1975 – Neighborhood College Program

Neighborhood College Program

Neighborhood College Program Photograph by Janie Eisenberg

‘The women made it clear that they did not want to be viewed simply as recipients of services and subsidies. They felt they had valuable experience and skills to offer from having provided services informally and managed a variety of community activities with little funding or support. They felt that planners did not understand the relationship of housing to neighborhood living patterns. They wanted to be included in the planning process and trained in skills like management, architecture, engineering, urban planning, finance, and construction. They also wanted training in management (preparing budgets, keeping records, writing proposals, raising funds) as well as household repairs and maintenance. They wanted training and employment opportunities to be located in their neighborhoods, so they could combine these activities with raising their families.’

NCNW Training Sourcebook, 1993

‘During the 70’s, the women’s movement, the economic pressure, and the rapid changes regarding traditions and values forced most women in the United States to re-examine themselves and the institutions they were a part of. The National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW) emerged because a group of women- largely poor and working class- whose roots are based on the family and the neighborhood, needed a forum to express their issues. Out of this need grew many ideas that led to the development of institutions shaped by and for low and moderate-income women. These institutions were different from those shaped by the more popularly known women’s organizations in that they did not pull women “up” and out of the family and neighborhood. In fact they not only assisted in recycling the women’s role, but they improved the women’s functioning in both.

One of the earliest programs developed by NCNW was a neighborhood-based college program which was co-sponsored in 1975 by NCNW and La Guardia Community College. Perhaps education was first because it is perceived by disenfranchised people as the one institution that allows them access to the “greater society”. Because NCNW believes that the only way to reach poor and working-class women is by offering clear, concrete solutions to their problems and personal support systems, the college takes on a new meaning.

It was apparent from the beginning that a new model of education was needed. The university system as it now exists has done little to reach poor and working-class women. This is true pragmatically, financially and in terms of accessibility. The story of the development of the neighborhood college and the sharing of the process is being developed so that other women can start neighborhood colleges and have a chance to write their own stories. This article lays out the beginnings and rationale for the college. Any-one wanting to begin a program can call NCNW for help.

The Beginnings

In the spring of 1974, an important meeting took place in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint neighborhood located in Brooklyn, New York. For the first time, the women of the neighborhood attended a “women only” meeting precisely for the purpose of discussing their own needs. They were active women, used to taking care of the community like they took care of their homes and families. However, of late they felt their needs were all too often last. As was usual, this evening was no different. They talked of starting youth programs, beautifying parks, etc. but finally with the help of an organizer, they also talked about feeling that with the growing complexity of today’s problems, they weren’t as effective at solving them as they used to be. They began to speak- at first hesitantly- then later quite vociferously- about how they would like the opportunity to learn more. They felt cut off from the world of formal education- it was something for others, not themselves. In the beginning, they talked of sewing and cooking classes, dress design and driver’s education (of course, only a few drove a car). Later on they spoke of public speaking, more effective ways to organize and how to write proposals. Finally, someone mentioned college credits. No one thought it a possibility. Colleges with their credits were too far away, both physically and psychologically. The women felt that they were too old or that they wouldn’t fit in. They felt their husbands wouldn’t like it. Their kids would laugh and they couldn’t pass after so many years out of school. And besides, they thought that they weren’t smart enough- after all, they were just “housewives’. Yet if they were allowed to dream, they would have their own college right in their neighborhood, not in some remote place, far away from their community. They could walk to class and they wouldn’t be made to feel dumb, out of place or old. Well, three years later, 38 out of the original 50 students graduated from their neighborhood college with an A.A. degree. What an impact this has made on themselves, their families and their communities. The college functioned not only as a place for learning, but also as a support mechanism so they could examine themselves, their families and their community in an environment free of fear.’


The National Congress of Neighborhood Women, College Model
By Jan Peterson


The Neighborhood Women College program later incorporated African-American and Hispanic women from Williamsburg-Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The women attending the program as well as the NCNW staff were able to choose the faculty, based on the belief that they should respect the ethnic diversity and heritage of the women. The curriculum was developed in collaboration between NCNW, students and faculty. By 1980, the NW college program model had been replicated in six other locations which included the neighborhoods of Bushwick and Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, NY, and in Rochester, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Goals of the College Program

  1. Upgrade the self-image of working class women by developing their potential talents and changing their status both in the family and in the neighborhood.
  2. Enable the women to act as agents of change in their communities by providing them with technical assistance and an understanding of today’s urban possibilities and problems. They will then be able to use their leadership to develop their communities and carry out projects.
  3. To help their communities get a fair share of economic resources and educational, community, and cultural services.

Criteria through which these goals can be met through course content and teaching methods:

  1. Course material should be community oriented.
  2. Studies should be interdisciplinary.
  3. Content should be selected with sensitivity toward students’ gender, ethnicity and class.
  4. Cooperation and collective effort stressed.

Comments are closed.