As of January 1, 2013, University Settlement has operated under a new and expanded executive structure. We are excited to announce that longtime Settlement employee and former Director of Community Development, Melissa Aase, has assumed the responsibility of Executive Director alongside CEO Michael Zisser. This is the first time in our history that the two roles have been held separately. Get to know Melissa and her work at University Settlement through this insightful interview!
You have an incredibly diverse background. What first brought you to University Settlement?
I was doing a split social work internship out of Columbia University, spending time between Mayor Dinkins' Office creating the first Domestic Partnership Registry and working on welfare rights organizing. US' Project Home was my "home base", working with a community leadership group called "Women As Resources (WAR) Against Poverty." The women of WAR were inspiring, and the staff of Project Home were incredible role models for the type of social and community work I wanted to do.
What is your favorite part about working at University Settlement?
The work here has always felt incredibly integrated to me, rather than fragmented and isolated. That's how our staff members think and act; that is how we build our programs. It's how we relate to the world – by thinking of the whole person, within their families, communities and society. It is certainly not the reality of how we are funded, or how most of social policy and institutional systems work, so we are constantly reminding ourselves and others about the power of building community together. Having this horizon -- because we're not there by a long shot – is one of my favorite things about University Settlement. We have an environment where we can work together toward that goal of integration and wholeness for everyone.
I also love the daily experience of diversity. So, it's not a monolithic definition of "wholeness," but many versions, nuanced by the variety of culture, language, life experience, resources, talents, desires, empowerment and opportunities to act in big and small ways.
I love a quote from our founder, Stanton Coit, who wrote about the settlement, "Nothing of human concern is alien to its spirit and purpose." I have that on a little post-it on my computer to remember that our complexity and multiple layers are what make us strong, unique and welcoming.
You also work as the Executive Director of the International Federation of Settlements. How has the international perspective you've gained influenced your work locally?
I can learn about many other versions of how to fit together the "Government - NGO –Community – Private Sector" puzzle from viewing how other countries put these together – or don't. It helps me look at our own social policies and structures with new eyes. It also fuels me to go deeper into authentic community building, organizing and building power from the grassroots up. I have also been thrilled to see the impact on our staff and participants when they are able to go to an international conference, professional exchange, or do a project with counterparts from other countries. It galvanizes commitment, builds skills, and widens perspectives on the world that deepens our local work.
4.) What are you most looking forward to in your new role as Executive Director?
A) Balancing growth strategically – meaning, being on the lookout for and creating new opportunities while at the same time attending to the infrastructure needs that will keep us strong and nimble. B) Looking carefully at how we support staff growth and longevity, and guiding the organization to do even more of this than we already do. C) Building our ability to use rich data from our programs to fuel planning, advocacy adventures, and to make an even stronger contribution to the local social fabric and wider social policy.
University Settlement has a long history with programs that evolve to meet the needs of the community. What are some of the biggest changes you've seen take place during your time here?
Exciting increased depth and breadth of our early childhood work, and our services for adults over 60; bridging our relationship with The Door and massive growth through this relationship in the area of youth development; two flourishing new multi-purpose community centers; diving deeply into Brooklyn communities that did not have a settlement house of their own; massive growth in after-school programs; much more attention to working in Chinatown; and wonderful leaps in the arts . . . oh, not too much!
Our reputation for responding to both immediate needs and ongoing issues has recently been acknowledged by peer organizations and government officials - and you've played a big role in crafting our stance on advocacy. Where do you think we'll focus our efforts this year?
We want to balance our efforts between very local community design and development work, and broader policy and budget work at all levels of government in coalition with our many friends and allies. We will have to fight just to maintain the budget wins we achieved last year in advocacy for children's programs, and then push for more. We will mobilize the community through voter registration and candidates forums to understand the issues and importance of the Mayoral race.
In all these efforts we need to work on two (or more) levels simultaneously – to listen, build and amplify the voices of community residents to speak for themselves, and to hone and harness our own institutional voice as a longtime community anchor. We – residents and US together – have a great story to tell about the resilience and great solutions that come from within communities and neighborhoods --- today's catch phrase for this is "place based." This was evident most during and after Sandy, but has been the case in this incredible community for well over a century.
On a broader scale, what direction do you see the settlement house movement as a whole going in next?
We are in a strangely challenging, yet potent moment. On the one hand, we face across-the-board funding threats, rhetoric about smaller government, retrenchment from a commitment to the basic social contract, and the long-term effects of the recession on our communities and supporters. It has been a really hard few years!
On the other hand, it is an incredibly rich moment for settlement houses. So many of the "hot" concepts in public policy conversations now – integration, cross-agency cooperation, inter-disciplinary efforts, place-based strategies, action research, holistic prevention and a broad definition of "wellness," neighborhood revitalization --- are our concepts! They are the staples of the settlement house method, ethos and way. We have a great deal of experience and knowledge to add to these conversations and we will need to step up boldly.
And it's not only knowledge we have, but passion. Building strong communities and families is an integrated enterprise that will unleash amazing potential within people and neighborhoods. It will also protect and prevent against costly social problems that are painful on every level. Our model is smart in so many ways. The settlement house movement needs to honor our deep roots by harnessing our power in the current context.