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TLD Interview: Verona Middleton-Jeter of the Henry Street Settlement

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Thirty-eight years ago, Verona Middleton-Jeter came to the Henry Street Settlement as a live-in social worker. Today she is executive director, managing a $37 million budget and overseeing a vast array of programs for 60-thousand New Yorkers. Middleton-Jeter, who will be retiring next June, told us “never in her wildest dreams” did she imagine herself leading such a large and influential organization. We sat down with her recently to take a closer look at one of the Lower East Side’s most important institutions — and to hear from one of the city’s most inspiring women.

Middleton-Jeter grew up in rural South Carolina. She once told the Robin Hood Foundation that school is someplace she went when it rained or it wasn’t cotton picking season. She was the first in her family to attend college (Benedict in South Carolina) before being recruited to work at a residential treatment center in Westchester, where they were looking for African American counselors. There she was first introduced to the field of social work. Determined to make a difference in the lives of poor people, she went on to earn an MSW from Smith College and upon graduation in 1972 was offered a job (and, more importantly, an apartment in NYC) as a live-in social worker at Henry Street’s shelter, the Urban Family Center. It was the early 70’s – and New York was reeling – crime, urban decay and poverty were rampant:

Middleton-Jeter: The city was putting homeless, largely single, mothers with children, in hotel rooms… Prostitutes and drug users were (often) living (in the room next door)… Kids were living in that kind of environment… It was just terrible.

After newspapers exposed the horrible conditions in which these families were living, the city turned to the Henry Street Settlement for help.

Middleton-Jeter: So that’s how the Urban Family Transitional Center came to be, and most of the city’s transitional housing programs today are really a (version) of that program. Each family got their own apartment – and what was important to Henry Street was the idea that, just because they’re in crisis, why should they be stuck in a room?  They should be in an apartment – and we had on-site social services. The idea was that once they left Henry Street to live in permanent housing, they should be functioning at a higher level… We all know the theory around crisis is, if you’re in a state of crisis, there’s a great possibility that you will regress unless you have the proper support to help you spring forward… Henry Street played a major role in bringing respect to the way homeless people were and are treated.

Middleton-Jeter is carrying on the legacy of Lillian Wald, the social-work pioneer who founded Henry Street in 1893. The organization was one of many settlement houses that were created to help immigrants adjust (and assimilate) to life in America. Today, the Henry Street Settlement can be thought of as a very large community center, offering many programs for seniors and kids, providing job training/job placement and aiding abused women. HSS also runs the Abrons Arts Center.  Middleton-Jeter is especially proud of her organization’s commitment to helping battered women.

Middleton-Jeter: In our battered women’s shelter… we have 85 beds for woman who are, well, we call them domestic abuse survivors, because that’s what they are. The primary reason for that program is to try to help women be safe.  When I was the director of the battered women’s  program, I always said it is quite ironic that we are trying to make women safe, but as a society, we haven’t done anything about the perpetrator. Over the years, we’ve made some strides. There are some programs, we’ve tried to use the courts. But, you know, if a man wants to beat a woman, he beats her. Hopefully she’s strong enough to leave, but we don’t have an organized system that says you don’t beat your wife and if you beat her, this is going to happen to you…

We asked Middleton-Jeter how the HSS became involved in domestic violence issues.

Middleton-Jeter: We got involved with the domestic violence issue because a woman could go to…a welfare center and say, “My husband just beat me, I need a place to live,” and they’d just say, “tough.”  So then, if that same woman went back the next day and said “I’m homeless. I need a place to stay,” they’d say, “oh, we’ve got a place to send you.” So we ended up getting women who had been abused in the shelter, and this was in the early 70’s, when the women’s movement had brought the whole issue of domestic violence and women battering to the forefront. Since the women’s movement was really a white women’s middle class issue, I wanted to make sure that what was decided about poor women would not be based on some theoretical middle class white woman’s way of thinking. So then we got very involved.

HSS takes a lot of pride in its legacy as a place that looks for innovative solutions to problems and its role as an instrument for positive social change. In that spirit, Middleton-Jeter is passionate about the need for more programs and laws to protect abused women.

