In 1887, a Denver woman, a priest, two ministers and a rabbi got together. It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but they didn't walk into a bar; what they did was recognize the need to work together in their community in new ways, in order to make it a better place.
This was a time of economic and social disruption. With the onset of industrialization, people flocked from rural settings to the urban factories springing up, leaving behind their traditional safety nets. With these migration patterns came new challenges in cities such as Denver. What happens to a factory worker injured on the jo, or someone aging out of work? What happens to orphaned children? As charities responded to these needs, we can imagine the challenges of coordination, communication and transparency in the late 19th century.
Frances Wisebart Jacobs, the Rev. Myron Reed, Monsignor William J. O’Ryan, Dean H. Martyn Hart and Rabbi William S. Friedman convened this conversation in Denver and put together an idea that in time became United Way. The idea was simply that in each community an organization is needed to identify the needs of the vulnerable, mobilize the resources to fund relief efforts and refer clients to cooperating agencies. Local business leaders supported the effort, seeing the advantages of having a single organization soliciting funds and distributing them to address the growing social needs.
Bloomingtonians replicated this idea locally In 1906, with the formation of the Council of Social Agencies, which in time added a fundraising focus and incorporated in 1956 as the Monroe County United Fund. In 1974, we took on the United Way name, meeting the national standards for bearing it and affirming our mission to “address critical needs today while reducing those needs tomorrow”.
Those critical needs certainly change with time, don’t they? Some, perhaps, because we targeted resources and developed a sustainable infrastructure to address them. At times, the critical needs were specific to different vulnerable populations — our eldest, our youngest, our neighbors living with physical or developmental challenges or those struggling with addiction. And at times, the focus has been on the efficiency of the system. There have been other evolutions in the United Way model, as well. My hope is to weave that informative context into more issue-based pieces in the months to come.
The issues and the need to assess and address them together as a community are why we are still here. Every few years we conduct a data-driven assessment of our community’s needs and then convene the discussions regarding solutions and prioritization. Our Board of Directors, under the leadership of Dr. David Johnson and Dr. Kirsten Gronberg, has spent the past few months engaged in gathering data and listening. We also launched a monthly speakers series, “Wake Up! With United Way," to allow us to dive deeper into topics.
There is encouraging news and not-so-encouraging news, as usual. There are national-level trends which demand our attention locally — a growing number of us challenged by rising costs of living (housing, childcare, and transportation) while wages remain stagnant; the associated housing insecurity and homelessness; unmet mental health needs; and a substance use epidemic continuing to devastate individuals and families.
It is hard to not draw some parallels between these times and the late 19th century, as once again we are in the midst of social and economic disruption. Clearly, these challenges will require us to collectively think in new ways. Thus, I turn to the same playbook and invite everyone to come together to discuss, coordinate, and help solve today’s problems. Will you please join this conversation?
Executive director of United Way of Monroe County
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