Clinical Social Work at the Austen Riggs Center: Part 5 – The Settlement House Movement and Social Work Today

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By Beth Turner, LICSW, and Aaron Beatty

Beth Turner, LICSW, is a clinical social worker at the Austen Riggs Center.Beginning in the late 19th century, American cities struggled to adapt to a huge influx of European immigrants and later to the Great Migration of African-Americans from the rural south. In response, settlement houses were established, first in New York City and then in other large metropolitan areas as places in which culturally or socioeconomically diverse groups could live and learn together about the problems communities faced and possible solutions. As Riggs Clinical Social Worker Beth Turner, LICSW, puts it “This is where American social work started,” and the ideas born in the settlement house movement persist in informing social work practice, both at Riggs and in other settings today.  These ideas include client authority and empowerment, understanding the person in their environment and taking a strengths-based perspective.

Unlike other programs of the time, which sought to impose a program of moral instruction from above, American settlement houses took an open and curious stance, asking “What do you need? How can we be helpful?” Taking their cues from the community meant that, according to Turner, “different settlement houses ended up doing different things; they often started out as very practical things, like childcare or English classes or job training, and this evolved with the needs of the community.”

Turner sees a direct parallel to this model and the approach she takes in her casework as a clinical social worker at Riggs. “I start by asking patients ‘What do you need? You have this time with me, what do you want to work on? And, how do you want to work on it?’ Our work together comes not out of an agenda I bring in, but out of empowering the patient to say ’This is what I’m interested in, this is what I need you [social worker] for and this is how I can locate other resources to figure it out for myself.’” Casework is also informed by social work’s strengths-based perspective. Turner states, “Rather than just focus on what problems people have, social workers ask, ‘What are you doing well? Where do you shine?’ We assume that individuals, families and communities already have answers, capabilities and creativity that can be brought out and built upon.” In both the settlement house movement and in the treatment at Riggs, there is an effort, as Turner says “to empower people to take things on for themselves, as the expert in their own lives.” 

In settlement houses, the communities served came together for celebrations, athletic events and artistic pursuits and the sense of empowerment fostered resulted in many residents going on to make significant contributions in the areas of education, public health, recreation, labor organizing, housing, politics, woman’s rights, criminal justice and the arts. Turner sees a connection in the ways Riggs patients are encouraged to take up a citizenship role in the therapeutic community at Riggs, an inter-connected series of groups aimed at enhancing patient authority, fostering interpersonal learning and creating an environment that supports treatment. “If you can have the experience of having a voice in the Riggs system, it may open up possibilities of finding a voice in systems once you leave Riggs,” says Turner

Turner believes that the strength of the settlement house movement mirrors the strength of the therapeutic community at Riggs, as noted in this description of the British settlement house Toynbee Hall: “…an association of persons, with different opinions and different tastes; its unity is that of variety; …and its trust is in friends rather than in organization.”

The American social worker Jane Addams, who co-founded the Chicago settlement house Hull House in 1889 and went on to become the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, also spoke of the deep learning possible in supportive communities. As she wrote in her memoir Twenty Years at Hull House, published in 1910: 

It [the settlement house] must be open to conviction and must have a deep and abiding sense of tolerance. It must be hospitable and ready for experiment. It should demand from its residents a scientific patience in the accumulation of facts and the steady holding of their sympathies as one of the best instruments for that accumulation.

As at Hull House, both social work and the therapeutic community at Riggs work to build safe relationships, within which one can learn about the relational context of one’s troubles as well as one’s interests and capabilities. Just as settlement houses provided community members time to learn and experiment in order to spread their wings in the wider world, social work and the therapeutic community are two aspects of treatment at Riggs that can help patients envision and work for richer, more meaningful and more connected lives for themselves. 

Reference: Hansan, J.E. (2011). Settlement houses: An introduction. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/programs/settlement-houses/.

Read Part 1 – What Has Changed and What is Unique?

Read Part 2 - The Role of Riggs Social Workers with Families

Read Part 3 - The Role of Social Work in Discharge Planning

Read Part 4 - Staff Profile on Meg Czaja, LICSW 

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