Jane Addams’ Relevance in the 21st Century

by Paul C. Pribbenow

The following are excerpts from, “Jane Addams in China [Or, What does a long-ago American woman have to do with international social welfare in the 21st century?],” a paper by Paul C. Pribbenow, President of Augsburg College and Minnesota Campus Compact board chair, delivered to a conference on International Social Welfare East and West in Zhuhai, China on July 2, 2009.

The life and work of Jane Addams is inextricably bound up with the settlement house commitments to living with and meeting the needs of neighbors, and then linking those commitments to broader social policy and practice initiatives.  I want to contend that both Addams’ civic biography and the principles of her work at Hull-House are more relevant than ever to the social welfare needs of the world in the 21st century.  And they are relevant because they are grounded in the real, everyday lives of the neighbors whose needs are the primary object of social welfare systems, policies and practices.  I’m convinced that we’ve left the work of meeting the needs of vulnerable strangers to a system that has lost its “soul.”  I want to argue, along with Michael Ignatieff, that we need a new vision for imagining how we meet the needs of strangers – no matter where we find them – and that this vision must address the fundamental issue of what responsibility we have for each other in the world.1

Four key questions  offer a framework for exploring the relevance of Jane Addams for 21st century social welfare in both the East and the West: (a)  What is the “social ethic” that grounds your work with neighbors, i.e., what is the normative statement of what we owe each other and why? (b) How do you engage your neighbors to know who they are, to listen to what they need, and to base a response to their needs on this genuine engagement? (c) What are the organizational and systemic structures that allow us to be pragmatic – nimble, innovative, concrete – in our responses, honoring the needs of our neighbors rather than our own needs to build agencies or pursue the comfortable work? And, (d) In what ways does our social welfare work recognize that local and global are inextricably bound together – that we learn in our rich and immediate context lessons that are relevant for neighbors around the world?

This commitment to genuine engagement with neighbors is the basis upon which the settlement house went about its work, and suggests a stance that is at once humble – i.e., admits our own biases and privileges – and respectful – i.e., authentically open to the perspectives and experiences of others.  Humility and respect set the foundation for transforming human relations – in neighborhoods and around the globe.

In the community around our college in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA), our neighbors are African, from Somalia and Ethiopia.  As immigrants, they are just like the Greeks and Italians and Bohemians that surrounded Hull-House in Chicago in the 1890s – looking for a better life in a new land, but also wanting to maintain their cultural practices and traditions in this alien context.  Our college – like our settlement brothers and sisters – is involved daily in engaging our neighbors as they worship, celebrate cultural traditions and holidays, and seek to maintain ties to their home countries.  At the same time, we are engaging those same neighbors in the civic work of keeping our neighborhood safe, participating in the political process, and supporting economic development.  Jane Addams and the settlement house movement offer us all a way to honor this intersection of the local and the global in the 21st century.

________________________
1 Ignatieff, Michael. The Needs of Strangers. New York: Picador USA, 2001. Originally published in 1984.

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