A VISTA’s Host Site Presence

By Daniel Gerdes, Program Associate at the Pohlad Family Foundation

As I begin the second half of my AmeriCorps VISTA term, I’ve come to realize the relatively precarious presence I have at my host site at the Pohlad Family Foundation. Throughout the first half of my service I felt somewhat out of place at a foundation while the rest of my cohort served in nonprofit organizations around the Twin Cities, but I’ve adjusted to this dynamic.

The nature of a VISTA year creates an interesting space in which VISTA members operate. While we are all certainly part of the teams we work with day in and day out, we are essentially short term employees – there to serve on a specific project to build the organizational, administrative, and/or financial capacity of our host sites. As such, VISTA positions can come with perceived or real limitations on a VISTA’s ability to be a full member of the organization.

The perceived limitations I’ve discovered led me to take a step back and hold my tongue in situations where I would normally speak up. While participating in community meetings I didn’t feel confident in my position to speak up, especially while I was representing my organization. “I’m only with the Pohlad Foundation for a year,” I would tell myself. How could I contribute meaningfully if I wasn’t able to follow through with my input after my year of service was over?

I thought of myself more as an assistant; a temp at the Foundation assigned to complete certain projects, wrap them up by the end of my year, and then move on. I continued to operate under these assumptions until a recent performance evaluation with my supervisor. To my great surprise I was having a very meaningful impact on the Foundation and the Youth Advancement Program that I work closely with; so much so that I got some eye-opening feedback during my evaluation.

My supervisor began to notice during community meetings that I was actively engaged with the discussion in the room, but I wasn’t giving my own insight or sharing my opinion on the topics at hand. At first I was taken aback. He wants me to start voicing my opinions in these meetings? I’m only a VISTA, what do I know?

That evening as I rode the train home from work I had an epiphany. I’m not only a VISTA. There’s a reason the Pohlad Foundation chose me to serve in their organization. They saw my knowledge, skills, and abilities aligning well with their programs and mission and they valued my perspective.

This epiphany has given new meaning to the second half of my VISTA year. Instead of looking at my one year service term as a limitation on my ability to provide meaningful insight to community discussion, I’m going to actively provide my perspective and input whenever and wherever possible. I’m in a position to provide a unique perspective both within and outside the Pohlad Foundation that I may never have again.

Armed with a deep commitment to addressing racial disparity issues that exist in Minnesota, and a new perspective of what it means to live on a limited income and receive public benefits (albeit, in a voluntary and privileged manner),   I have a unique experience to share with community leaders, funders, and public policy makers throughout the Twin Cities. Withholding that unique perspective would not only do a disservice to the VISTA program I’m a part of, but to all those who struggle living at the poverty line whose voices are rarely heard in the discussion I find myself a part of. As I head into the remainder of my VISTA year, I feel empowered by the unique position I hold and I’ll seek out opportunities to voice my opinions whenever I can.