Honoring the Past: Today
Pillsbury United Communities is an organization that honors its past, tracing its roots to Minneapolis' Bethel Settement, one of 400 settlement houses established between 1879 and 1910 in America. Settlement House values and ideals are a crucial part of our mission to create choice, change and connection - one person at a time. When we examine our history in this community, it is striking how similar the needs of the people we encounter today are to those we served 100 years ago.
Pillsbury United Communities is currently the largest settlement house-based organization in Minnesota, and one of the largest in the country. Every year, more than 35,000 people walk through our doors. Although we are a large organization, we continue to be small where it counts.
At the core of the settlement philosophy are the personal connections we make with our neighbors, and the connections they make with each other. We are constantly evolving, yet we remain rooted in the tradition of the Settlement House Way. We continue to provide bedrock services like after-school programs for kids, childcare, and food shelves. We also know that vital communities require a wider array of efforts, and we create new and innovating programming to adapt to the needs of those we serve.
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Origins of The Settlement House Movement
As a descendant of the Settlement House Movement, Pillsbury United Communities adheres to its founding principles – respect, reform, and reciprocity. The Settlement House Movement began in 19th century England and produced social policy initiatives and new ways of working to improve the conditions of the most excluded members of society.
During the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England, significant improvements in technology, transportation, and communication caused a massive population movement from rural to urban areas and profound changes for workers. City slums emerged. Families lived in horribly crowded, unsanitary housing. Healthcare was nonexistent; disease was rampant. There were few schools. Children were sent to work in factories. It was in this environment that Reverend Samuel and Henrietta Barnett planted the seeds of the Settlement House Movement.
For years, Reverend and Mrs. Barnett worked tirelessly to improve the conditions in London's slums. Reverend Barnett believed the causes of poverty were largely moral, stemming from the division of classes rather than flaws intrinsic to poor people – a radical idea at the time, and one that would become the basis of the Settlement House Movement.
Barnett took his ideas to Oxford where he met Arnold Toynbee, an economic historian who shared many of his ideas about social conditions. Toynbee said, "We – the middle classes I mean, not merely the very rich – we have neglected you; instead of justice we have offered you charity, and instead of sympathy we have offered you hard and unreal advice; but I think we are changing."
After Toynee's death in 1883, Barnett advocated for the creation of Toynbee Hall. It was there that the marriage of social justice and the practice of living among the poor, or "settling," produced the beginning of what we now call The Settlement Way.
At Toynbee Hall, university student residents lived onsite to learn as much about the neighborhood as they could. They provided classes, social gatherings, summer camps, arts programs, clean-milk stations, baby clinics, nursery schools, and other innovative programs. They helped to organize their neighbors into community groups that could leverage more power than they could alone. The student residents treated the neighborhood residents as equals. They helped to promote the belief that social and economic conditions, rather than personal weakness, were the root causes of poverty.
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The Settlement House Movement in America
The unique and pioneering ideas and values of Toynbee Hall spread quickly. By 1910, more than 400 settlements were established in the United States, mostly in large cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago.
At the heart of the movement was a belief that healthier communities could be built by first establishing healthy relationships with its members not simply dispensing charity – rather than asking residents, "What can we do for you?" they asked, "What can we do together?"
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In late 19th century Minneapolis, new immigrants and factory workers were living in crowded slums, poor sanitation caused illnesses and deaths, and there was increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Prostitution, gambling, alcoholism and crime filled the neighborhoods.
In 1879, Plymouth Congregational Church started the Plymouth Mission in an effort to address these concerns. Katherine Plant took over the mission in 1897 and reorganized it to become Bethel Settlement. Bethel offered a free kindergarten, industrial training, and sewing classes. A day nursery allowed mothers to go to work. The settlement grew, and by the turn of the century they needed more space.
