How Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement Supports the People of Western Queens
While the COVID-19 pandemic has put communities, businesses and day-to-day life on hold around the world, many organizations and individuals continue to find new ways of reaching out to their communities to help hard-hit citizens thrive through the crisis. In New York City, as elsewhere, such help is especially needed in already underprivileged communities that experience increased pressures during the public health emergency and its socio-economic repercussions.
Founded in 1889 in the spirit of its famous Danish namesake, Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement has supported communities in New York through numerous periods of hardship and crisis. Denmark in New York caught up with Executive Director Christopher Hanway to discuss how this beloved neighborhood organization continues to engage its communities of Western Queens through the global pandemic.
This interview forms part of a new series of COVID-19 Culture Conversations, through which Denmark in New York engages key local partners on how to rise to the occasion in a time of crisis. The series spotlights innovative initiatives and crisis response in New York and Denmark amid the global pandemic.
Denmark in New York: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and the Danish link in the story behind The Jacob A. Riis Settlement House?
Christopher Hanway: I am the Executive Director of Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement, which was co-founded and supported by the Danish photojournalist and social reformer Jacob A. Riis in 1889. For the past 130 years, Riis Settlement has been offering services and supports to at-risk and underprivileged children, youth, families, older adults, and immigrants, first on the Lower East Side and, since 1950 in Western Queens. We are headquartered in the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in North America.
How has the COVID-19 crisis changed the way Riis Settlement works to help the communities of Western Queens?
Christopher Hanway: For the first few weeks of the crisis, Riis Settlement switched from primarily working in person with our communities to working remotely, via phone and electronically. While this does not allow us the same in-person connection which is the hallmark of Settlement House work, it does highlight the Settlement House tradition of adapting to the needs of our friends and neighbors in the service of those with whom we work. Examples of this include our new virtual senior center, over-the-phone case management and case assistance, helping children and their families with remote learning, and online English language classes for immigrants.
Now that we are in a new phase, we are in the field distributing and delivering food to homebound seniors and other community members, as well as masks and other needed supplies.
What compels you to keep going and finding new ways to help your community through this crisis?
Christopher Hanway: The desire to make our communities stronger, working with our neighbors… not doing things FOR or TO them, but WITH them. A desire to address the deep racial and socio-economic inequities that have disproportionately affected our communities and not to lose the momentum and progress we have all made together.
In a time where everyone is encouraged to isolate themselves from home, your organization reaches out to the most vulnerable. What are the most critical challenges facing your organization and community in navigating this crisis?
Christopher Hanway: In addition to the loss of the in-person touch I mentioned earlier, there are challenges among our constituents with internet connectivity, lack of needed technology, lack of knowledge or deep discomfort with using technology, overcrowded households and different priorities in the face of the conflict.
How has the community responded to your initiatives?
Christopher Hanway: With gratitude but also with a deep sense of cooperation and commitment. Volunteers from the community have been a big part of our relief efforts.
What is your best advice to other people who want to help their communities in the time of COVID-19?
Christopher Hanway: Go for it- there is great need and you will feel a deep sense of community for doing so.
Sofus Goldschmidt Pedersen is the Politics, Culture and Public Diplomacy intern at Denmark In New York.