The best thing that ever happened to me was not getting into Peace Corps in 1973. If I had been accepted, I probably would not have served in VISTA, not become the director of a VISTA project, and not found my current post overseeing VISTA and Senior Corps projects in Wisconsin.
For 30 years VISTA has permeated many aspects of my life, changing me in the process. Over the years I have been a VISTA, recruited VISTAs, trained VISTAs and supervised VISTAs. I even wrote my Master’s thesis on VISTA. I’m still in national service. My title has changed, but my commitment is the same.
In 1975, VISTA was recruiting locally and I applied to a program in my hometown called Milwaukee Associates in Urban Development. M.A.U.D., as it was known, assigned me to a community organizing project called Milwaukee Alliance of Concerned Citizens, or MACC. I guess we were really into acronyms even then. The Milwaukee Alliance of Concerned Citizens was an Alinsky-style organization, which means that it took a political activist approach to community organizing. Trainers from the Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization founded by Saul Alinsky and dedicated to supporting community organizing, would come up from Chicago to train us in how to organize people to act for social change.
There were about 40 of us at my pre-service orientation to VISTA, all from the Milwaukee area. In those days you got fingerprinted when you joined VISTA, an intimidating thought when embarking on a career as a social activist. But it was VISTA’s 10th Anniversary and everyone thought that was pretty remarkable. We all received a little gold commemorative pin with the VISTA logo, which I still have. A number of the other VISTA trainees are still friends and colleagues.
My VISTA assignment at Milwaukee Alliance of Concerned Citizens was to provide research on crime statistics and city and county law enforcement budget data for the Older Adult Crime and Safety Committee. I also trained the seniors on doing their own research, writing press releases, talking to the media, and we role played testifying at government hearings. As a shy kid, I frankly thought this would be the ideal job—just sit in a back room and compile data. I’d been a research assistant for one of my professors in college, so this would be a cinch. Much to my chagrin, I soon became the lead organizer of the Older Adult Crime and Safety Committee, but it changed my life forever.
I’m not sure we reduced crime much during the year I was a VISTA, but I learned a lot and met some really wonderful people. Working with older adults is a joy. They always want you to stay and visit, and they always want to feed you! I especially remember Sister Margaret Shekelton, who was the chair of the committee. She was a fierce advocate for justice, but with a gentle dignity that won over our opponents. Whenever we met, it was always over tea.
As Alinsky-style organizers, we had been trained that the organizers are not out front as leaders or spokespersons. Our job was to empower others to leadership roles. This and other lessons have continued to guide my work in community service over the years. Several of the women on the committee, who had been pretty shy about testifying or talking to reporters, became seasoned pros by the time I left. A few years ago I attended a Retired and Senior Volunteer Program recognition in Milwaukee and discovered that one of the women I had worked with was receiving an award for her 20 plus years of service as a Court Watch volunteer. When I introduced myself she didn’t remember me specifically, but did remember the VISTA project and credited it with getting her started as a court watch volunteer. I tell that story now when I speak to AmeriCorps*VISTAs at trainings and elsewhere to illustrate that it might take more than 20 years for them to realize they made a difference in someone’s life.
Within a year of ending my VISTA service, I was tapped to become a VISTA supervisor with Milwaukee Associates in Urban Development. About a year later I was named executive director of the organization and stayed there for about 15 years. The VISTA program at Milwaukee Associates in Urban Development was a prototype for consortium projects around the country. The organization did most of its own recruiting, placement, training, supervision, and program administration for its VISTA components, acting as a sort of mini state office. Not everyone in ACTION liked the concept, but it worked. My master’s thesis on VISTA used the Milwaukee Associates in Urban Development program as a model. It was later published as "VISTA as Experiential Education," in Experiential Education for Community Development, in 1989.
Nearly every day I run into someone who was a VISTA with that program. They are running community groups, holding elective office, teaching, organizing, and generally making their mark on the world. I am struck by the number of former VISTAs in some type of community service work. Their stories are similar to mine: VISTA changed the direction of their lives. Coming to work at the Corporation for National and Community Service in 1998 was the culmination of my VISTA journey that began in the early 1970s. Becoming the Wisconsin State Director was like coming home. I tell people that this is the job I was meant to have.