The First Gathering of VISTAs at the White House – 45 Years Ago Today

This past week my friend Rich lent me a copy of a book called Warriors for the Poor by William Crook and Ross Thomas, published in 1968, which tells the story of one of our first national service corps, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America).

Inspired by the Peace Corps as a way to improve the lives of people in poverty here at home, and initiated several decades after the Civilian Conservation Corps (a public works corps during the Depression years), the VISTA experiment had its share of champions and doubters.

Some doubters didn’t believe U.S. citizens would sign up — but as the numbers of applicants rose throughout the 60s, those doubts were forgotten. Other doubters worried that the corps would be marketed as a glossy panacea to all a community’s woes, and that it would duplicate volunteer efforts on the ground, and that it would unnecessarily bypass a state’s government for approval.

In 1963, still under the Kennedy administration, the first legislation that would have created a National Service Corps or a Domestic Peace Corps barely passed in the Senate, and died in the House Rules Committee.

But in 1964 it finally passed as part of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, as a volunteer corps that would help to tackle poverty at the grassroots level, and at the invitation of local communities with the approval of state governors. Last night I read that the first group of VISTAs was received at the White House on Dec. 12, 1964 — exactly 45 years ago today.

Today VISTA is one branch of the AmeriCorps network of service corps overseen by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Many of the early fears about the program have been put aside (or put to rest through thoughtful legislative compromises).

I haven’t finished many chapters of Warriors for the Poor yet, but already I am struck by some of the stark differences between a VISTA assignment today, and a VISTA assignment back then.

Differences:

  • There was no Education Award (that wouldn’t be established till the Clinton administration and the creation of AmeriCorps), but one enticement to serve was that you could get a draft deferment.
  • VISTAs had to write letters — well, type letters, presumably — like on typewriters. And lick stamps. I occasionally sent real letters and paper newsletters as a VISTA Leader (in 2004-05), but the stamps had their own adhesive, and I used a computer.
  • One of the primary original arguments for the establishment of a national service corps was to offer direct service to people in critical need — today VISTAs primarily focus on indirect service, building the capacity of organizations that serve people in critical need.
  • VISTAs were allowed to take part in “lawful and nonpolitical demonstrations” — today VISTAs and other AmeriCorps members are prohibited from taking part in protests (et cetera), and other activities.

Similarities:

  • Sustainability has always been a cornerstone of the vision of VISTA — VISTAs were recruited to create projects and networks that could eventually take on a life of their own, that wouldn’t require the assistance of a VISTA long-term. That is still a mantra of VISTAs serving throughout the United States today.
  • Catalyzing local volunteers has been woven into the fabric of VISTA since it started. A major argument for funding all AmeriCorps programs now is that AmeriCorps members leverage hours and hours of community volunteer contributions in the areas where they serve.
  • Then, as now, VISTAs have to prove themselves, and to earn the hard-won respect of the communities where they serve.

I’m excited to read more about the early history of VISTA.

Simultaneously I am reading through the past 13 of so years of writings by national service members who served here in the Pacific Northwest and have submitted essays and stories to our Northwest National Service Symposium through the years. The stories are inspiring and I hope to find a way to share the writings of VISTAs throughout the coming year, the 45th anniversary of the program.

Are you a former VISTA? When did you serve? What did you do during your year of service? If you are on Facebook, become a fan of the new VISTA Alumni page.

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