In the belief that more could be done to improve the quality of neighborhood life by working together, FNC was formed in 1906 as a voluntary, nonprofit association by Philadelphia’s settlement house community. For more than 100 years, these neighborhood centers have been critical to the well-being of inner city children, youth, adults, seniors and families. Over the years, the centers have helped thousands of families find and keep homes, learn English, be trained to gain and keep employment, enhance their children’s educational achievement, recognize and encourage many exceptional young people, and work towards having safer and more nurturing environments for all their fellow neighbors. Through the FNC’s support and fostering of collaboration, much has been accomplished in building and rebuilding safer, healthier neighborhoods where families have a better chance at flourishing.
“…the aim of the settlement or neighborhood house is to bring about a new kind of community life…It is in the community or neighborhood that people seek and fight for solutions to their concrete, daily, local and immediate problems. Although the community remains the focus of the settlement’s attention, it is through the personalized and direct involvement with the individual, in the context of the family—often throughout a lifetime—that the settlement fosters and supports the values of fellowship and mutual support.”
—Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, 1938
The story of the Federation of Neighborhood Centers (FNC Philly) is not only the story of an individual organization but a story of various social movements as a whole, and the individual settlement houses and community centers that came together to form the Federation of Neighborhood Centers.
FNC Philly emerged out of the progressive era of the late 1800s. This era was marked by rapid industrialization and economic depression, as well as waves of immigrants coming to the United States in search of the American Dream. In response to the poor living conditions of the expanding industrialized cities, many private philanthropists and social activists searched for ways to respond. One of the initial responses was the creation of “Charity Organizations” which focused on the individual as the cause of the social ills that afflicted these poor industrial cities. The Settlement Movement emerged from, and in opposition to the Charity Organizations, and while people committed to the Settlement Movement continued to attempt to serve these populations they also looked beyond the individual and to the environmental factors that contributed to these issues.
The first settlement house was founded in 1884 in England; the settlement concept quickly made its way to the United States, with the first settlement being Neighborhood Guild (University Settlement) in New York City. In 1889 possibly the most famous settlement house was founded in Chicago, Hull House. This settlement was founded by Jane Adams, one of the most well-known leaders of the movement (and founder of the United Neighborhood Workers Association in 1911) and a trailblazer in a movement that would be strongly led by a large number of progressive women.
The late 1880s also saw the emergence of the settlement movement in Philadelphia, with the founding of several settlement houses throughout the city, including Friends Neighborhood Guild and The Lighthouse. Like their British counterparts, Philadelphia settlements were located in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of poverty and recent immigrants. The settlements were privately funded and were operated by a staff that took up residence within the settlement houses.
While the movement was based on autonomy of settlement houses in their decision making, there was also a recognition that there needed to be a stronger ability to share ideas between settlement workers, and to have a stronger, collective voice both locally and nationally. The result of this need was that on April 17, 1906 the Philadelphia Association of Settlements (the Association) was created, the precursor to the Federation of Neighborhood Centers. The PAS originally had seven members, and by 1907 it has changed its name to the Philadelphia Neighborhood Workers. Over the next 40 years the Association went through a number of name changes, but its primary mission remained: building strong neighborhoods by strengthening families and civic life.
During the early years of the Association, regular meetings were held and committees formed to address the issues that were most pressing to the settlements of the city. In addition, interagency programs were created and speakers (such as W.E.B. Dubois) were brought in to share their expertise on the pressing issues of the time. All of these activities not only helped to inform, but they strengthened the coalition, fostered the feeling of involvement in a movement and gave voice to the agencies at a citywide and at times national level.
From the 1920s to the early 1960s, several significant things occurred that would drastically change the way that settlements operated, and eventually changed the role of the Association. The late 20s saw the emergence of the Great Depression and from it came New Deal Programs which made federal money available for settlements; in addition, the United Fund (the United Way) had grown and began to strongly contribute to and influence settlements throughout the country. The result of this was a shift from private funding for settlements to federal and United Way funding. Along with this came more of a professionalization of the service providers and case workers that worked in settlements. There began to be a shift from local volunteers living in settlements to a more professional set of workers who were less acquainted with the neighborhoods they served.
In the shadow of all of these changes, a new era for the settlement movement began to emerge in 1963. Under the pressures of (and the suggestion of the United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA)), a more formal organization began to emerge. Seven Settlements formed the Greater Philadelphia Federation of Settlements (the Federation), also known as the Delaware Valley Settlement Alliance and the Federation, which was incorporated in 1964. This organization differed from previous incarnations in that members paid significant dues, and the organization hired an Executive Director and a Secretary. By 1964, the United Fund (United Way) began funding the organization independently and the organization was incorporated. In many ways, this was the birth of the Federation as a professional organization and the beginning of a new era for the Federation. This organization was poised to deal with the new funding landscape that had been emerging in response to a stronger shift from private funding of agencies to federal funding and a need to move into underserved areas throughout the city and to better explain the movement to the general public.
Securing funding for the Federation was always difficult, and by 1968, the organization had gone through some reorganizing. Some of the results of that reorganizing were further centralization of key support services, independent alliance funding, budget allocation responsibility for United Way funded agencies and an increased proportion of at large members serving on the Board. The Federation also focused on helping with capacity building internally among settlements. In its quest to help bring programs to multiple agencies, the Federation helped to develop literacy programs such as Operation Alphabet, the MOVE program, and the Language Arts and Reading Camps. Over the years the Federation continued to expand on this foundation and has continued to look for ways to better serve its partner (formerly member) agencies.
By its 100-year anniversary, 14 Settlements and Community Centers were a formal part of the Federation. These agencies served 45 neighborhoods and 75,000 people throughout Philadelphia. These agencies, while they maintained a common mission, were each as unique in the approaches to serving their communities—some incorporating Community Development Corporations (CDCs), others developing programs to address specific community needs such as Home Heating—as the Federation had to be to serve their member agencies. As the member agencies continued to adapt to the needs of their constituents, the Federation continued to adapt to serve its members.
By 2008, there were few settlements house left in Philadelphia, and even those had become what we think of today as community centers or neighborhood centers. With this change, the Federation was re-branded as the Federation of Neighborhood Centers (FNC Philly) and transformed from a membership organization to a partnership organization. Membership dues were no longer collected, and contracts were more equitably split between agencies based upon the amounts of actual programming and administration/management provide by each.
For a much more in-depth history of the Philadelphia settlement house movement, please click this link to view Rosina McAvoy Ryan’s article in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.