Universalizing Solutions

Jul 30, 2014 | Melissa Aase, Executive Director

One thing that makes University Settlement powerful and different is that our work always takes place on multiple levels, from the micro to the macro.

We have never been solely a social service organization, but have from our beginnings in the 1880s been a social justice organization. That means that we simultaneously provide direct solutions on the individual or family level, while seeking community-wide and societal changes (policy, public perception, structural, economic and the built environment) that will alleviate the need for those direct services, or at the very least universalize those solutions, in the future. Here's an example from the previous year: New York has seen a massive new public investment in early childhood programs, particularly universal pre-kindergarten or UPK. We've spent more than 100 years focusing on comprehensive, caring pre-kindergarten programs - and we're thrilled to see our solution become universalized.

Direct Excellence
We have been providing pre-kindergarten services as part of our early childhood programs prior to the amazing shift this year in New York State and New York City toward supporting the true "universalization" of this service. We know the difference this makes in the lives of children and families in our neighborhoods. Our youngest children love coming to school, and they leave us ready for kindergarten; to top it off, we're enabling their parents to continue working without fearing where their children will go, or what kind of environment they'll be exposed to. Using this direct practice of excellence, we have shared our model regularly to build the case for universalizing quality early childhood programs for children under five.

Guiding Policy Makers
University Settlement's leaders have been at the table with top City policy makers many times in the last six months, guiding the new administration in its implementation of the massive expansion of pre-k. This is advocacy based on expertise and trust, years of strong public-private relationships, and common goals, rather than the kind of advocacy that puts us at loggerheads with policy-makers and standing on the steps of City Hall (though we enjoy those activities as well). This type of advocacy work is where the rubber hits the road during the implementation phase, and while we are often invited to participate, there are also times when we reach out to get ourselves invited; a seat at the table during decision-making on certain minutia can save a great deal of back-tracking and problem solving later on.

One fight we have not won in the pre-kindergarten example (yet) is the issue of salary parity for staff across the early childhood age groups. For those of us with community-based pre-kindergarten classrooms and services for younger children as well, City contracts are requiring salary ranges for pre-k teachers that are competitive with the Department of Education's pre-k teachers, but City contracts for our teachers of two-year-olds and three-year-olds do not provide for parity, which severely hampers us as employers to retain high quality staff for all children. That is just one issue among many in the list of "nitty-gritty" items discussed during implementation, and we will keep advocating for adequate and equal pay scales for all those educators who help prepare children under 5 to succeed in the formal education system.

Advocating for Investment that Works
We also used more traditional forms of advocacy this year as well, raising our voices and sharing our knowledge with elected officials and agency professionals in Albany and City Hall, to make sure that the youngest in our communities have access to the resources to get ready for school, to make pre-k actually universal. We took a bus of parents from the community to Albany, some traveling and meeting their elected officials for the first time. We organized and collaborated with coalition partners across the City to speak with one voice and build power. And staff wrote, spoke, and traveled to Albany and City Hall numerous times to make the case for universal pre-k and many, many other issues of importance to our communities. For the first time ever, we found ourselves in the wonderful situation of a mayor and a governor agreeing that there should be universal pre-k, even though they did not agree about how to pay for it! In some ways that makes it seem like it was an easy fight, but we have to recognize the years of fighting that came before as well (and now, of course, the devil is in the details).

The outcome of our various strategies mean that we can continue and increase our work with young children --- just one part of what we do as a settlement house --- and not only are we assured that we can provide direct excellence for families in our communities, but that children and families in other communities will also be able to get these important services, too. Pre-kindergarten will become a part of our "normal social fabric," just like kindergarten did more than 100 years ago (after we started the first in NYC here at University Settlement!). And if we do and share our research, take our seat at the table, and have anything to say about it, pre-kindergarten and all early childhood services will be infused with the best practices that help families and children thrive, even if they are facing hardship, transition, or trauma within their communities.

Our connected and informed work, from the micro level to the macro level, sets University Settlement apart as a social justice organization, rooted deeply in the day-to-day of excellent practice while never losing sight of our responsibility to make the "big picture" more beautiful for everyone.


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