In a cavernous ballroom at the Hilton Hotel Philadelphia in 2009 when I was twenty-one years old, I sat at a round table with the others whose name tags had also been stamped with the double green dots meaning we were headed for central Appalachia—West Virginia, western Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
There were tuna wraps and miniature bags of chips, then slides projected on a wall-sized screen told us all the things we couldn’t do now that we were Volunteers in Service to America (better known as VISTAs): work another job, advocate for any political cause or candidate, get drunk in public, etc. “We encourage you to remember,” said a skirt-suited woman, “that even on your off hours, you are now a representative of the United States government.”
I exchanged smirks with another outspoken nose-ringed white girl sitting next to me. From the summer I had already spent at the nonprofit for which I would be working in southeastern West Virginia, I knew that the economic realities of modern central Appalachia could not be easily “fixed” by anything I could offer. The problems there were largely the result of centuries of corporations often based elsewhere systematically extracting the region’s wealth and natural resources. Yet I still believed in real altruism, in service, and that the work I was off to do would accomplish that lofty mission.
From today’s vantage point, I can see why I believed this—the Jewish moral seriousness of my childhood, the Quaker empathy of my small college—but I no longer do. My time as a VISTA was many things—awakening, grueling, joyful, dark, life altering—but I do not believe anymore that it was “service,” meaning work done for others, or acts contributing to the public good. I was neither skilled enough nor mature enough nor knowledgeable enough about the context of the work to perform it with real efficacy. This is a problem greater than me and intrinsic to the structure of VISTA itself. VISTAs tend to be young, white, and unskilled—the only requirement to apply is that you be at least 18 years old and a citizen of the United States (or national or asylum seeker) without a criminal record.
On the morning of our last day at the Hilton Hotel, they gave us grey polo shirts with the insignia of an A with a star and two stripes on the sleeve, and they told us to raise our right hands and to swear. I will get things done for America, we said. Faced with apathy, I will take action. Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground. I will carry this commitment with me, this year and beyond. I am an AmeriCorps member, and I will get things done. I looked at the other pierced girl, to see how I should respond, but she was gone. I raised my hand and I swore.
We know VISTA as one of the many arms of AmeriCorps, the governmental organization which connects thousands of mostly young or underemployed Americans with meaningful work in exchange for job experience, a modest living stipend, health insurance and a lump sum to use towards future education or loan repayment, effectively indistinguishable from other similar AmeriCorps programs. But it did not begin this way. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson “declared war” on poverty and signed into law the Economic Opportunity Act “to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this Nation.” Johnson located this paradox in three main places—“migrant worker communities, big-city slums, and the hill towns of Appalachia”—and its solution in people—“volunteers.” By the 1970s, several thousand volunteers were working in “poor” communities all over America; President Clinton’s 1993 National Community Service Trust Act created AmeriCorps, an expanded umbrella organization for dozens of domestic service opportunities, and VISTA took shelter there.
It was my job as a VISTA in Pocahontas County to work at a nonprofit that offered local teenaged girls a different picture of themselves than the ones that were readily available in that place where just 8% of the population is between the ages of 18-24.
Half of Pocahontas County is Monongahela National Forest. Eight major rivers have their headwaters here, and more than one million tourists visit each year to camp and hike, fish and ski. Snowshoe Mountain ski resort is here, on land that was logged in the first half of the twentieth century, then left to burn. It is the birthplace of Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck, and hosts Allegheny Echoes, a local annual Bluegrass and Old Time music institute to which people from all over America travel to study under local teachers. At its heyday in the mid 1970s, it was home to over two hundred Back to the Landers, and it hosted the 1980 and 2005 Rainbow Gatherings. This is not coal country. Instead, its main exports are timber and people.
Being a VISTA created a divide between the kind of life I lived and the kind of life everyone else in Pocahontas County lived. Where most people worked reasonable hours, working often just enough to get by, then spending their leisure time playing music, hiking, and relaxing with their families, I worked Sundays and nights. Though I didn’t always feel connected to the term “VISTA,” I quickly learned that whether I felt like one or not, in Pocahontas County I was identified that way. In a community where people’s work was, by and large, unyoked from their identity, I was always, always Emma the VISTA.
