Come to the Table

—Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier

Although Thanksgiving feels and looks different this year, the holiday reminds us of the power of coming to the table to share a meal, conversation, thoughts, and ideas. When nurse and social reformer Lillian Wald founded Henry Street Settlement in 1893, she used this power to forge change on the impoverished, immigrant Lower East Side.

Wald dubbed the large dining room table at the Settlement’s 265 Henry Street headquarters the “family table” to convey the belief that we are all connected, all part of one human family. She invited to it people from all walks of life to debate and forge solutions to the seemingly intractable issues of the day: poverty, inequality, bigotry. Many accepted her invitation, from tailors who toiled in crowded sweatshops to union leaders who fought against 14-hour workdays. Wald’s guests included none other than the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, then the city’s police commissioner; Jacob Riis, who exposed the depths of the city’s poverty with his 1890 bestseller How the Other Half Lives; Russian revolutionary Catherine Breshkovsky; social reformer and peace activist Jane Addams; sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois; and many more.

The dining room at Henry Street Settlement, today. Courtesy of Henry Street Settlement

Henry Street’s dining table became a hub for social justice and a connector, animated by the belief that neighbors and their challenges mattered; that we all have, as Wald put it, “mutual obligations.” In a divided 2020, we can find inspiration in Wald’s concept of a social contract and the fact that it continues to guide Henry Street Settlement today. The front door of 265 Henry Street is still welcoming. The dining room table is still a place where the Settlement gathers to plan responses to the deep needs of its neighbors. In these desperate times—whether Henry Street is organizing a food pantry to relieve hunger, helping jobseekers find employment, or making calls to housebound seniors who are isolated and alone—the table must serve as a metaphor for the ways in which connections are being made across the community.

As Wald reflected upon her retirement in 1933, she wrote that “people rise and fall together.” Today, Henry Street president and CEO David Garza talks about the power of coming to the table to forge connections because, as he puts it, “The richness of the human experience comes from our relationship to others.” This Thanksgiving, we can all raise a glass to that.

The House on Henry StreetEllen M. Snyder-Grenier is a national-award-winning curator and writer, and principal of REW & Co. She has directed research projects, developed physical and digital exhibitions, and written on the history of New York City—as well the urban centers of Newark and Philadelphia—with a focus on social justice. The author of an award-winning history of Brooklyn, Snyder-Grenier is a Fellow of the New York Academy of History. Her new book The House on Henry Street: The Enduring Life of a Lower East Side Settlement is now available from NYU Press. 

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