Hasta la VISTA

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Before he started his AmeriCorpsVISTA term at Highbridge Community Life Center, Joe Ryan had never edited a newspaper. But after discovering that two local groups were meeting separately about children killed by vehicles in their Bronx neighborhood, residents decided a paper would be the best way to improve communication. So Ryan gathered publishing software. Then he compiled an editor’s note, an account of “the DOT’s lame excuses,” and a list of numbers for residents to call, and the first issue of Highbridge Horizon went to press in December 1998. Neighbors sent copies to local officials. “Three months later,” Ryan recalls, “we were able to write an article about speed humps being installed on Anderson Avenue.” Today, a Highbridge resident edits the paper; neighbors can go to a journalism “boot camp,” where they learn to write articles.

This is VISTA at its best. Founded in the early 1960s, Volunteers in Service to America was intended to be a domestic Peace Corps. Its goal was eliminating poverty in the U.S. through a mix of “inside leadership and outside skills”–the latter from college students committed to social justice; the former, from residents who understood their communities’ resources and needs. VISTA work consists not of direct service like tutoring or building houses–that’s the stuff of AmeriCorps, its sister program under the Corporation for National Service-but community organizing. Its founders, John F. Kennedy appointees, spoke of “giving poor people back their citizenship” by empowering them to change their communities.

Almost 40 years later, this War on Poverty program is still crucial to low-income communities. While there is no typical VISTA assignment, VISTAs today are still performing, for a stipend of about $9,000 a year, the mix of community organizing and institution-building that Kennedy’s think tanks envisioned. New York currently hosts 60 VISTA sites, with 135 volunteers doing everything from setting up adult literacy programs to teaching people in poor neighborhoods how to become tenant organizers.

At Highbridge, the volunteers are central to the nonprofit’s work. “If we had no VISTAs,” says Highbridge executive director Ed Phalen, “we would lose a certain amount of touch with the community. We’d lose the power to test out programs and see if they have some promise, meet some need. It’s a major link with our community.”

Now, however, that link is increasingly strained. Sweeping management changes have hurt VISTA’s presence in New York. In September 2000, VISTA moved its New York City office to Albany, leaving New York one of the few large cities without a local office; Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco all have them. Regional VISTA directors used to be closely involved in matching up prospective volunteers with suitable organizations; now, organizations have to pore through rudimentary online applications themselves. Together, these changes have made it harder to recruit VISTAs from poor urban neighborhoods.

The city is already paying the price. In 2001, the feds gave New York State enough money to place 200 VISTAs in community organizations–200 “service-years,” to be used for new and returning volunteers.

Normally, New York State fills all its slots, and even takes extras from other states’ allotments, with New York City accounting for 60 percent of the state total. But that year–the year after the move–New York City’s VISTA postings declined for the first time in more than a decade, and New York State fell 23 service-years short as a result.

“I don’t think it was a coincidence that, all of a sudden, in the year that they closed down an office in the largest urban poverty zone in the U.S., they experienced a serious shortfall,” says Bruce Pentland, a former New York state program specialist for VISTA who resigned his position to take a job at the Albany Retarded Citizens Association a year after the move. When VISTA’s state office moved to Albany, “we knew New York would lose projects,” says Pentland, “but it was decided that was an acceptable price to pay.”

Donna Smith, director of the state office, defends the move “for budget reasons,” explaining that rent in the city was too expensive. But when City Limits invited Smith to document the savings, Smith said she would call back-then declined to return several phone calls on the topic. To date, neither state nor national VISTA staff have made any report on how much money the move saved; even requests from Congressman Major Owens, who was furious about the move, failed to yield figures.

Pentland and others involved with the move say it was part of a nationwide mandate to consolidate offices of the different volunteer programs operating under the Corporation for National Service (CNS), including Americorps and VISTA. “It was an expediency issue,” says Pentland. “It made it easier to administer. There was no consideration of the communities we were serving.”

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For Bisi Iderabdullah, executive director of Imani House in Park Slope, VISTA’s mandate to create self-sustaining organizing projects has extended her organization’s capacity beyond anything she could have done alone.

One of Imani House’s programs, which trains neighborhood youth to run HIV prevention workshops, was established entirely through the work of a VISTA. The volunteer scheduled classes and trips, oversaw the workshops, and created certificates for their graduation. Most importantly, she compiled a handbook detailing everything she did so that the project could continue after her term of service was over. “It made me capable of doing this workshop again,” says Iderabdullah. “I never would have been able to do that without her help.”

But while Imani House has a contract for up to six VISTAs, Iderabdullah currently only employs one. Last year, AmeriCorps, which manages VISTA’s recruitment process, eliminated the use of paper applications to the program. All prospective volunteers must now apply online. Under this new system, new applicants are funneled wholesale to directors.

Iderabdullah now has to hunt through hundreds of applications, identify applicants from résumés, and request a particular VISTA. Without time to handle all this, Iderabdullah has only been able to find one who was a good match for her program–a VISTA who was not from the area. “I always had applicants from the community,” she says, “and all of a sudden I don’t.”

