190th Discussion Series

Throughout 2021, Rising Ground commemorates the 190th anniversary of the opening of the Leake & Watts Orphan House in lower Manhattan in 1831, the beginning of a rich history that saw the organization evolve from an orphanage to one of New York City’s leading human services organizations. As part of this celebration, we are organizing a discussion series (virtual and potentially live) in partnership with Trinity Church Wall Street, site of the original Leake & Watts Orphan House and longtime partner. Learn more about these discussions and register below!

190 Years of Hope & Opportunity

On April 27, we launched this series of discussions commemorating our 190th Anniversary with a look at the evolution of human services through the lens of New York City’s history. Rising Ground CEO Alan Mucatel joined two experts on New York City history – Dr. Kenneth Jackson of Columbia University and Dr. Daniel Walkowitz of New York University and Dr. Linda Lausell Bryant of New York University, expert on modern-day social work. This inaugural discussion explored the historical landscape of the 19th century that saw the birth of Rising Ground and so many peers, key social shifts of the past 190 years that have shaped our work and the communities we support, and the role of human services today in the fabric of New York City.

The 19th century saw New York City grow rapidly, as the city grew from a bustling port at the southern tip of Manhattan we today would call the “Financial District” upward. Filling those streets were a rapid growth of new arrivals from the Old World. As immigration saw more and more land shifting to urban sprawl, tenements were filled with newcomers, as animals and vermin lined the streets. In a world where disease and poverty ran rampant, homeless and wayward children did too. By 1870, nearly 12% of school-age children were homeless. Community organizations, mostly along the lines of religious or cultural heritage, sought answers to this growing issue. Many orphan asylums opened their doors during this period, seeking to provide shelter to homeless children and get them off the streets, where delinquent behavior and danger were common.

By then, Leake & Watts Orphan House, originally an orphan asylum near the site of Trinity Church Wall Street, had been caring for children – no matter their “creed or nationality,” as stated in our founding documents – for four decades. As the city grew, it relocated to 112th Street near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1843, and on to a 40-acre plot of land along the Hudson River in Yonkers in 1890. Today, that orphan house has evolved into Rising Ground, a leading, multi-facet human services organization with more than 50 programs across New York City and Westchester.  Evolving to meet the needs of the community for 190 years, the history of Rising Ground mirrors that of so many child welfare and human services organizations. The story of Rising Ground is that of New York, its people, and the social trends that have shaped the fabric of this huge and complex city.

Kenneth JacksonKenneth T. Jackson is Director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History at Columbia University, where he has also chaired the department of history. Among his many notable works, he is editor-in-chief of seminal Encyclopedia of New York City, which was initially published in 1995 by Yale University Press. He worked for more than a decade to create the first major reference tool for the metropolis in almost a century. He has curated multiple exhibits and shared his expertise on the urban landscape and myriad of social issues that comprise the fabric of New York City.


Linda Lausell BryantLinda Lausell Bryant, MSW, Ph.D, is Clinical Associate Professor, Master Teacher, and the Katherine & Howard Aibel Executive-in-Residence at the New York University Silver School of Social Work. Her work at NYU Silver focuses on building the leadership capacity of social workers to have a transformative impact on pressing social challenges. Her career spans 35 years in both the nonprofit and public sectors. For 9 years, Dr. Lausell Bryant served as the Executive Director of Inwood House, and her work in government includes serving as associate commissioner for the Office of Youth Development at ACS. Her dissertation study compared perceived social support for college-going between foster care and non-foster care students. She is the co-author of A Guide for Sustaining Conversations on Racism, Identity and Our Mutual Humanity and the soon-to-be published book Social Work: A Time for Reflection and Reckoning.


Daniel WalkowitzDaniel Walkowitz, Emeritus Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis and History at New York University, is a social and cultural historian who has pioneered efforts to bring America’s past to broad general audiences in books, film and video. His 1999 book, Working With Class: Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity (North Carolina University Press) recounts the history of social workers from the nineteenth century to the present with particular focus on public and private sector workers in New York City. His most recent book, The Remembered and Forgotten Jewish World: Jewish Heritage in Europe and the United States (Rutgers, 2018) combines a family history with analyses of heritage tourism in thirteen cities in eight countries.


On June 24, we held our second virtual discussion as part of our ongoing series of discussions commemorating our 190th Anniversary with a look at the relationship between the history of human services and child welfare and communities of color. Rising Ground CEO Alan Mucatel joined Dr. Robyn Brown-Manning, PhD, LMSW, of the Hunter College School of Social Work, Dr. Melba Butler, PhD, LCSW, of Iona College, and Dr. Anne Williams-Isom, J.D., DMin, of the Graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University. Building on our inaugural discussion (see video above), this discussion explored the historic links between human services, child welfare, and communities of color.

