April 2nd has been designated as National Service Recognition Day. This day is specifically focused on recognizing the work done by AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps volunteers. AmeriCorps has three different programs: AmeriCorps NCCC, AmeriCorps State and National, and AmeriCorps VISTA. I am currently serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA for ONE Neighborhood Builders, and am a little over six months into my year of service.
Despite the vast number of AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers many people have either never heard of the program, or do not know about its fascinating history. The history of the VISTA program actually began on March 1, 1961 when President Kennedy established the Peace Corps through an executive action. The Peace Corps is devoted to foreign service, and so in November 1962, President Kennedy commissioned a task force to explore the possibility of a national service program, modeled after the Peace Corps, whose purpose would be to assist Americans afflicted by poverty. Just a couple of months later, in February 1963, President Kennedy decided to push Congress to create a national service program known as the National Service Corps (NSC). Despite his efforts, the legislation failed to pass the House of Representatives and was never enacted into law.
After the assassination of President Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President. In his first State of the Union address he introduced the War on Poverty and discussed the need for the creation “of a national service corps to help the economically handicapped of our own country as the Peace Corps helps those abroad”. In August 1964, President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act. This marked the beginning of many initiatives including Head Start, Job Corps, Legal Services, Community Action Program, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). VISTA was established as an anti-poverty program authorized under Title 6 – Administration and Coordination.
On December 12, 1964, President Johnson welcomed the first VISTA volunteers, stating “Your pay will be low; the conditions of your labor will be difficult. But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort, and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man”. The first group of volunteers consisted of 24 people, representing 15 different states, ranging in age from 21 to 71. The first VISTA initiatives included remedial education programs, youth counseling, housing programs, sanitation and hygiene programs, food distribution, migrant worker services, establishing community service centers, and farmer assistance programs. Six months after the start of the program, VISTA trained its 1,000th volunteer, and after a year, VISTA had over 1,400 volunteers serving in 412 locations in 39 states, including the District of Columbia.
Other short-term service programs were eventually introduced within VISTA, including the Summer Associates Program and Citizen Corps. These programs focus on recruiting local volunteers already living in impoverished areas which the VISTA programs target.
The VISTA program soon began to gain prominence. In 1967, a documentary about VISTA, A Year Towards Tomorrow, won an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. The film, directed by Edmund Levy and narrated by Paul Newman, follows the lives and work of three VISTA volunteers over their year of service. In 1970 another documentary, Before the Mountain was Moved, was nominated for an Academy Award. The documentary was based on the true story of VISTAs who served in West Virginia in 1966 and depicted the struggle of the residents of Raleigh County in protecting their land from the devastating effects of strip mining.
VISTA volunteers were also involved in many significant moments in U.S. history:
- In July 1967, riots broke out in the Detroit over violence, deplorable housing conditions, and inadequate services. Over 200 VISTAs were deployed to Detroit in response to the rioting. They addressed rat infestations in existing housing, conducted needs assessments, organized and cleaned up affected neighborhoods, and organized food distributions.
- In November 1967 over 4,000 VISTA volunteers learned that, due to congressional inaction over the budget, VISTA was temporarily unable to pay their stipends. As a result, local sites, charities, and even adversarial landlords offered food, rent, and support to the volunteers.
- On April 10, 1968, VISTA volunteers were asked to stand vigil at the casket of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. VISTA Volunteer James Johnson carried the U.S. flag that preceded the procession from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College.
1970 saw a shift in VISTA due to the election of President Nixon and changes in policy in the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).
- In June 1970, former and current VISTAs organized to form the National VISTA Alliance which advocated for VISTA during funding crises and restrictive policy changes.
- Later that year, VISTA volunteers engaged in protest activities including marches and petitions, and demonstrations in Texas, Alaska, and several Appalachian states over fair wages, land rights, union organizing, and working conditions. Officials demanded the removal of VISTA from some sites and internal OEO policy changes began to take shape to reduce funding and minimize advocacy activity.
- 1970 saw a shift in the emphasis of VISTA, moving from community organizing and advocacy towards direct service and capacity building.
- In that same year, VISTA identified 5 program emphasis areas for new projects: health, education and manpower, economic development, community planning, and general services.
- In 1971, Nixon created a new federal agency called ACTION to support and grow volunteer activity. Eventually, VISTA and many other programs were transferred to this agency.
- In 1973, VISTA’s purpose changed from a “War on Poverty” initiative to a national service program with a greater emphasis on the member experience.
In 1975, VISTA celebrated its 10th anniversary at which point over 35,000 people had served in the program. During this period, VISTA activities emphasized capacity building (such as volunteer generation and resource mobilization). This has continued to be the emphasis of VISTA to this day. Six years later, Regan administration officials notified VISTA employees that VISTA would be eliminated by 1983, in part because of its history of engaging in advocacy. Despite this, the program continued through the help of Congressional allies and powerful advocacy groups. The focus of VISTA shifted to strictly local volunteers providing direct service. Capacity building initiatives were brought back with amendments to the Domestic Volunteer Act in 1984.
In 1990, President Bush signed the National and Community Service Act (NCSA) which began a period of expansion for VISTA. Then President Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act (NCSTA) of 1993 into law. This created the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), an independent federal agency overseen by a bipartisan board of directors. ACTION programs were folded into CNCS and VISTA became integrated within the overall AmeriCorps program. In 1995, AmeriCorps VISTA celebrated its 30th anniversary and entered into a period of prosperity and stability.
In 2015, VISTA celebrated its 50th anniversary, and is still continuing to grow. Volunteers have continually provided much needed services to this country. So on this National Service Recognition Day, I encourage you to take time to reflect on how your life might have been impacted by the efforts of domestic volunteers and, how you can give back to your country through national service.