Cooperation and Renewing Settlement Houses

Having just returned from a short break in the sun, I want to use a book I finished reading whilst away to stimulate your thinking. It’s not directly about building independent power from the grassroots but has supported and extended my thinking about citizen organising.


Richard Sennett has been writing sociology for nearly half a century. His current work is a trilogy exploring distinct but related issues. The first volume called The Craftsman examined the importance of craft and the workshop and was published to acclaim last year. His second – which was published late in 2011 and I finished whilst on holiday – is titled Together and deals with the theme of cooperation – as the books subtitle puts it: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. The pleasure of Sennett’s style is that it is at the same time both intelligently reflective and embedded in real human dilemmas. A philosophical commentator with an historic consciousness, Sennett also discusses current concerns with a lightweight modern sensitivity.

imageTo my surprise, I discovered on reading Together that Sennett is a historian of Jane Addams (1860-1935) and of the movement she headed up in the Chicago of the 1890s, Hull House. As a result of her work with the very poorest immigrant communities and for the peace movement, Jane Addams was given the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1931, the first American woman to be so honoured. Sennett’s commentary draws out the close relationship between her practical emphasis on self-determination and the agitation practiced by Saul Alinsky in the same city some decades later. Sennett draws parallels between Addams’ commitment to enabling and facilitating rather than dominating the people for whom she worked and the fiery and combative stance of Alinsky in building the confidence and endurance of the ignored and marginalised communities of downtown Chicago.

A Personal Connection

For me, this connection is important. In 1999, I joined the staff of the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres (latterly bassac), the national body for the UK settlement movement founded in London and Oxford in 1884 and which today has spread across the world. Toynbee Hall in London’s East End was the best known of the early settlements and became the inspiration for Hull House. Jane Addams visited Toynbee Hall in 1887-8 and took back to Chicago the founding ideas of what have now became known as settlement houses. However, Addams made vital additions to the model that made Hull House uniquely radical and internationally recognised. These very transformative elements were just those that Sennett points to in his study of cooperation.

imageThe principle concern of Sennett’s book is to explore the craft of complex human cooperation across difference and diversity. He calls on the example of Addams to illustrate the importance of informal levels of exchange and contact that offer a sound basis for wider and more obvious cooperation. Jane Addams was working in a Chicago of entrenched ethnic villages, housing immigrant families that held themselves apart (and superior) to every other community. Even when Catholic populations lived close by, each had a priest of their own who often only spoke the one language, upheld the true faith as practiced back home and hardly recognised the authority of the local Bishops. Each enclave held a hostile view of every other poor and migrant national group and often turf wars ensued.

Mother Addams to Alinsky

Addams set up Hull House in 1889 to act as a refuge from the conflicts of the street and factory. Sennett writes, “she focused on everyday experience – parenting, schooling, shopping. Ordinary experience, not policy formulas, is what counts, she thought, in social relations. In this, she foreshadowed Saul Alinsky; the test of joint action should be its concrete effect on daily life, not an eventual effect on policy promises. What role should cooperation face-to-face play in shaping everyday experience? Addams answer here is equally a mother to Alinsky’s: Hull House emphasized loose rather than rigid exchanges, and made a virtue of informality.” (p52)

imageIn 2010, I left bassac to study community organising as part of the first cohort of MA students at Queen Mary University of London. The course was run in association with London Citizens, the London chapter of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). In the 1940s, Alinsky himself founded the IAF as the agency through which his emerging work in community organising could be sponsored. My studies took me to a deep appreciation of his enduring contribution to US life. Before leaving bassac, I was also able to produce in 2009 a 16-page pamphlet outlining the history of the settlement movement, especially in the UK – The Past, the Passion, the Potential: How the History of the Settlement Movement Informs our Pursuit of Social Justice Today. It was a joy to be able to link the work of today’s settlements back to the pioneers like Jane Addams who were truly radical and innovative.

Renewal or Rejection?

So what has this conjunction of Addams and Alinsky to do with UK community organising today? By strange coincidence, I am once again employed by the settlement movement in my current role as a community organiser in Southwark and hosted by Cambridge House another of the founding members of the movement back in 1884. When I left the senior management team of bassac, the organisation was preparing to merge with the Development Trust Association and in April 2011 the two formed Locality, a stronger and more robust advocate for local development and social justice. That very same Locality won the contract to train 5,000 community organisers over four years and in October 2011, I became one of the first cohort of trainees. I wrote about this here.

imageThe settlement movement has come a long way from the founding of Toynbee Hall and Cambridge House in 1884 in London or Hull House in 1889 in Chicago. But the importance of cooperation between people of diverse backgrounds and experience remains central to settlements and settlement houses (the North American term) today. The legacy of Alinsky has flourished outside the settlement houses – frequently because they seem to work from a very different model of society and theory of change. Yet today facing the challenges of austerity Britain and the US, and the rise of mass popular protest across the world, the two traditions perhaps have a chance again to find common cause. The settlements need to restore their legitimacy as rooted in the collective issues of their community and community organising offers them a way to reconnect with their roots in informal cooperation and loose exchange. The dialogue has only just begun.

PS Sadly Hull House is no more. In January 2012, after 122 years of service, it ran out of money and closed owing $27,000 to its employees. The organisation may have gone but the tradition lives on.


Richard Sennett (2012) Together – the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation Allen Lane – I highly recommend this mind-expanding book.

Jane Addams (1912) Twenty Years at Hull House Available to read online at University of Virginia American Studies Hypertext Project

Upton Sinclair (1906) The Jungle Penguin Classic – deals with the life of immigrant Chicago and focuses on the meatpacking industry that dominated Back of the Yards, the neighbourhood that Alinsky first organised.

Mark Parker (2009) The Past, the Passion, the Potential: How the History of the Settlement Movement Informs our Pursuit of Social Justice Today bassac

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