.

For me, this is one of the defining characteristics of Locality members and which helps many of us sustain, grow and innovate. With one or two exceptions, social trading was absent or minimal which meant that there was less unrestricted resource to expend on new services or to maintain buildings. I’m not sure how charitable accounting works in the States but I also got the sense that even the larger settlements did not sit on substantial balance sheets or cash surpluses, leaving them very reliant on revenue contracts which probably don’t allow for capital expenditure on repairs. A notable exception to this was the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation which had substantial housing stock (550 units of affordable housing in the community) and better maintained accommodation.

I sensed that some of the services that were being delivered by the settlements were to compensate for the poor quality of state services.

One example of this was the literacy and reading programme delivered by Cypress Hills LDC which was tailored to the multicultural community in which it was based and was underpinned by strong pedagogical practice, even down to the books that were used in the after school provision they provide. It was clear that despite the diversity of community in New York, the state schools took a very ‘one size fits all’ approach to learning – hence the need for the additional development opportunities which were funded via the settlements.

The biggest surprise – and difference to the UK – was about governance. 

Board members ‘bought’ a place on the settlement boards. This was either bought through their personal wealth or based on the income they could raise.

To sum up – it was an incredible experience and I would urge anyone considering an international visit to go, particularly if Locality is offering a part-bursary! We were hosted by people that felt so familiar – passionate about their communities and neighbourhoods who wanted opportunities and social justice to be available to all.

To quote the now familiar words of Jo Cox: ‘we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’. I think it’s fair to say that I came back from my trip to New York with a lot more than salt water taffy from Coney Island!

Four Locality members visited New York in October to take part in a peer learning event with the International Federation of Settlements. The members were awarded grants through our Knowledge and Skills exchange, a funding programme open to all Community members. Locality is a part of the International Federation of Settlements and Neighbourhood Centres, and we’re committed to widening access to international networking and exchanges for members.