When the Leake & Watts Orphan House opened in 1831, it had been just four years since New York, the first state to pass legislation for the total abolition of slavery, had fully emancipated slaves, while slavery was still alive and well throughout the region and nation. This coincides with various waves of immigration from across Europe, explaining the rapid expansion of New York during this time and an influx of orphaned children. As various national, religious, and ethnic groups grew in New York City throughout the 19th Century, there was a broad landscape of distinct communities and biases that shaped the experience of each.

In our founding documents, the Leake & Watts Orphan House declared it would support orphaned children no matter their “creed or nationality.” While a progressive approach to handling various immigrant communities in that time, it would still be a little less than a century later that the institution welcomed its first African-American children, a community that had formed a parallel child welfare system and who brought its own set of social and economic challenges tied to the history of slavery and systems of oppression.

Today, more than 98% of the children, adults, and families we support are “of color.” We support New Yorkers that continue to see the social and economic disparities created by systemic biases. Alongside black communities facing the continuation of diminished socio-economic opportunity, we support various immigrant communities that look different than those of the 1830s. More broadly, the work we do is both shaped by the experience of communities of color and in turn has a lasting impact on these communities.

Robyn Brown-Manning, PhD, LMSW, is a Doctoral Lecturer at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, where she co-chairs and teaches in the MSW Practice Lab. Dr. Brown-Manning is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Iona College, teaching Human Diversity in Social Work. She has previously taught social work classes at The College of New Rochelle and The College of Mt. St. Vincent. Dr. Brown-Manning also consults with many organizations throughout the country, using an empowerment approach to conduct sessions and provide keynote addresses focused on anti-oppression, racial equity, and social justice work; working with African-American families and children; cross-cultural communication; leadership development; team building; and stress and time management. For 17 years, Dr. Brown-Manning worked for New York Foundling in several capacities — foster care worker, Project Coordinator for their teen parenting program, and Director of Parent Education and Director of Training and Development. She also served on the Foundling’s Board for several years. Dr. Brown-Manning has collaborated on several journal articles and book chapters. However, she is most proud of her dissertation “We don’t give birth to thugs; we give birth to children”: The Emotional Journeys of African-American Mothers Raising Sons under American Racism.


Melba ButlerMelba Butler, PhD, LCSW, is Clinical Lecturer at Iona College School of Social Work and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. She has a wealth of experience in executive level non-profit management, policy, program development, and coalition building. For more than sixteen years, she led Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services, the oldest child welfare institution serving African-American children and the subject of her dissertation, “There is Home: A Case Study of the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City”. Butler also served as the first director of Resident Engagement at New York City Housing Authority. In 2006 she launched Butler Consulting, specializing in capacity building, leadership development and project management for not-for profit and governmental organizations. Dr. Butler received her PhD in Social Welfare from the Graduate Center of City University of New York, Master of Science from Columbia University, and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New York State. Butler has served as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Stonybrook School of Social Work and lecturer at York and Brooklyn Colleges.


Anne Williams-IsomAnne Williams-Isom, J.D., DMin, is a nonprofit executive and attorney with more than 25 years of leadership and management experience in large, complex organizations. She currently serves as the James R. Dumpson Chair in Child Welfare Studies at the Graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University. Previously Ms. Williams-Isom served as the Chief Executive Officer for the Harlem Children’s Zone, before which she served for five years as HCZ’s Chief Operating Officer. Prior to joining HCZ, Ms. Williams-Isom worked in leadership at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) for 13 years, concluding her tenure as Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Community and Government Affairs. Ms. Williams-Isom found her calling to help improve the lives of vulnerable children and families when she was still a child herself. Growing up with a single mother in Queens, she witnessed firsthand the many challenges confronting kids in struggling communities. But it was always clear that, with the right support and opportunities—above all, education and a lot of love—all children have the potential to do extraordinary things.

Ms. Williams-Isom earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology from Fordham University. Soon after, she began working in Community Affairs for the New York Police Department in Brooklyn. While working in Brooklyn at the height of community policing in the 1980s fueled her commitment to social justice, it was during her time as a student at Columbia Law School that she fully discovered her passion for advocacy work and came to appreciate the critical role played by communities in finding lasting solutions to social problems. After receiving her J.D., she practiced law for five years at two of New York’s most prestigious firms before joining ACS. Ms. Williams-Isom has been featured in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, Barron’s, Crain’s New York, The Economist, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and Essence, as well as on WABC’s Here and Now and CUNY-TV’s Black America and The Historymakers.


190th Sponsor _ Mutual Of America
190th Discussion Sponsor Alliant 190th Discussion Series Sponsor Lamb 190th Discussion Series Sponsor USI

Learn More

To learn more about our 190th Anniversary activities, please visit www.RisingGround.org/190 or contact H. Aldervan Daly, Executive Vice President for Institutional Advancement at ADaly@RisingGround.org or 212-602-5847.