Middleton-Jeter:  There should be strong education – community education. Domestic violence is a crime, it’s a criminal act, just like it’s a crime for someone to walk up and hit you or me. Just because we are in a romantic or familial kind of relationship doesn’t give you the right to hit me. So that’s a community issue. I’d like to see the word go out throughout the community… that it is a crime, and then there needs to be resources within our community to respond to it as a crime.  This way the perpetrator becomes the focus, not the survivor. We’ve got these people we’ve allowed to go free… Male violence is still quite rampant, even with teenagers. So we’re trying to go into the schools and trying to educate the teenagers because, some young ladies, they don’t know any better, and the boys don’t either, so that’s the whole community education piece.

Like every other non-profit in the city, Henry Street has been hit hard by the economic downturn. They’ve tried to keep layoffs to a minimum and avoid program cuts. Instead, Middleton-Jeter has stressed making the organization more efficient and reducing administrative costs. She says there has been an uptick in the number of people coming into the Neighborhood Resource Center on East Broadway looking for help.  There’s clearly more demand for jobs, even entry level jobs, from people who never would have been seeking relatively low-paying positions in the past. Middleton-Jeter said HSS career counselors are struggling to provide assistance to everyone – but it hasn’t been easy.

The tough economic times may have placed a lot of short-term pressure on the programs for adults. But Middleton-Jeter says it’s important not to lose sight of helping teens pursue a college education.

Middleton-Jeter: We have a program we call Expanded Horizons. It’s almost like college prep – working with high school kids, helping them to get ready, providing them with additional support, for the SAT or regents exam. You know a lot of kids that we serve, their parents did not go to college. So we provide a service there.  It’s very important to help them get jobs and continue to support them even after they go on to college. We have a young adult population – they call them “disconnected youth.” I don’t like the term – most of the time I don’t like the terms the city uses for anything.  Those kids are kids who have dropped out of high school. They don’t have jobs, they are kind of floundering. So we are trying to get them re-connected, to try to help them be more hopeful about life by helping them to develop work-readiness skills, help them get jobs and hope that they will become productive citizens.

Middleton-Jeter has seen dramatic changes in the neighborhood in her years at HSS. We asked her if the gentrification sweeping through the Lower East Side, is changing the organization’s mission.

Middleton-Jeter: The neighborhood has changed. I don’t know that the community we serve has changed. What I mean by that is the community has been gentrified, but we continue to serve the poor…I feel we are all right (still needed) because of the housing projects… When we looked to see how HSS could benefit from the changing community, we looked at the arts center… If someone comes to a music class who can afford to pay market rates, and then we can have a scholarship for a kid who can’t afford it, then we’ll have more of a mixed group. That’s really what happens at the arts center because, I would say, people moving in to the community are people who can afford to pay… That’s one program that I see bringing people together with different socio-economic (backgrounds) into one place for the same reason.

Middleton-Jeter talked about the concept of the Abrons Arts Center.

Middleton-Jeter: Lillian Wald, our founder, believed that poor people, too, had a right to creative expression. Our board has continued to carry that as part of our mission. It’s a community arts center and very difficult to keep going from an economic standpoint, because you just don’t get government grants for the arts. (Out of our $37-39 million budget, 85-percent is government funded). But our board is very committed to the arts. So most of the board’s discretionary dollars go to keep that arts center thriving. We try to keep our rates down so it’s somewhat affordable. And we have visual arts instruction almost like a small school. We have a music school. We have dance. We have theater. So there are a lot of different mediums that you can use.

We asked Middleton-Jeter what she’d like people in the community to know about the Henry Street Settlement.

Middleton-Jeter: People know that Henry Street is a resource within the community. But a lot of people think of it as (something that’s) there for an emergency. We have a lot of resources here that I don’t believe the community is aware of.

As Middleton-Jeter looks back on a lifetime at Henry Street she says the best part of her job is being able “to make a difference.”

For more information about Henry Street Settlement’s programs, visit their web site.

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