Blog Action Day! Combat Poverty as an AmeriCorps*VISTA

As part of Blog Action Day, we are writing about poverty. For us, the choice of what to say is easy enough — VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) has been the anti-poverty service corps since the Lyndon Johnson administration in the mid-60s.

Launched as part of Johnson’s War on Poverty, and influenced by the structure of Peace Corps, VISTAs have worked in a range of ways over the years, called on to tackle the root causes of poverty.

Over 170,000 VISTAs have served since 1965, and VISTAs were instrumental in launching and developing well-known programs such as Head Start, Upward Bound, and even the credit union.

In the 90’s VISTA became a branch of Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program, so it’s called AmeriCorps*VISTA now.

This is from the promotional booklet VISTA: In Service to America (PDF):

[VISTAs] have established health clinics, neighborhood watches, and computer training programs. They have formed many of our nation’s literacy programs, along with Upward Bound, Head Start programs, and adult education initiatives. Parents who want to work or to develop a skill can send their children to after-school clubs, athletics, and day care centers run by VISTA members. VISTA service has led to urban renewal programs and neighborhood beautification. Most importantly, many programs established by VISTA members continue long after they complete their service.

What makes VISTA different from other service corps?

Indirect service. AmeriCorps*VISTA service is indirect service, meaning that VISTAs are limited in the number of hours they are funded to work directly with clients. (You won’t often see VISTAs tutoring children, though they may very well run the tutoring program. You won’t see them building trails, though they may recruit the volunteers who do, or find the funding for the equipment the volunteers need.)

Capacity building. AmeriCorps*VISTA projects are spelled out clearly in work plans, and must expand the ability of the organization or agency to meet its mission and serve its clients. An example might be building a volunteer program structure at a drug treatment center, or securing grants that will extend the school lunch program through the summer in apartment complexes where families with low incomes live.

Sustainability. AmeriCorps*VISTA projects are usually 1-3 years in length (and can be run by a different VISTA each year, each VISTA building on the achievements of the person before). By the end of the third year, the project should be made sustainable in some way — through, for example, finding renewable revenue streams, or training organizational staff to maintain the program.

Anti-poverty. The AmeriCorps*VISTA project must be a proactive intervention into the cycle of poverty, with an aim to end it by tackling poverty’s root causes.

But what are the root causes of poverty?

According to Project Homeless Connect, they are:

  1. A family history of poverty. People born poor are most at risk of staying that way due to a range of issues like poor self esteem, abuse, and lowered emphasis on education.
  2. Chronic poverty which may include physical and mental disabilities without adequate health care, that make it impossible to work. Substance abuse. Elderly people who can no longer support themselves.
  3. Limited economic opportunity like high unemployment rates and few job prospects. Most common in rural  areas and where employers are paying only minimum wage.
  4. Lack of educational opportunities that are offered where and when needed, and that help people make the connection to a career.
  5. Racial and cultural isolation and discrimination that create barriers to self-sufficiency.
  6. Family chaos and strife, including divorce, parenting solo, and parents who deprive each other and their children of love and support, who are abusive, who abandon their children, who don’t bond with their young children.
  7. Limited social capital like “trust, good will, fellowship, social interactions, and community involvement.” Low awareness among people with low incomes about how to engage governmental institutions.
  8. Communities lacking an awareness of poverty so that solutions can be found.
  9. Catastrophic life events, especially when a family is already on the edge of poverty.

Would you add any others to this list?

And we’ll let the Corporation take us out, with this t.v. ad about VISTA:

Read more about Blog Action Day, and listen and call-in to BlogTalkRadio which is hosting a special live radio show from 9 am to 9 pm PST (Portland) time on Wednesday, October 15.

Read these Blog Action Day posts regarding poverty and other service corps:

Ode Magazine’s Reader Blog – Laura Portalupi reminisces about poverty and Peace Corps South Africa

Indiana VISTA Blog – Jenna reflects on confronting poverty as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member

Career Tip, Document Your Service!

Saving facts and artifacts to share with hiring managers and grad admissions

Among the most important things you can do during your term of service is to keep records of your accomplishments now to share later, during job and admissions applications.

