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AmeriCorps VISTA’s grassroots structure threatened by Trump plan

AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers have been making a difference in our communities since 1965. A key to the program’s success has been the staff working at the state and local level. Good relationships with community groups lead to good programming. Unfortunately, the Trump administration plans to close state Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) offices by May 1. The closure would also affect the Senior Corps (Foster Grandparents, RSVP, and Senior Companions).

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Jim Scheibel
Eunice Kennedy Shriver convinced her husband, Sargent Shriver, then the director of the War on Poverty, that a domestic Peace Corps was needed to support President Lyndon B. Johnson’s anti-poverty initiatives. For 54 years VISTA volunteers have worked to strengthen low-income communities and provide opportunities for low income adults and children.

When VISTA was launched as a part of the ACTION agency, the administration insisted that programs be developed at the grassroots. To achieve that, staff were located at the state and local level to better partner with community organizations. Staff provided support and technical assistance that organizations needed to create volunteer assignments for VISTAs.

In Minnesota VISTA staff built relationships with local organizations to create stellar VISTA programs. The Minnesota Literacy Council, the Minnesota Housing Partnership, College Possible, and Habitat for Humanity are examples of organizations that benefited from VISTA volunteers.

VISTA volunteers provide a unique service as “capacity builders.” They work to create projects and programs that will continue beyond their terms of service. For example, when I was director of AmeriCorps VISTA in the Clinton administration, VISTAs in a number of localities worked with Habitat for Humanity to start new chapters, create manuals for volunteers, introduce new fundraising techniques, and initiate new strategies for recruiting volunteers. These efforts provided significant support for Habitat for Humanity’s goal of increasing affordable home ownership opportunities.

When AmeriCorps began in 1994, the CNCS again emphasized that programs should be developed at the state and local level. State commissions on service were created, and their work was complemented by the state CNCS offices. There was not duplication of effort. The model has worked well.

If the Trump administrations plans go forward, Minnesota AmeriCorps VISTA programs would be approved and monitored out of a regional office in Kansas City. It makes no sense that an administration committed to “draining the swamp” would close the very offices that ensure local participation. Congressional appropriators should exercise their authority and stop this ill-advised change.

Jim Scheibel, a former mayor of St. Paul, is Professor of Practice in the Management, Marketing and Public Administration Department, Hamline University. He is a former director of both AmeriCorps VISTA and the Senior Corps. 

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