VISTA @ 50: My Reflections and Hopes for the Future

By Emma Olson, PSEI VISTA Leader

In thinking about why I joined AmeriCorps VISTA, and why I specifically picked the PSEI VISTA program, I catch myself reflecting more about why, so many years after its founding, we still need VISTAs within our communities.

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of VISTA, or Volunteers in Service to America, a program first imagined by President John F. Kennedy and made real by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 as part of his ‘War on Poverty’. The first VISTAs began their service in January of 1965. Since then, more than 190,000 VISTAs have served, building the capacity of their host organizations and making meaningful change within their communities. While the PSEI VISTA story only begins in 2011, such capacity and such change can be seen already.

In the 2014-15 cohort, my first year as a VISTA, our cohort created and completed 41 new projects for our sites. These range from redesigning the website at HIRED, to developing racial equity benchmarking workshops at Goodwill Easter Seals, to working on an in-depth evaluation project at RESOURCE.

What is often not mentioned is how much you can gain through VISTA. This past year, we were provided with over 100 hours of professional development through biweekly cohort meetings. We received even more through the $400 professional development budget we are given (a unique feature in a VISTA program), as well as the opportunities we sought out ourselves. 14 out of our 16 member cohort transitioned immediately to either a job or grad school. As for myself, I moved into the position of VISTA Leader, where I serve as a support to our VISTAs throughout their year of service. As VISTA Leader, I know our new cohort will also create powerful change at their sites and go on to do great things.

So, since we’ve looked back, let’s look forward a bit. Poverty remains the difficult reality for many in our community. In the Twin Cities, 10.8% of our population live below the poverty level. But not everyone feels this burden equally. 24% of people of color in the Twin Cities live in poverty. Minneapolis was recently ranked the third worst city in the nation for people of African descent. Oppressive differences exist throughout the Twin Cities; differences in education, income, police relations, and the list –  unfortunately – goes on. But, through VISTA, we are slowly chipping away at systems which keep many of our communities in poverty and under oppression. Our goal is not to eliminate poverty through a year (or two) of service. Rather, it is to join a much broader movement to do so.

As a born and bred Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent, I was always taught not to be prideful. But that changes when I speak about the work I have done and the work I am doing as a PSEI VISTA. I cannot explain to you the pride I feel when I talk about the work our cohort is doing, the great things our alums continue to do, and the depth of gratitude I feel for this experience. Happy 50th anniversary!

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