TLD Interview: Educational Alliance President Robin Bernstein

Photo courtesy: The Educational Alliance.

Twenty-five years ago, Robin Bernstein joined the Educational Alliance as a social worker. Today, as president of the large community-based organization, she’s helping to reshape the settlement house movement on the Lower East Side and across the nation.

I stopped by her office on East Broadway recently to talk with Bernstein about how the organization, which serves 50,000 New Yorkers every year, is adapting to a changing neighborhood and new financial realities.

The Educational Alliance is one of six settlement houses on the Lower East Side. Founded more than 100 years ago to help Eastern European Jews assimilate into American society, they all innovated social programs that became national models and have endured to this day.  But in recent years, Bernstein and her counterparts at other organizations (such as University Settlement and Henry Street Settlement) have come to believe that, somewhere along the way, their institutions stopped innovating.

Bernstein said, “I think most social service organizations got stopped in the 1960’s. We’re working with our communities in old, tired ways that aren’t so effective. ”   This reality hit home for her in the past year when it became clear the Head Start Program (which has had a home at the Educational Alliance since 1965) was seeing second generation families come through its doors.  Bernstein believes Head Start is very valuable but not the only solution to ending the cycle of poverty. She called the high school graduation rate (32%) on the Lower East Side  “appalling,”  and a sign that “we had lost our way.”

To get back on track, Bernstein has pushed her team to come up with new ideas. Among them: a college education program for the almost 600 parents of children in the Head Start program. Launched in September, the pilot project is being run through the Borough of Manhattan Community College (part of the CUNY system). The idea is to help prepare adult learners for college by addressing all of their needs — including financial assistance and child care.  Bernstein reached out to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein to propose the collaboration, and he was enthusiastic about the idea. “We don’t need to re-invent adult education. CUNY does it very well. But settlement houses need t learn how to be better collaborators,” Bernstein said.

Today more than $21 million of the Educational Alliance’s $37 million budget comes from government grants.  While public funding has allowed non-profit social service organizations to do a lot for their communities, Bernstein is among those who believes there’s a downside.  “The problem,” she said,  “is that grants pay for very specific things, so you get very tied to what the program allows you to do.”

In the past, there might not have been all that much pressure to re-invent the system. But now, as government funding is slashed, Bernstein asserted, “we’ve got figure out how to have expansive brains” and how to solve problems, even as traditional funding sources go away. “We’ve gotten so beaten down by budgets and contacts and government,” she said, “but the vision has to take the lead.”

Like all of the other settlement houses, the Educational Alliance has spent a lot of time figuring out how to best serve a community that is gentrifying.  The latest figures from NYU’s Furman Center show that only 16% of the neighborhood’s households earn more than $108,000/year.  Half of all households earn less than $38,000/year. Given this reality, the Educational Alliance is still very focused on helping low income families. But Bernstein said her organization is determined to be a resource for the entire community — not just the very poor, or the very rich.

“We embrace the gentrification of this neighborhood and believe that settlement houses were founded to help people live as good American citizens,” she told me.  “I strongly believe that all people have the same basic human needs and aspirations and desires and it’s organizations like this one that should make them available to the whole community. That’s what a democratic society is about.”