HFI founder psychoanalyst Stephen A. Kurtz and friend in Mexico

HFI founder psychoanalyst
Stephen Kurtz and friend Max

The Harlem Family Institute's Origins
A Personal Recollection by Founder Stephen Kurtz

Psychoanalyst Stephen Kurtz founded the Institute in 1991, developing it from a therapy service he had created for children and parents at the independent Children’s Storefront school on 129th Street in Harlem in the late 1980s.

The Harlem Family Institute was not even a dream when, one long, sleepy Sunday I read the New York Times from cover-to-cover. In such unfocused states, the mind may open to the unexpected. And there in the section where the health and education ads are found, was one that read: VISIONARY SOCIAL WORKER WANTED.

It had been placed by Ned O’Gorman, headmaster of a little school in Harlem, private but tuition-free. Oh, he’s a poet, I remembered. A school in Harlem headed by a poet and seeking a visionary social worker. All the rest of that day I struggled with myself as if the decision were mine alone. I had the sense that, if I took this route, it would determine a great part of my life and would consume me. I was right. By the end of the day, I knew it was what I had to do.

Ned O'Gorman, head-master of the Children's Storefront Ned O’Gorman, founder and first principal of the Children’s Storefront In the morning I called Ned who, as always, answered the phone himself. “Send me a resumé,” he said. “I don’t have a resumé.” “Then send me anything.” So I composed a letter, talking about myself and what I imagined I might do, and put it together with an article I’d just published in Commonweal and a book I’d written on the social side of architecture. I put it all in an envelope and took a cab up to 129th Street between Madison and Park. I don’t think I’d ever been to Harlem and was afraid. The cab waited as I gave the package to someone on the steps of The Children’s Storefront a teacher, Jake Nunez, as I would later learn. And then went home.

Ned called. I went up and we talked, sitting on the floor of his tiny office. We hit it off instantly and I could start as soon as I might like. I had freed up two days by crowding my other days a bit more. After about ten years in my own practice, I was wanting to work in the community, which is to say, with poor people. I had labored in a mental-health clinic of such a community for about 2½ years while attending a psychoanalytic institute in the evenings.

The people I treated were wonderful, but I could not bear the endless paperwork and the disrespect shown the very ones who worked directly with those in greatest need. One might have saved a client’s life or at least made it more bearable. Never mind. You did not fill in such-and-such a form and that was all that mattered. I was not about to return to that.

The idea was to start a program for the emotional care of the Storefront’s children whose capacity to learn was compromised by the immense problems they faced at home in a community plagued by poverty, crime and addiction. I fixed up a space in the basement with furniture from the Salvation Army; acquired paper, paints and brushes, crayons, hand puppets and toy telephones. I visited the classes and got to know the teachers who soon began sending me the children most obviously in need of attention. They sent me more and more.

The Children's Storefront, where HFI began

At last, all my hours were filled and I was faced with the terrible feeling of turning away a child in unmistakable need. I talked to the chair of the board about expanding the program. Wasn’t that the original idea, after all a program, not just one therapist? Well, no. It was Ned’s idea but the boards conviction was that education alone would make the principal difference and, with an already sizable and still-growing budget, funds could not go in both directions. “Fiscal responsibility,” she said, “lay ultimately with the board.”

Encoded in this formula, I understood, was the reality that those who control the money also control policy. "Well," I answered, "wherever the fiscal responsibility may lie, the personal responsibility for the care of these kids lies with me." I certainly don’t think she expected that answer, but she was not hostile to it. On the contrary.

Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence, worked with Children's Storefront students and became a founder of HFI Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence worked with Children’s Storefront students and became a HFI founding trustee First we explored an alliance with a nearby mental-health center, but for bureaucratic reasons that did not work. Next I looked into the possibility of starting a clinic. It would require a free-standing building with disabled access, representatives of all the mental-health professions, and a host of other requirements. Impossible. Finally, I thought of a training institute. I looked into the requirements and they were not impossible to follow. I proposed this to Ned whose approval he made conditional upon that of Dr. Margaret Morgan Lawrence, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst at Harlem Hospital, to whom he sometimes referred children. Margaret approved.

Elisabeth Radow was the Harlem Family Institute's first presidentThe chair of the Storefront’s board found a lawyer from Battle Fowler, Elisabeth Radow, who did all the legal work pro bono, no small job since incorporating an educational institution is not simple – it must pass through the New York State Board of Regents. A board was gathered, an advisory board and a staff. A brochure was written and printed, along with letterhead. A curriculum was written as well as all the other written statements then required by the Regents. The Harlem Family Institute got the go-ahead in 1991 and we began with three candidates all referred by George Getzel of the Hunter College School of Social Work – Andrea Dixon, Bruce Patterson and Jorge Abreu.

Elisabeth Radow became our first president, and when Andrea Dixon completed her studies and graduated, she became our second president – the first of what I hoped would be a long line of graduate-leaders.

With funds donated by Barbara Eisold, a professional fund-raiser was hired. Our first grant came from the van Ameringen foundation. When Henry van Ameringen came for a site visit he asked, “And what will you do if you don’t receive this grant?” “We’ll continue just the same,” I answered. I was told this was the wrong thing to say but, in fact, we were given what we'd asked for.

After that first year, we were supported generously by foundations and individuals up to the limit of our needs. I taught the whole first year of the incoming class and did some supervising as well. And all the administrative work, from the sort that took thought to buying stamps and making copies. Founders tend to be idealized, but if any deity fits me it is Parvati the Hindu goddess with ten arms! When Andrea graduated in 1994 we held the first of many joyful graduation dinners. It was a celebration of her and of the Institute. We had come of age.

I will end with a hope that I know is the hope of HFI’s leadership: that the Institute move toward becoming the home-base of its graduates, its future administrators and its future staff, and that the very personal connections between all who are involved be intensified. These are what made for such happiness.

At the same time, I recognize that the extreme simplicity with which the Institute began can’t be maintained amid the needs to become accredited and meet new state requirements.

All institutions tend toward complexity, whether imposed from without or developed from within. But there is always a core of simplicity to which we must return again and again and keep within our vision of being a therapeutic resource to meet the needs of disadvantaged children and their families. I am grateful to see that this spirit continues to inform what we do.

  Stephen Kurtz,
  San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
  September 30, 2013