Taking Science to the Streets: Building Stronger Communities

Sep 22, 2014 | Melissa Aase, Executive Director | categories: Education

Over the summer, I attended the Neighborhood Revitalization Conference in Washington D.C., a gathering that brought together settlement house leaders and agents of change from across the nation. Leaders of academia, philanthropy, policy, advocacy groups and government all came together to focus on the pressing issues of today: poverty, racism, homelessness, unemployment, health and educational disparities.

More and more, leaders of social change are coming to the conclusion that the focus of our work must be communities — something settlement houses have always practiced. Not just individuals or children or families, not just individual housing units or individual businesses or individual schools — but the community as a whole. True, powerful, lasting change comes from strong communities. A better whole is what betters the parts within.

Turns out the same is true for brain science.

At the conference, I had an exciting chance to hear a keynote presentation by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Dr. Shonkoff deftly taught the conference a lesson on neurobiology, focusing on the development of young brains and the effects of toxic stress: when the environment around a child is so stressful that the "fight or flight" response can never turn off. The impact of this stress in ALL areas of future life (physical and mental health, educational success, economic status) is tremendous. An environment or a community of stress is detrimental to each part and section within. How do we respond now that we know this science? If environmental stress is the key factor in brain development, we need to focus our attention on the environment and community surrounding children, and we need to start at the beginning of a child's life. We must support children, allowing them to deal constructively with stress while knowing they are protected. To better the children, we must first better the community.

Dr. Shonkoff said, "If we really want to achieve breakthroughs for children, we have to improve the lives of the parents and caregivers. Strong communities reduce sources of toxic stress. We have to figure out community-wide strategies, and go after them like a laser, or parents won't be able to fully protect their children."

I am thrilled to share that at University Settlement, we focus a great deal of attention on this subject; in the last year, University Settlement has undertaken a pilot project in partnership with New York University's Child Study Center, which will test a model of supporting parents and teachers to increase their abilities to support their young children's development. The model developed by Dr. Laurie Brotman of NYU Langone Medical Center is implemented as ParentCorps, and University Settlement's Early Childhood Center and Children's Corner sites are among the first community-based settings where the model is being tested. Previous pilots show terrific impact and success within elementary school settings.

Perhaps the most unique and powerful element of the pilot is the opportunity to test the relevance of the model with the Chinese communities we serve. All aspects of the process, vetted and adapted for cultural relevance, produce exciting initial results for University Settlement and the Asian American parents and children we serve. Initial results are discussed in an article out this month in the Asian American Journal of Psychology, as well as in our "Family Matters" conference in June.

We are thrilled that our work, supported by NYU, is bringing such high quality and effective tools to our communities, and we are eager to expand even further. We are also thrilled that our plan of eliminating toxic stress is being noticed by others; the New York Times recently shared an opinion piece that praises combating toxic stress in order to end poverty

But there is more to do. As a settlement house that works with all ages and all aspects of the community, we must turn our attention to the other contributors to "toxic stress," such as poor housing, economic pressure, challenges in the school system and community violence. Our youth, adult literacy, housing support and senior programs work in unison with our early childhood programs to enhance positivity and defeat negativity within our communities.
The community must be strong for our children. As we enhance, grow and better our communities, we better what is within, eliminating stress that is detrimental to childhood development, growth and success. Through University Settlement's programs and development, our communities will experience the positive impact of more children succeeding in school, health, work and happiness. We will take science to the streets, and indeed, we must.


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