Nairobi There’s no way to tell the founding story of building ACORN or even my experiences with the National Welfare Rights Organization before that without offering some thanks to the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program and the leg up it gave fledgling organizing efforts in staffing or providing “slots” that might pay organizers working with lower income communities. Getting ready to visit ACORN organizers in England, I often tell them how much Prime Minister David Cameron’s “community organizer” program, now in its final stages, reminds me of the way we used VISTAs back in the day. Whatever happened to VISTA and their huge potential and capacity?
Who knew, like a tree falling unheard in the forest, VISTA this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary since its 1965 founding. VISTA for many years has been a component of the AmeriCorps bureaucracy and according to their website they are holding a number of quiet conferences around the USA this year to celebrate their 50 years. They tout the fact that the anniversary is an opportunity to “move the anti-poverty mission forward,” but even as my heart skipped when there was a button on the site to sign up as “an Organizer,” they were simply looking for people to put together more anniversary events around the country.
In all of the conversation, debate, and dialogue about increasing the equity in the country and narrowing the gap between the rich and poor, there is never a mention of VISTA, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps or any of that bunch. These programs are all distant shadows of a long forgotten past that speaks to an idealism or perhaps a naiveté, though a sincere one, that is definitely a relic of another time and century, when leaders called on people to make a difference in lower income communities and for a while may have even meant it, and largely young people from all walks of life and many unformed, but deep, convictions responded in huge number. This was not a Teach for America populated from the Ivy League and elite colleges, but a melting pot of many who wanted to make a difference and hoped their year or two would teach them how. I remember the crew I repurposed to help build ACORN from Milwaukee and Stevens-Point, Wisconsin, Terrell, Texas, Rochester, New York, small town, Connecticut, and Corpus Christi, Texas. These were not places that inspired what the singer Lorde calls “postal code envy.” They were just people, largely young women actually, who wanted to make a difference. ACORN and NWRO were lucky, because we ended up recruiting the ones with fire in their bellies who weren’t willing to simply put Band-Aids on the problems of the poor, but were committed to organizing and empowering them.
What happened to that VISTA?
Now to survive more polarized politics and cynical acceptance of poverty in the midst of wealth, VISTA assignments for the program that is left, where they are able to maintain sponsors, are all in service projects doing surveys, tax services, weatherization, and generally helping out without ruffling any feathers or rocking any boats. It’s a smaller, quieter program, more a footnote than a force.
I wonder in these celebrations how they reconcile what they wanted to be and sometimes were with what they have become? I wonder if they talk about a vision for the 21st century that channels the idealism of the mid-1960s when they began?
I remember when they made a difference, so I guess for now, I’ll have to thank them and settle for that.