Good fences make good neighbors, some say, but if a school of social work is moving into town, the set of expectations might be a little different.
Hunter College’s School of Social Work is nearly a full semester into its residency in East Harlem, and Dean Jacqueline Mondros hopes to establish a reputation as “great neighbors.”
“I would like it to be said that we came into this neighborhood in a respectful way as collaborative partners and that we helped them to make this neighborhood stronger,” said Mondros.
Although the school is not hiding in its mansion – a $135 million state-of-the-art building on Third Avenue between 118th and 119th streets –- it is still figuring out its public face.
Through a field placement program mandatory for all 1,100 students, the recently renamed Lois V. and Samuel J. Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College does have over 100 students interning at East Harlem-based organizations, twice the amount from last year, and the administration plans to increase the number.
Still, the true impact of those agencies, not to mention their interns, is tough to quantify, and the Hunter-East Harlem relationship engenders mixed feelings.
The school has “done a lot to make it seem like it’s reaching out to the community, but I don’t know,” said Master of Social Work student Will Engelhardt. “Most people feel like Hunter hasn’t done much.”
Student Cynthia Rodriguez, whose field placement concerns Hunter’s community outreach, said that while the administration is clearly committed to East Harlem, the school’s plan of action is “vague” and “ambiguous.”
Nevertheless, Hunter is not merely standing idly by, and three other MSW students are now playing a somewhat unofficial role in examining the Hunter-East Harlem relationship and offering suggestions to shape that plan.
“What feedback we’re trying to give them is really what’s going on in relation to how they think they’re doing and how they’re really doing in the community,” said Meredith Marin, who is working with Gabby Macklin and Breiny Scheinert.
The trio is currently researching an assignment on “exploring community needs.” As the only group covering East Harlem, their project “has a particular relevance that extends beyond just an assignment,” Marin said.
Their exercise in community assessment, which has video and print components, has been turning heads. According to Marin, both State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez and Mondros have personally asked for copies.
When the school announced several years ago that it was moving uptown from East 79th Street – a decision triggered by financial implications and the desire to improve its physical space – Hunter realized that it was thrusting itself into an already roiling discussion of gentrification and social responsibility.
Unsurprisingly, public officials have said all the right things.
Former New York Gov. David Paterson said that the move would give the school “the opportunity to engage with a vibrant, diverse and growing population in need of the vast array of services Hunter offers.”
State Sen. Jose M. Serrano echoed those sentiments: “Having their main facility in East Harlem will be a great addition to the neighborhood. The services they offer will undoubtedly bring much-needed resources into our community.”
Hunter, at least rhetorically, has also taken on the challenge of becoming an agent for “positive social change,” in the words of longtime professor Terry Mizrahi.
On the school’s website, Hunter touts the “unparalleled opportunity for the School to ‘live its mission’” to “seek and encourage social work talent for and from the least advantaged.” In East Harlem, where almost half the residents don’t graduate from high school and the unemployment rate is around 17 percent, the school has found a neighborhood with real need.
Although the facility itself inspires passers-by to slow down and peer curiously into the large glass windows, Hunter’s presence is not widely recognized. “I had noticed it one day, but I didn’t really know it was there,” said Laura Dara, who lives just a few blocks away.
Yet Marin has discovered that “Hunter’s done a lot more so far for the community than people really know about.”
For one, the school has opened its doors for public events. Hunter hosted a youth summit last summer, and Mondros, who was recently honored by an East Harlem consortium of human service agencies, said that in January the school plans to hold a “community meeting so we have community people telling us what they would like to see us do.”
Marin and Mondros stress that the school is not charting a course without input from East Harlem. “They’re focusing on partnerships a lot. That’s been a really primary theme,” said Marin. “They’re very vigilant about working with what’s already here in the community.”
Even so, there are questions whether Hunter can make a significant difference in East Harlem without its students truly embedding into the neighborhood. “There are almost no students that live in East Harlem,” said Marin, and Queens-based Cynthia Rodriguez admitted that they were “in and out of the 116th Street subway stop.”
Local business owners also said they haven’t seen much benefit from the addition of Hunter. “Same for my business,” said Peter Dei, the owner of a 99-cent store across the street. “No change. No different. All the same.” And Faris Ali, who works at nearby Super Delicious Deli Food Inc. said that his rent increased when construction of the school began, but business was only starting to improve.
Another point of contention is the response of East Harlemites to Hunter’s aspirations. Until Hunter proves itself, residents may view the school with a wary eye. “The residents are kind of jaded. They’re kind of like, ‘Oh yeah? What’re you going to do for us?’” said Marin.
Next week Hunter will at least answer that question for 100 East Harlem children, as the school is donating 100 books in support of primary education. That’s just one way Hunter is trying to become a great neighbor.