We have spent 18 months at Pembroke House, studying the history of the movement of which it is part, looking in more depth at developments in the last decade, and going deeper still into activities that shine a light on the future of the organisation. All of this was in service of understanding the relevance of Pembroke House to contemporary social issues, to make a proposal for a 21 Century Settlement.

At the same time this is both a lot of work, and hardly any at all. It would be folly to imagine that we can set down here a template that will be followed by the leaders and constituents of Pembroke House. A reasonably aspiration might be to give cause for reflection, to spark a discussion that will shape what comes next for Pembroke House, and maybe for others joining the movement.

We have sifted a lot of material and data, but our conclusion is intentionally slim. We set out nine dimensions that frame the 21st Century Settlement.

One dimension that sits behind the others:

Humility: A settlement is built on a sense of humility. Somebody — a warden, a resident — comes from outside to live in a community he or she hardly understands. He or she comes to learn, to grow as a person. He or she must approach this task with humility.

Four dimensions at the core:

Place. A settlement is located in a place, in a community defined by its citizens, that has meaning to its citizens. A 21st Century settlement exerts its influence by changing the context around the individual, often without any direct contact, and always leaving agency intact. Each citizen decides on how to live their life. (We come back to this below).

The place served by Pembroke House has evolved. For the greater part of its history it has been the streets around the settlement building, streets that are home to hundreds of people, not thousands. Recent conversations with funders have led a broadening of geographical spread to two wards, North Walworth and Faraday, with a combined population of 25,000. More conversations, more interest from funders and the boundary lines have widened further, taking in Burgess Park and a slither of land to the West of Walworth Road, adding 15,000 to the catchment population.

Can Pembroke House or other settlements reach a broader population? The answer to this question lies in the answer to three more questions:

  • Is the catchment area meaningful to most of the people who live in that place?
  • Is the settlement known, and does it have meaning for most of the people who live in that place?
  • Does the mechanism of change described above — with its emphasis on changing context not individuals and respecting the agency of the citizen — hold?

Space. A settlement is centred on a building, generally speaking a building with religious iconography, or at least one that demands reflection about meta-ethics (see below). This space is different from others in the place it serves. It may have a chapel, but it is not a church. It may offer community centre type activities, but it is not a community centre.

These distinctions are clear from the affordances of the space — from the way it makes us feel, the way it changes our behaviour — and from the reverence invested by the community in the building. Pembroke House carries meaning in Walworth, just as Pembroke College carries meaning in Cambridge. These affordances, internal and external, do a lot of the work of changing the context around people implicit in discussion about place above.

In the last 18 months, Pembroke House has acquired a second space, All Saints Hall, known as the Walworth Living Room. There may be the potential to locate activities in other spaces in Walworth. Diversity brings with it opportunities and challenges. The Living Room has freed Pembroke House and its partners from the constraints, practical and historical, imposed by the main building on Tatum Street. It has, by design, created new affordances, new invitations for citizens to engage with their community. Will rivalries and tensions emerge between the spaces? Inevitably so.

Residents. Settlements invite into their community people from outside of that community. The outsiders come to live, to reside, for one or two years. They come not to serve the community but to learn from it. The residents, the settlers, the incomers learn and grow by sitting at the feet of the citizen.

As described above, humility runs through all of these ideas, but it is most evident in the sensibility of the resident. She does not know the community into which she is introduced. She has to find out. She depends on local citizens to find out.

The incomer nonetheless disrupts the community from which she learns, by asking questions, reflecting on answers or connecting competing ideas.

Residents at Pembroke House have mostly been drawn from Pembroke College Cambridge, and in recent years from other Oxbridge Colleges. They have lived in the resident’s house adjacent to the settlement house. There may be benefits in diversifying the pool of residents, in terms of background, age, education, and outlook.

Religion and meta-ethics. Settlements and missions are rooted in the Christian faith. Today, a settlement like most public institutions talks in terms of ‘all faiths and none’. But it deals with the major ethical challenges of life, of how citizens get along with each other, of what it means to be virtuous, or vicious, of how benefits for some undermine others in a community, of how to build, and maintain trust, of consensus, of the relationship between state, civil society and citizen.....

The visible signs of religion, the cross and other iconography in the settlement house and the warden’s dog collar create a context for reflection that extends beyond Christianity and religion. The objective is a continuing and broadening conversation about ethics.

Two dimensions of the relationship with community:

Agency of the citizen: The 21st Century settlement leaves agency in the hands of the citizen, it does not seek to fix citizen’s problems, it never creates a dependency. The settlement does not offer services, or act as the agent of public systems looking for third sector funnels to suck in referrals. Citizens come to the settlement, use its resources, participate in its activities of their own free will. If there was a better alternative, they would take it.

A connector of resources: The 21st Century settlement is an honest broker, connecting citizens, informal groups of citizens, civil society organisations and public systems. If the settlement tries to do everything it will alienate other organisations and activists serving the community.

Two design and learning dimensions:

The final two dimensions are evident in some but not all of what we have seen at Pembroke House, and in inconsistent ways in the history of the movement as a whole.

Precision: The settlement movement has a tradition of thoughtful, reflective and detailed planning of activities. The settlements are strategic about the micro, of how people get into a building, where they sit, how they will interact, what they will go away with .…

Method-C describes how Pembroke House does this for repetitive events, that is those most vulnerable to automatic responses that deny learning. This approach is exemplified in learning from the Walworth Living Room (see Welearn 27); Sonia Kneepken’s analysis of the lunch club (Welearn 26) and Frances Foley’s reflection on the street party (Welearn 25).

Learning: Jane Addams used words like experiment. There is frequent reference in the longer history to the ignorance of those coming to settlements, of the need to find out, of the value of trying out ideas, of being unafraid to fail, and to use the learning to improve.

Historically, the learning from settlements was applied to broad social policy, the creation of the welfare state for example, or the creation of the social work profession in the United States, or community nursing.

In the future, there may be opportunities to inform local policy, helping public systems and civil society organisations to better understand how people lead a life without significant support from services, learning how to boost connection and reduce isolation, and measuring these changes on human health and development.

What’s the Point?

What holds these dimensions together? What is the point of the settlement in the 21st Century? The point of a settlement is to connect. To create contexts that bring together people who may not otherwise meet, and create an opportunity for them to discuss matters they may not have otherwise discussed.

There is by now a strong body of evidence showing how connection can exert its influence on well-being, opening up the mind to new possibilities, encouraging or recovering a sense of agency, disrupting maladaptive social networks and forming supportive networks.

On this basis, the benefit of a settlement might be measured in terms of what are called relational outcomes — connection, trust, a sense of belonging and social capital — and not the individual outcomes — e.g. better mental health, a greater resistance to stress — that follow.

If this analysis is correct, the work of a 21st Century settlement fits firmly with the idea of a relational social policy.

What It Isn’t

To have any utility, these dimensions have to indicate what a 21Century settlement rejects. The analysis might lead settlement folk to decide that they are not:

  • Focused on issues, mental health, obesity, school exclusion that pre-occupy funders and commissioners
  • A service provider
  • Chasing funds to be service delivery agent, or to do the bidding of a public system
  • A peripatetic provider, operating out of geography or space
  • Employer of traditional third sector employee, people trained to know the answers
  • Fixing the problems of individuals
  • Advocating for a cause
  • Delivering outcomes for individuals
  • Competing for funds with other organisations serving the same place.