A Different Kind of American Dreamin'
I remember a couple of months ago when I quit my job and decided to do the US Trek, I was excitedly telling my family about my new job. My uncle looked at me like I was crazy and smirked, "So, you had a job that paid and now you have a job that doesn't, interesting choice." I didn't see it that way at all. Instead, I saw the opportunity of a lifetime. I was being given a job that would be paying me in so many ways: new experiences, traveling the country, teaching kids about history, and wow, I would be a writer! The money thing just wasn't an issue. To my family, my choice to quit my job may have seemed strange, and in 1965, it probably seemed even stranger. During Lyndon Johnson's administration, organizations like Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) were opening doors to people just like me, who believed that service work offered so much more than a high paying, corporate job ever would.
During the 1950s, America was enjoying its post WWII prosperity that made it the wealthiest nation in the world. But by the 60s, it was obvious that America's wealth was not distributed equally. In fact, millions of Americans were living below the poverty level. Couldn't the government distribute our nation's resources in an equitable way, or at least so that people were not living in poverty? When President Johnson was elected, he hoped to answer that question. At the head of his domestic agenda was his "War on Poverty" in the U.S. In 1964, he signed the Economic Opportunities Act which provided the support for programs like Headstart and VISTA, and both of these programs still exist today. VISTA became an organized outlet for Americans to make a difference in the county's battle against poverty.
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VISTA was created to help people to improve the conditions of their own lives. By helping people to help themselves, it strives to be more than just a handout. Volunteers are placed in low-income communities and work with communities on the issues they choose. Healthcare, education and hunger are just a few of the issues that are addressed by VISTA sites. Volunteers live and work full time in a low-income community. They are paid a small stipend, which allows them to live at the same level of the community in which they are placed. Hard work, little pay. Why would anyone want to be a VISTA volunteer??
I know why I volunteer for The US Trek (also hard work, and no salary), and I wanted to find out first hand why VISTA volunteers would make a similar choice. I talked to some current volunteers and some alumni and asked them share their experiences. What is it that makes people want to be a VISTA? In 1969, just a few years after VISTA began, Dan Blumenthal, a young student just finishing medical school decided to postpone his residency and instead spend a year of his life serving for VISTA. He was the only doctor to be volunteering at the time, and since then there have only been a handful more. Blumenthal knew he wanted to serve his country, but he didn't believe in supporting the Vietnam War. So instead of going into the Army, he joined VISTA, which allowed him to stay out of Vietnam. He was placed in a tiny town in Lee County, Arkansas. He and his partners went through a six-week training course, learning about rural life, culture, and "Southern ways." Even with this training, he still had some culture shock.
Remember, this was right after the Civil Rights Movement and institutionalized segregation was supposedly illegal. Much of the country was moving forward to give minorities their rights. But when Blumenthal arrived to Arkansas, he found a very different picture: separate schools, segregated movie theaters, and a white government that worked hard to maintain the status quo. He also found immense poverty among both the black and white community. Blumenthal says that year changed his life forever. "It opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn't know about."
When he began, the town had no clinic, so Blumenthal made house calls to the rural families. "It was an amazing experience," he remembered. "I treated people living in tarpaper shacks, in the middle of fields along dirt roads, with not enough to eat. I began to really understand why poor people are sick." He and the other VISTA's also helped the community build a clinic. But whites in the community saw the VISTA volunteers as a group of liberals who were coming in to "rock the boat" and the volunteers had difficulty at first even finding someone to rent them a space to house their project. Once open though, the cooperatively run clinic gave impoverished citizens the opportunity to be in charge their own institution. For once, they were no longer at the mercy of the white establishment. This definitely empowered the local people. According to Blumenthal, this empowerment led them to begin demanding their Civil Rights as well. It spurred the town's movement towards desegregation. Eventually things changed so much that African-Americans were getting elected to office. Now when Blumenthal visits his old VISTA site he notes, the clinic is still up and running and the majority of the town's government is African-American. The legacy of his work is still alive today.
Nowadays, you can find VISTA volunteers all over the country. I wanted to see first hand how VISTA's were doing it. I headed out to two schools where they are helping to run DC Reads, a program that helps kids learn to read. I spoke with Shanika Hickman who is in charge of 25 volunteers who help out over 50 students. Of course she talked about how much she loved to see the development of her students. But when I asked her how VISTA has changed her life, she gave me a high pitched, "Oooooooh! You have no idea! It kinda helped me to be more outgoing, participating in my community. It's a big responsibility to the kids and to the community." When her three years of volunteering are up, she plans to become a teacher. She will receive a fellowship from VISTA that will help her to pay for her own schooling. So although VISTA does not provide a large salary to her now, it will help her achieve her goals for the future. And she gets to help kids and be involved in her community. For Shanika, that's a worthwhile trade off.
Over thirty years ago, Johnson's War on Poverty was intended to eradicate poverty in our nation. If we look at America today, it is true that poverty still exists. Johnson's goal of distributing wealth evenly among America's citizens has not truly been realized. Blumenthal believes that even with programs like VISTA, poverty will never be completely gone from our society, but does think that that poverty can be reduced. Gary Van Deurse, another VISTA alumni, believes that "the issues are so big, you need to value the small successes." Both alumni agree that these kinds of programs need to be higher up on the domestic agenda to keep them running.
Funding is always an issue with service-oriented organizations, and VISTA is no different. Although Johnson's staff created VISTA, he did not provide continued funding for it. As the Vietnam War waged on, less and less money came into the organization. During the 1980s, President Reagan's administration cut funding for VISTA and it took private, grassroots organizations to keep it alive. Fortunately, both President Bush and President Clinton have supported the program. Now VISTA is a part of Americorps where it has consistently received stable funding. VISTA has had almost 140,000 members since 1965 and currently has 6000 volunteers, the highest number since its beginnings. With the support of the government and the people power of its volunteers, VISTA began a tradition of work in service that continues today.
Give up the big house, a fancy car, and the opportunity for a fat raise? I did it and my belief continues to grow that there are greater things in life than things. I thank the movement in the 60s and programs like VISTA for opening up the door to full time service work. They paved the way for non-profits like The Odyssey to exist and helped to redefine the American dream. No amount of money could replace the satisfaction I get out of everyday of the trek. And when it's all over, that is exactly what I will tell my uncle!
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Links to Other Dispatches
Rebecca - Laying down the law of the land
Neda - Teaching democracy through the barrel of a gun
Stephanie - Working for peace is a fulltime job
Stephen - It's not a race. It's your life!
Rebecca - America's royal family