History of the Settlement House Movement

The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities Center for Engagement and Neighborhood Building is designed to honor, study, promote, and accelerate the history and values of the settlement house movement. This movement embodies a rich heritage of recognizing that all individuals, families, and communities, no matter how challenged, possess aspirations and strengths that can be the foundation for meaningful, lasting change.

America’s settlement house movement was born in the late 19th century. The Industrial Revolution; dramatic advances in technology, transportation, and communication; and an influx in immigrants caused significant population swells in urban areas. City slums emerged where families lived in crowded, unsanitary housing. Health care was nonexistent; disease was rampant. There were few schools, and children were sent to work in factories.

A group of enterprising settlement house movement leaders sought to achieve change by bridging the gaps between social classes. The middle-class leaders joined underserved urban neighborhoods and opened their homes to the local children, parents, families, and older adults.

These houses served as gathering places for fostering relationships that would serve as the foundation for stronger, healthier communities. Middle- and working-class individuals lived side by side in fellowship. Rather than asking residents, “What can we do for you?” settlement workers asked, “What can we do together?”

Residents offered their unique skills and abilities to other neighbors. Through these strength-based contributions, each settlement house offered access to a variety of activities and programs. Child care, education for children and adults, health care, and cultural and recreational activities were common.

In addition, the movement focused on reform through social justice. Settlement workers and other neighbors were pioneers in the fight against racial discrimination. Their advocacy efforts also contributed to progressive legislation on housing, child labor, work conditions, and health and sanitation.

The ideas and principles of the settlement house movement spread quickly, and by 1910, more than 400 settlements were established in the U.S. Most were centered in the nation’s largest cities to serve new immigrants. In 1911, a group of settlement house movement pioneers founded the National Federation of Settlements, which was renamed United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA) in 1979. 

Today, volunteer staff living in the settlement houses has given way to paid employees who live offsite; however, the settlement house movement’s values of respect, reciprocity, and individual strengths live on in America's settlement houses and community centers.

In January 2014, the Alliance united its national membership with the UNCA network and established the Center for Engagement and Neighborhood Building.

Additional Reading

In recognition of the centennial anniversary of the settlement house movement, UNCA published two documents that chronicle the history of the movement. Read:

Learn more about how the Center for Engagement and Neighborhood Building accelerates the adoption of settlement house movement values online.

Contact the Alliance's Center for Engagement and Neighborhood Building with questions.

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