Our History

Our Annual Reports reflect recent history, from 1996 to the present. The story of our inception, on through to the 1990's, is told in "Around the World in 80 Days". Please find excerpts of this publication below, organized by decade.

Since the founding of the first International Institute in New York City in 1910, International Institutes around the country have demonstrated a strong and consistent commitment to protect the rights of immigrants and refugees who come to our communities to build new lives.

Year:   1918 - 1929   |   30 - 39   |   40 - 49   |   50 - 59   |   60 - 69   |   70 - 79   |   80 - 89   |   1990 - 1999

Our first decade

In the first two decades of this century, more than 14.5 million people immigrated to the United States. In California, in 1910, 52% of the population consisted of immigrants or children of immigrants. In San Francisco , close to three out of every four residents, or 72% of the population, was immigrants and their children. Around the country, Field Offices of the YWCA reported that a need existed for specialized services and activities for recently arrived, non-English speaking immigrant women and girls, who found themselves alone in a new country without the skills and resources they needed to survive.

The idea of service centers for nationality groups was developed by the YWCA, and International Institutes were born. By 1918, nineteen International Institutes had opened their doors, primarily in the industrializing Northeast. In California, an International Institute opened in Los Angeles in 1914. War broke out in Europe that year. As it spread, the German Ambassador to Mexico proposed in a cable that Mexico attack the United States, with Germany's support. Germany offered to give California back to Mexico if the attack was successful. World War I seemed quite a bit closer to home.

San Francisco's need for an International Institute grew as a result of events that followed the United States' entry into the War. Suddenly, a state of national emergency existed. Barriers of language, culture, and social class fell as Americans mobilized to fight. Recent immigrants were enlisting in the military in large numbers, leaving wives and sisters and children at home, to face additional and often unfamiliar responsibilities.

The U.S. Army in The Great War was made up of men born in 35 different countries. Italians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Austro-Hungarians, Spaniards, Chinese, and Mexicans, among others, enlisted. 65,000 recruits could not speak English when they signed up.

With two thirds of the men in the country's traditional labor force suddenly involved in war-related industries, it was estimated that 8,000,000 new workers would have to be trained to maintain American industry and meet the challenges of the war effort. Non- essential industries were curtailed, and women were welcomed in huge numbers into jobs that had previously been performed only by men. Records of this time applaud "the dexterity of their delicate fingers" as women assembled airplanes and battleships.

The YWCA, as well as Jewish Immigrant work societies, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, worked at the time to provide immigrant women and their families with the skills necessary to become fully participating citizens. Volunteer groups of community leaders in major cities formed "Americanization Committees, which had the mission of encouraging every able-bodied American to go to work. The YWCA organized War Work Councils to coordinate and plan for the welfare and training of women and girls who were taking on employment responsibilities while adjusting to life without the support of their men. As projects of the YWCA, International Institutes assumed the planning and services task for immigrant populations. President Woodrow Wilson wrote to express his appreciation for the Work Councils' efforts.

In October of 1918, one month before the Armistice that ended the war, the first staff meeting of The International Institute of San Francisco was convened. Workers fluent in eleven languages were present. An annual budget of $20,000, raised by the YWCA's Pacific Coast Field Office, would support the activities of the staff in field offices in Greek, Russian, and Chinese communities, as well as the costs of renting the central office at 1812 Washington Street, for $50 per month.

By February of 1919, when an Inaugural Reception was held, members of Russian, Greek, Chinese, Spanish, Armenian, Swedish, French, Scottish, Japanese, Czech, and Yugoslavian communities in San Francisco joined in celebrating the new agency. In its first year of operation, the International Institute served 12,000 people.

Across the country, over 4,000,000 men were being "mustered out" of the military, given $60 and told to go home. Women were released from their war-time employment. The forceful mobilization that produced our war-time economy turned around to focus on the challenges of a productive peace. Families were disrupted, traditional roles often difficult to re-assume. Immigrant families, who had barely set foot on this country's soil when their men were encouraged to enlist in the military, had to cope with the added adjustments that the times required.

Within four years, the International Institute outgrew its offices, and moved to larger quarters at 1860 Washington Street. English classes, group work, employment services, and social support activities filled the new building with the sounds of people learning about life in San Francisco, in different languages.

In 1925, International Institute executives from around the country convened in Niagara Falls, New York, for a national meeting. Fifty-five International Institutes now existed, in most major industrial cities across the land. Discussions at the meeting resulted in a four-year process of examining and evaluating the relationship that existed between International Institutes and the YWCA. The Institutes' executives expressed concern that the YWCA's methods and mission were difficult to adapt to the needs of foreign-born peoples. Experience had taught workers in the new field of immigrant services of the great importance of family unity and cultural traditions to newcomers. Workers staffing International Institute programs believed that cultural traditions could not be honored without the inclusion of men and boys in International Institute programs.

Immigrants were also less and less likely to be Protestants, and the YWCA as an organization had an investment in furthering Protestant beliefs. The United States at this time had an overwhelming Protestant majority. Catholics and Jews saw barriers that had excluded them fall, as a result of the emergencies of the War, for the first time.

At the same time, it was the YWCAs, nation-wide, who had encouraged and supported the development of special assistance programs for immigrants. The YWCA had raised the money that supported the Institute's programs, provided office space, opened doors. International Institutes, though emerging with their own vision of their purpose and their constituency, were deeply indebted to the well-intentioned and consistently supportive leaders of the YWCA.

The group met again in 1926 in Milwaukee, in 1927 in Des Moines. A preliminary report on the issue was circulated. The report expressed the frustration of many International Institutes, who were aware that the needs of their client populations posed a challenge to traditional YWCA practices. The report was inconsistent, however, with some Institutes participating actively and others not at all. It was agreed that a protocol for assessing the concerns of each Institute equally would be completed in the following year.

In 1928 the conference was held in Pocono, Pennsylvania; in 1929, in San Francisco. By 1930, all the studies had been completed. It became clear that the interests of the immigrant populations would be best served by the emergence of International Institutes from the organization that founded, nurtured, and helped to establish them. Edith Terry Bremer, who had founded the International Institute movement as head of the YWCA's Department of Immigration and Foreign Communities, would leave the YWCA in 1933 to become the head of the National Institute of Immigrant Welfare, the umbrella organization for International Institutes around the country.

In San Francisco, the Twenties roared. The economy was booming as new technologies developed during wartime were modified for eager and suddenly affluent consumers. Immigration had dropped off considerably during the War, and would not return to the average of 900,000 people per year who arrived in the first fifteen years of this century.

By 1926, word had spread in the local Russian community of opportunities that might prove lucrative in a new industry. Russian immigrants moved to Southern California in large numbers to learn the motion picture business.

This year, the International Institute became part of the University of California Social Work School's Fieldwork Training Program. In eight years, the fledgling field of social work services for foreign-born peoples had become a recognized specialization for university-trained social workers.

As the International Institute's first decade came to an end, with its emergence as an autonomous organization clearly impending, the first sounds of a new national debate began to be heard. How much, if any, of their own culture and language should immigrants be encouraged to relinquish in their efforts to "become American"? What could be done to preserve and protect the parts of a national identity that strengthen an immigrant group? If any debate can be synthesized into one word , the word was "Americanization."

Year:   1918 - 1929   |   30 - 39   |   40 - 49   |   50 - 59   |   60 - 69   |   70 - 79   |   80 - 89   |   1990 - 1999