Before the city office closed and VISTA moved to electronic applications, Pentland and East Coast VISTA recruiter Donna Palandro acted as matchmakers, interviewing applicants and hooking them up with programs that specifically suited their interests and experience. Pentland personally helped Iderabdullah identify volunteers who were a good match for her program, then dropped by for visits throughout their terms. “He was so close,” sighs Iderabdullah. His office “made people move in my direction.”

Jean Somerfeld, director of the Youth Services Opportunities Project, says the quantity of applicants is no substitute for quality. “Many people who applied online really didn’t understand what they were applying for,” says Somerfeld. Many applicants actually think it’s a regular hourly job.

Palandro, who says the change has been a boon for her office, thinks the problems have been overstated. Though she was initially “worried about the human aspect being lost,” she says she has gotten mostly positive feedback from supervisors.

Not everyone is so dependent on help with recruiting. About one-third of participating organizations do some or all of their recruiting from among people who are already involved in their programs. Many of the VISTAs at the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, for example, are residents in the tenant co-ops that the group helped form.

But Iderabdullah sees a message in the automated application system: “We’re not interested in smaller programs anymore. We’re interested in larger groups who can take more VISTAs.”

Computer applications are also a barrier to the applicants she’s looking for. “It’s a pretty sophisticated system,” she says. “It’s better for middle-class white people from Oklahoma,” Iderabdullah says. “It’s not better for Latina women in Park Slope.”

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Joseph Simmons is a classic example of the “inside skills” credo from VISTA’s founding mission. Homeless when VIP Community Services picked him to be a vocational aide, Simmons interviewed clients, coordinated their internships and led follow-up discussion sessions on topics such as workplace confidentiality. His communication skills, including his writing, improved during his time as a VISTA: “I was able to use my creativity in ways I never thought I could,” he marvels, speaking with pride of a technique he developed of drawing participants into discussion using clips from movies. Still employed at VIP, and confident of his newfound marketable skills, Simmons now lives in a studio apartment.

Yet he ran into some minor snags: When social services insisted on treating his stipend as a paycheck, even after the state VISTA office called to explain that they were obligated by law not to do so. He lost his housing subsidy, his rent fell into arrears, and he had to go to court.

Other low-income VISTAs face similar challenges. Liz Pardo, who recently finished a VISTA term at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, found the child care voucher she received from the program was effectively worthless. “A lot of places don’t want to go through that bureaucracy,” she says. “They’d just like the cash.” In the end, she found someone to take her son for free.

Yolanda Ragland ran into a more serious problem. A mother who wanted to be a community organizer, Ragland signed up for a VISTA term at the Bronx organization Banana Kelly in March 2000. Unfortunately for her, the nonprofit happened to be going through a management meltdown. When Ragland suggested changes to its VISTA program for the benefit of future volunteers, her supervisor refused to sign off on her exit report. “I thought that might have helped change things in the future,” she says. “I was just keeping it real.”

Normally, these would just be bureaucratic irritations, easily solved. When the local office was still in New York, VISTA program specialists could easily make site visits. Since the move, many local supervisors say they have never been visited by a CNS program officer, or have had visits scheduled which then fell through. Many don’t mind-some would prefer not to have administrators hovering over their shoulder. But site visits gave program specialists a chance to talk to volunteers about how their work was going and help them solve problems.

Pardo estimates “75 to 80 percent” of the VISTAs she talked with during training “said very negative things about their assignments. I was one of the few who said anything good.” Most of them didn’t have well-established work plans, which are supposed to be part of a nonprofit’s contract with CNS.

Karen Dahl, who was a VISTA at JumpStart, an educational nonprofit, until early last year, calls her time there “an amazing experience.” But her peers in other programs didn’t feel the same way. “It really depended on the organization you worked with,” she says. “The amount of support we got from AmeriCorps or VISTA was minimal, unless a paycheck went missing,” she says. “You kind of were dropped into your nonprofit, and if you didn’t say anything, you were never heard from again.”

Dahl tried to do something about it. Most cities have an InterCorps Council, a regular meeting of volunteers in VISTA and AmeriCorps, as well as various other volunteer programs under the CNS umbrella. Run by the volunteers themselves, InterCorps Councils provide opportunities for special citywide collaborations, as well as informal time to share information about affordable housing opportunities–no small matter on a sub-poverty stipend-and successful organizing strategies.

So in true VISTA fashion, Dahl and other local volunteers tried to set up an Inter Corps-like program for New York City. They met regularly with a representative from the state office to try to develop better support for local VISTAs. They discussed everything from getting monthly MetroCards to creating a web site. Dahl was excited about the project, but neither VISTA nor AmeriCorps offered much support. In the end, the group of volunteers and supervisors dissolved when the office moved.

Gillian Andrews, a former VISTA, is currently an editorial assistant for the Independent Press Association.