By “records” I mean everything from numbers to writing samples to screen shots of web sites you helped design to photographs of you or your clients in action.

The Facts of Your Service: Numbers

At the very least, keep track of your numbers. What the numbers are will depend on your type of service. Hours of training is a common one.

If you are a teacher, tutor, after-school coordinator, or trainer, keep track of numbers of students or participants; increase in grades and test scores from baseline assessments at the start of year; number of classroom volunteers you recruited and managed, etc.

If you are a project developer, keep track of dollars you raised, community partnerships you developed, clients your program served, meetings you facilitated, volunteers you recruited and managed, etc.

A great way to measure the impact of your service is not only to count your direct clients, but also the indirect clients of your service. Two examples: if you are an AmeriCorps member working with adult learners of English, look at the help you’ve offered the adults, as well as the benefit to their children, and the community. If you are an AmeriCorps*VISTA developing a volunteer program, count your volunteers, as well as the impact of their service.

When you are ready to transition, use at least some of the numbers in your resume and in anecdotes about the impact of your work! Numbers help a hiring manager or admissions committee put your resume into context and understand the impact of your work.

(See these chapters from the Guide to Nonprofit Careers about preparing your resume and for the job interview.)

The Artifacts of Your Service: Portfolios

One way to present the artifacts of your service is to create a portfolio — similar to a professional scrapbook — of your service term, with sections for each skill set you have built or employed.

The portfolio can start off with your position description and/or work plan, your resume, your Description of Service (for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers), constructive performance evaluations, letters of recommendation, workshop evaluations, and thank-you notes or emails that describe the impact of your service from colleagues, community partners, and others.

Skill sets to include may be anything from trail and house building to grant writing, event planning, curricula development and teaching, program development, volunteer management, etc.

Mini-portfolios to leave behind

Rather than taking the whole portfolio to interviews with you, you can photocopy relevant sections and leave them behind at the interview, for the hiring manager or admissions counselor to look at in their own time.

I don’t recommend offering more than a few samples of your work, but I do recommend you wait till you are prompted to offer recommendation letters or reference contacts.

Online portfolios

Alternately, you can create an online portfolio like Beth Kanter — the guru of social media use for nonprofits — has done, through a tool like Wikispaces (public spaces are free). Include the link on your resume and cover letters with the rest of your contact information.

Online portfolios are especially useful if you’ve used multimedia to document your service. Linking to your audio or video podcast on iTunes or Youtube is easier if your portfolio is already online.

And a warning: Keep in mind that if you have designed web pages or developed web content, capturing the image of the web page through a screen shot is still the best route for documentation. Linking to the web pages is too risky. Once you have left your service site, you won’t know if your web pages will be updated, if links will have gone sour, or if your pages will have come down altogether. Because you have no control over the pages after you are gone, it’s best to preserve them visually through a screen shot rather than linking to them.

Writing samples

Writing samples are great to include in your portfolio.  A common question I get is what to use when you are asked for professional writing samples.

Depending on  your position this year, you should have a chance to collect a variety of these. Anything professional you’ve written should work — from grant proposals, brochures and newsletters, formal emails or letters, project descriptions, focus group or survey summary reports, web content, press releases, etc.

If you are in a direct-service role with few opportunities to write, try to create a reason to write tied to your service like a narrative summary of your service or a specific service project.

Hang on to your documentation

The problem many service corps alumni face is that they’ve saved all these documents on the computer at their old service site, and now that they are finished, can’t access them easily to share during the job or school search.

Save yourself the heartache by emailing documents and photographs to your personal email account, or backing them up on a thumb drive. You can also use online tools like Google Docs and Flickr to access documents and photos later on.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can request a photocopy of their Document of Service from Peace Corps, to be sent to them directly or to their hiring manager or graduate admissions office. (Peace Corps keeps your DOS for 60 years.)

Other reasons to document

Documenting your service is not just useful for your next steps. Keeping good records helps during your term with grant writing and reporting, monthly reporting for AmeriCorps*VISTAs, communicating with your supervisor, preparing for your mid-term or end-of-service performance evaluations, and creating public relations materials for your program.

This blog post has been adapted from a section of the forthcoming Service Corps Companion to the Guide to Nonprofit Careers, due out this coming spring from