In 1905, John and Charles Pillsbury, brothers who were greatly benefiting from the success of their flour mills, gave $40,000 towards the construction of a new facility. The building, located near the intersection of what is now Cedar and Riverside Avenues, was completed in 1906, and named Pillsbury House in honor of their parents. It then added a health clinic, a women's employment office, home economics and arts classes, and boys' and girls' clubs. In 1920, Pillsbury House purchased land in Waconia, Minnesota, and established Camp Manakiki, a place where children and their mothers could go to escape the city and enjoy the country.
Across town, another settlement house was growing quickly. Established in 1897, Unity House served nearly 95,000 people each year by the 1920s, offering many of the same kinds of programs offered at Pillsbury House.
For many , the settlement house provided the first safe, clean and inviting place they had ever been. It allowed many mothers to go to work for the first time; countless children made friends, found mentors and learned skills that they would carry with them for the rest of their lives.
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20th Century Settlements
By the 1920s, settlement houses across the country began to change. Social work was becoming more professionalized, more concerned with addressing individual psychiatric issues than systemic, societal problems. Settlement houses became increasingly dependent on the United Fund and Community Chests. At this time, settlements began calling themselves neighborhood or community centers, no longer able to support full-time residents or round-the-clock services.
The neighborhood centers remained a flexible yet consistent presence in Minneapolis' poorest neighborhoods. The programs they offered were a means to building relationships with people and in turn building healthier communities.
Since the 19th century, settlement work has become extremely diverse, but has remained consistent in its flexibility and sensitivity to the needs of the neighborhood. Today, it is estimated that there are more than 900 settlement houses in the United States, and thousands more in over thirty countries throughout the world. You may know them as "community or neighborhood centers," but they are all descendants of a movement begun over 100 years ago, and is even more relevant in today's context.
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The Future of Pillsbury United Communities
Pillsbury United Communities has spent significant time examining key trends in our neighborhoods and our society in general. We have spoken with staff, participants, government officials, neighborhood leaders, church groups, corporate leaders, and peer agencies about where they think we ought to be headed. In these discussions, we have learned that economic, social, racial divisions continue to be critical issues in our city. The movement of political power from urban areas to the suburbs has left many city residents feeling abandoned. There is a sense that the poor are responsible for their own fate – Minnesota's long tradition as a progressive state feels threatened. People in the core city are feeling increasingly isolated. In this time of growing need, there also seems to be a general dissatisfaction with large organizations that should be addressing these needs – including government, schools, medical, and social services. Instead of working together, these organizations are often fragmented and uncoordinated. Funding preferences toward smaller and more entrepreneurial organizations means that creating these partnerships and alliances is ever more difficult. In a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jim Boyd wrote:
"A movement is afoot to undo most of the reforms that sprang from the settlement house movement. Its proponents don't seek to tweak the social-welfare system or curb its excesses. They seek to obliterate it . . . to return us to the individualism of the frontier days and the robber-baron era, when the poor and the newly arrived were looked down upon and when where was a quite small middle class."
How are organizations like Pillsbury United Communities to survive and thrive in this environment, and more importantly, how are the people who live in our communities to survive and thrive? Pillsbury United Communities is working on a number of strategies to address these concerns. Our goal is to vitalize healthy communities by creating, innovating and collaborating with diverse individuals and groups; providing open, attractive, welcoming and safe spaces for people to participate, connect, and organize; and bridging the gaps between those who are affected by decisions and those who make them. At Pillsbury United Communities, we are taking an approach that is challenging yet critical: we are big and small at the same time. "Big" when it comes to community impact and organizational efficiency, but "small" when it comes to relationships and people. As we look to the future, we find that the basic tenets of the settlement way are still central to our mission: We will continue to show dignity and respect toward our neighbors by developing top-rate facilities, programs, services and staff. We will promote social reform and democracy by providing training, mentorship and resources to our neighbors. We will vitalize healthy communities by bringing people from diverse backgrounds together to share their talents and create an environment of reciprocity and solidarity. The Settlement Way is alive and well, and continues to create healthier communities throughout the world. Pillsbury United Communities will continue to honor the three "Rs" – respect, reform and reciprocity - to create choice, change, and connection - one person at a time.
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