Tag Archives: VISTA

Fifty Years Later, Whatever Happened to VISTA?

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 10.19.27 AMNairobi   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.



Visiting with the Old Hands: Sue Hanna Marquess and Melva Harmon

Quick reunion with veterans of ACORN's early years when they were VISTA volunteers working as ACORN organizers, Melva Harmon and Sue Hanna Marquess, in Little Rock at Community Bakery.

Quick reunion with veterans of ACORN’s early years when they were VISTA volunteers working as ACORN organizers, Melva Harmon and Sue Hanna Marquess, in Little Rock at Community Bakery.

New Orleans     For a couple hours it was a stroll down memory lane, first with lawyers from legal services in Arkansas where I had poached some of my first support from the idealistic and committed VISTA and Reginald Heber Smith lawyers there, and then with two of the VISTA women I had repurposed to work for welfare rights and ACORN in 1970, Sue Hanna and Melva Harmon. Appropriately, we met at Joe Fox and Lia Lent’s Community Bakery in Little Rock, since both of them had been ACORN veterans from several years later in the 1970s.

Sue and Melva were kicks!  I was about 15 minutes late, having dealt with a family problem before running in late, but Sue sharply quipped that it didn’t matter, it “wasn’t a staff meeting” after all, needling me about my perpetual pestering about starting every staff meeting punctually at 8 PM on Wednesdays back in the day.  We reminisced about the old crew.  Where was Carolyn Carr, who had worked with me for nigh on 37 years at ACORN?  Best we knew she had retired to San Diego where one of her kids had kids.  They were in pursuit, no one having heard from her in recent years.  How about Donna Parciak?  There we had all struck out, even failing to find her over the years with the help of Google. Last we knew she had returned to Connecticut where she was from.  Mary Jo Kitchen who had come a little later was still in touch with Sue and had gone back to Johnstown, New York, but her brother, Billy, who knows…it had been a long time.  Kaye Jaeger was an RN in Syracuse now.  Fred Dorsey, who had been one of the first men to stick for a while, best we knew had passed away though I had met his daughter in New Orleans after Katrina.  How about Steve Kest, who had worked one summer when they were there and came back later for several decades?  Yes, he had been lost, but now found, but his brother, Jon, too soon gone.  It went like this so long that we had to start reminding ourselves to stop talking about people dying too soon!  Names, people, laughter, and old stories spewed out of us like lava from the volcano of our memories.

And, Melva?  Well, Melva had gone to law school after her ACORN time and was still practicing though not at quite the same feverish pace.  She had been counsel to the Teamsters local in Arkansas for almost 30 years, and a labor lawyer for longer than that.  She still handled arbitrations, some EEOC work in north Louisiana, and this and that with the labor movement, or as she said of unions, “I’ve been with them this long time, so I’m sticking with them to the end.”  Turned out she had been married again and spent more than 25 years with a labor lawyer in Little Rock who I had also talked to from time to time for advice on this, that, and the other, but he had also passed away.  She was from Terrell, Texas, and might someday move closer to Dallas, but for no good reason probably.  One of her sisters had taught Jamie Foxx in school there.

And, Sue?  Sue was still a rolling stone.  She had been a couple of years older than us in our very early 20’s then and before VISTA and ACORN, a dental hygienist.  Now she bounced between New York, where she hailed from Rochester, and Florida where a lot of her family lived now, and even Little Rock where coincidentally she now had a cousin. She quipped that when she showed up at their door, “family can’t say no.” She had spent 13-years in a collective in Hartford that had been an amazing experience she had loved.  She had done several years with the Catholic Workers somewhere else.  She had been to Cuba with MADRE. She had been asked in recent years if she still believed in ACORN and had answered sharply, “Why wouldn’t I?”

These were the women warriors of their generation, full of idealism as they straddled the changing times between their mothers’ worlds and the brave new worlds of women and work that feminism had brought in.  My small insight had been understanding in 1970 and afterwards that change had come and more was coming, and all of these women were huge untapped resources, filled with anger and dreams, and ready to work to see something different happen.


War on the Workers by Anne Feeney