At a rally in Montana last month, President Trump mocked George H.W. Bush’s already much-ridiculed line likening the work of community organizations and volunteers to a “thousand points of light,” saying he never quite understood it.
“What the hell was that?” asked the President, pausing dramatically. “What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: ‘Make America Great Again’ we understand. Putting America first we understand.”
I find this rhetorically intriguing, that a lovely bit of imagery evoking the combined impact of engaged, civic-minded citizens would be more obtuse than MAGA, that incantation of questionable power. MAGA lacks an agent; who is doing the making, and how? What is greatness?
If I could, I would choose words like “resilient,” “welcoming,” “sustainable,” “collaborative,” and “financially secure,” but it’s actually quite perplexing to try to arrive at a common understanding of what a Great America is, other than one with six flags.
But back to the thousand points of light and very real financial limitations. Both initial budget proposals of the Trump presidency called for swamp-draining cuts to social service programs, including the shutdown of the Corporation for Community and National Service (CNCS), which includes team-based projects with National Civilian Community Corps, disaster relief with FEMA Corps, service and companionship through Senior Corps, and capacity-building work with AmeriCorps VISTA.
I started my term as an AmeriCorps VISTA member last July wondering if I had accidentally signed on for the end of an era. A year later, the CNCS has undergone a lot of changes and cuts, but the lights are still on; I finished out my year last week and two new VISTAs start in the office tomorrow. Though I had many a stymied or unproductive or generally cynical moment, I come down grateful that a national service program like this exists, surprised that more people don’t know how it works, and hopeful that it will evolve and persist.
So part historical overview / personal retrospective / use of my freedom of speech now that I’m no longer barred from certain forms of political speech as a VISTA / earnest plug, here’s my hot take on national service:
The VISTA program, which stands for Volunteer In Service To America, was established in 1965 as the domestic Peace Corps component of the War on Poverty. While the War on Poverty had a dubious approach, national service has always been guided by local communities, with the stated mission of AmeriCorps VISTA being to build the capacity of nonprofits that work to alleviate poverty.
Organizations that address poverty in some way—be it through education or economic empowerment or disaster relief—can apply to create VISTA positions for specific, year-long assignments. “Volunteer” means that a VISTA’s riches are in heaven… but they also receive a bi-weekly living allowance from AmeriCorps, calculated according to the poverty line of the county they serve. This makes them eligible for SNAP (food stamps) and other paperwork-heavy financial aid programs.
Depending on how you look at it, VISTA compensation is more or less as an exercise in empathizing with populations living in poverty or a government scheme that preys on idealistic, well-intentioned volunteers. Either way, it’s a pretty lean operation, and one that the government, nonprofits, volunteers, and educational institutions have agreed occupies a worthwhile space in our society. VISTAs who complete their terms (rather than dipping three months in for flight attendant school like a co-VISTA did) are eligible for an end-of-service bonus, either a cash award (currently $1,800) or the Segal Education Award (currently $5,920) to put toward paying off student loans or continuing education at any institution that accepts Title IV funds. What’s more, many graduate programs, especially in areas of teacher education, social work, and public policy offer application fee waivers and at least partial matching scholarships for former VISTAs.
It’s fair to question the efficacy of specific VISTA work. My exit interview evolved into my supervisor candidly answering my questions about the efficacy of our particular model of parent engagement and a cost-benefit analysis of the specific program whose capacity I was tasked with building. But for me, this served as an education in how to be pragmatic and vocal and what it really means to do your research and learn about a community. It helped me reassess my sentimentality about programs and institutions and give myself permission to think creatively about how we can change structures that seem functionally fixed and where I see myself adding to this work.
Taken as a whole, AmeriCorps VISTA is the lifeblood of nonprofit social service programs in this country, utilizing the interest and availability of young people for the greater good. My year as a VISTA gave me the space and direction I needed to pursue my specific routes, and while I’m not trying to serve another year, the postings on the horribly quaint my.americorps.gov portal still excite me because they are opportunities for people to explore a different skill set or policy area while supporting meaningful work in a community.
While CNCS has thus far evaded the chopping block, it’s undergone a lot of internal reorganization and cost-cutting over the course of the year, such as phasing out three-day regional pre-service orientations and requiring host organizations to cover a portion of the costs to host a VISTA.
It’s hard to imagine how exactly the elimination of this program would go down. Much of the work it sustains, things we’ve come to think of as basic social services like food pantries and homeless shelters, have traditionally been the work of religious communities. They are rightly responsibilities of national concern. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic that the cuts will just be cuts and that the reorganization will bring about positive changes. Because though it’s work that may not seem like greatness, I believe it is good. I believe it is light.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.