190th Discussion Series

Throughout 2021, Rising Ground commemorated 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 organized a virtual discussion series in partnership with Trinity Church Wall Street, site of the original Leake & Watts Orphan House and longtime partner. See video of these discussions 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.


On December 8, we held our third discussion commemorating our 190th Anniversary with a look at the financing of child welfare, human services, and nonprofit organizations and the evolution from our founding in 1831 to today. Rising Ground CEO Alan Mucatel joined Doug Bauer of the Clark Foundation, Michael Brown of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, Natasha Lifton of Trinity Church Wall Street, and Gregory Witkowski of Columbia University. This discussion built on our past discussions (see above) and explore the philanthropic, social, and government histories of financing programs for the welfare of children, families, and vulnerable populations.

Moved by the rise in urban poverty and the reduction of public welfare aid in the 1820s, the Leake and Watts Orphan House was founded by Westchester County Judge and former Congressman John Watts, Jr., with the bequest of his friend John George Leake, a wealthy New York lawyer who passed away without any heirs. At the forefront of the social responsibility movement— the Orphan House was one of the first private charitable institutions in the country dedicated to children in need.

Like many organizations founded at this time, it was the good will and philanthropic ambitions of wealthy benefactors and the benevolent mission of religious, ethnic, and community organizations that made the earliest endeavors into child welfare and what we today call human services possible. Much has changed in nearly two centuries, however. Unique to the United States, the welfare of children, families, the poor, and other vulnerable populations has been folded into a complex system of financing, regulation, and social programming that combines financing from the government, foundations, individual donors, and corporate philanthropic efforts. 

Doug BauerDoug Bauer is Executive Director of The Clark Foundation, which focuses on helping individuals lead independent and productive lives and supports nonprofits and programs in New York City and Cooperstown, NY. He is also executive director of The Scriven and Fernleigh Foundations and Senior Vice President of The Clark Estates, Inc. Bauer has previously served as a Senior Vice President with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA); Vice President at Goldman, Sachs and Co.; President of the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund; Director of Community Partnership at SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline); Executive Director of the SmithKline Beecham Foundation; a Program Officer for Culture at the Pew Charitable Trusts; and manager the Scott Paper Company Foundation.

Bauer’s opinions and ideas on philanthropy have been featured in the AP, Bloomberg, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Contribute, The Financial Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post, The Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Wall Street Journal and on NPR, PBS, and CNBC. Doug co-authored, with Steven Godeke, Philanthropy’s New Passing Gear: Mission Related Investing. He serves on boards of The Melalucca Foundation, National Council of Nonprofits, Partners for Health Foundation and The Rockefeller Institute of Government, and co-chairs Philanthropy New York’s public policy committee. He is also a member of the Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia Business School. Bauer is a graduate of Michigan State University and holds a M.S. from Penn and a M.J. from Temple University.


Michael BrownMichael Brown is head of research at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, a center at the Wharton School of Business focused on the role of business and capital markets in driving social and environmental good. Michael completed a PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago in 2019 with research on the history of social welfare provision in the United States. His dissertation explored the causes and consequences of innovations in 20th century nonprofit human service organizations, including the rise of fee-charging, the growing popularity of outcome evaluation, and the decentralization of financial federations.

Prior, Gibbs was Commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services and held senior positions with the Administration for Children’s Services and the Office of Management and Budget. She is co-author of the 2021 book, “How Ten Global Cities Take on Homelessness”, published by University of California Press.


Natasha LiftonNatasha Lifton is Director of Government Relations at Trinity Church Wall Street. Natasha has extensive experience across program development and management, philanthropy, fundraising, public policy, research, advocacy, and government relations. Prior to joining Trinity Church, she served as Senior Program Officer for Human Services at the New York Community Trust, Director of Public-Private Partnerships at the New York City Housing Authority, Senior Vice President at Seedco, and Director of Early Childhood Initiatives at the United Way of NYC.


Gregory WitkowskiGregory R. Witkowski is a Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Nonprofit Management at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies and affiliate faculty at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. He is the series editor of the Georgetown University Press Series “Philanthropy, Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organizations,” which publishes books for scholars and practitioners. Before joining the faculty at Columbia, he helped found the first school dedicated to the study of philanthropy at Indiana University, where he was associate professor and director of graduate programs.

His current research is on the role of philanthropy and nonprofit organizations in the relief, recovery and reconstruction of New York City after the 9/11 attacks. This singular American event transformed how we respond to disasters, teaching nonprofit leaders valuable lessons on how to work more efficiently, effectively, collaboratively and creatively to affect a greater positive impact. As nonprofits are once again on the front lines providing for social needs in a pandemic, this book will also indicate the long-tail of recovery and how disasters continue to impact individuals for years after the triggering event.

Witkowski has authored or edited three books: The Campaign State, German Philanthropy in Transatlantic Perspective, and the forthcoming Hoosier Philanthropy. His research focuses on both local interactions where the majority of philanthropic gifts go and on transnational giving, which add the complication of cross-cultural exchange. He has published and been quoted in national publications including The New York Times, The Hill, The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Associated Press, as well as the Houston Chronicle and the Seattle Times. He was selected as a Fulbright Scholar and a Young Leader by the American Swiss Foundation.

190th Sponsor _ Mutual Of America
190th Discussion Sponsor Alliant 190th Discussion Sponsor Atlantic Tomorrow's Office
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.