A Labor, then Love

In 1894, Labor Day became an official federal holiday.

The year before a different kind of labor inspired a 26-year-old nurse to become one of the most important social reformers the country has ever known.

Lillian Wald was teaching a homemaking class on the Lower East Side when a little girl burst in begging for someone to help her dying mother.  She had struggled in labor before giving birth but was now badly hemorrhaging blood. The doctor had abandoned her because she could pay him. As Wald rushed through the Lower East Side tenements towards the woman’s squalid apartment, she was shocked by the conditions she saw – calling it “a baptism by fire.”

From that moment on she committed herself to a life of service. She was an early pioneer of the settlement movement – which believed that in order to best respond to the needs of a community you needed to physically root yourself there or settle. 

This would allow you to understand their needs and challenges “not just as reformers but as neighbors.” That’s precisely what she did, moving into the neighborhood and founding the Henry Street Settlement.

Here are a few of the social innovations she helped found or spread: public playgrounds, school nurses, free student lunches, immigrant services, ESL, special education, visiting nurse services, housing regulations, children labor laws and public arts programs.

In addition, she joined or led movements that helped promote rights for immigrants, women and African-Americans.

While doing all of this, she was described as being “overwhelmingly joyous.”  This is a common trait among those David Brooks now calls weavers – “someone who finds meaning and joy in connection and caring for others.”

The organization she started continues to innovate and operate today. Since her death in 1940, they’ve created model programs in the areas of day care, credit unions, senior centers, women’s shelters, transitional housing, college prep, HIV/Aids support, mental health services, public theatre and on and on and on.

Among the many instructive things about this organization is that all of this was accomplished without a formal “strategic plan” – which according to the organization’s website, they did not develop until 2006. 

This is an important lesson that shows what you can accomplish when you are truly proximate and connected to those you serve. More time doing and evolving than talking and planning.  

If you’re looking for way to honor the spirit of Labor Day, then please watch this beautifully done short video about the life of Lillian Wald and the Henry Street Settlement. Or if you’re only going to click on one link – try this one where you can donate to help Henry Street continue their important work today.

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