VISTA is partly modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal initiative that trained millions of unemployed Americans in such useful tasks as fighting fires, planting trees and building campgrounds. These days, most VISTAs are employed doing less tangible work—running youth programs or senior centers or YMCA programs, offering education or services, assisting an existing cultural or environmental nonprofit in many of the aspects of their daily functioning, as I did.
I came to understand that I was linked to a history and legacy of the VISTA program that is illustrious, complicated, and fraught, particularly in Appalachia. VISTA is a program specifically designed to “fight poverty”; only organizations in places the government deems sufficiently poor receive VISTA workers. By the time I arrived, Pocahontas County and the neighboring counties had seen more than 250 people serve as VISTAs in their communities over the course of 40 years. To wear the AmeriCorps seal that says VISTA is like wearing a name tag that says, hello, I’m here to fight your poverty.
If poverty alleviation is its goal, VISTA may not be very effective. According to the most recent USDA data, which defines a U.S. county as “persistently poor” if twenty percent or more of its population has lived in poverty for the past 30 years, 353 American counties currently fit the bill, 301 of those are rural, and 55 are in West Virginia, including all three of the counties served by the non-profit which employed me. Much has changed since Johnson “declared war” on poverty, but little is profoundly improved.
“I think it’s important to note,” says Samantha Jo Warfield of the National Corporation for Community Service which houses AmeriCorps that “VISTA’s mission, is ‘to strengthen organizations that alleviate poverty.’ No one entity – government or philanthropic – can eliminate poverty alone. What national service brings to the table is people power and VISTA’s unique scope in that space is to support organizations working to address the issues of poverty by providing human capital – a VISTA.”
Warfield also notes that in the five years the CNCS has published a list of their top AmeriCorps-member producing states, West Virginia has never dropped below the top five, meaning “more West Virginians are signing up to become AmeriCorps members than in other states. I suspect many of them are choosing to serve in their home state.”
There is also the matter of the fact that VISTA pays its members a wage that is calculated, on purpose, to put them “at the poverty line,” which is both ideologically and pragmatically misguided. Ignoring the fact that some who sign up for VISTA may have access to family wealth or may already be poor, this presumes that manufacturing circumstances of poverty supposedly parallel to that experienced by the people VISTAs are supposed to serve will make the quality of their service better. I was paid about $800 per month in 2009, though I was lucky because my rent in Pocahontas County was $150 per month and the local DHHS office was so used to the ebb and flow of service volunteers arriving and leaving that getting on food stamps was as easy as showing up and saying the word “VISTA.” But friends of mine who served as VISTAs in Philadelphia or Atlanta or New York City during the same time were paid only minimally more and either denied access to food stamps by the bureaucracy of a big city or shamed by those involved in VISTA for wanting to access a program designed for the “truly poor.” The CNCS states that today however, it would pay a VISTA in West Virginia their lowest pay tier of $12,490 and a VISTA in Manhattan approximately $20,600 (75% of VISTA members earn less than $14,000 per year).
I am not the first to question the efficacy and workings of VISTA. Even before there were VISTAs, there were Appalachian Volunteers (AVs), a similar volunteer corps that came together organically when students from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky volunteered to go repair a one room school in Harlan County, Kentucky. Soon college students and young people from around the northeast had gotten word of the opportunities to work against poverty in Appalachia and began showing up.
“Sometimes I wonder about the real value of [AV/VISTA] in places like Fonde [Kentucky],” wrote one corps member there in 1966. “We’re supplying candles when the house needs to be wired for electricity.”
Some AV/VISTAs and other mountain activists including Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, felt it was the duty of any true anti-poverty volunteer corps to inform people living in Appalachian communities that their struggles were larger than they could see, the result of exploitation and absentee ownership, and to, as Caudill put it, “set in motion a revolutionary change of thought.” But many were also constantly wary of the charge of being labeled “outside agitators” (as has already happened in several counties in Kentucky and West Virginia) which weighed heavily on their minds. One AV/VISTA staff coordinator called the position an “obvious paradox” of trying to end poverty “without disturbing the present situation.”
“There are so many problems we’re not the solution to,” wrote the same doubting VISTA in 1966. “We by-passed the big problems . . . and threw a lot of time, money and effort into little things that don’t amount to no more than memories of good times spent together.”
I do have a lot of memories of good times spent together in Pocahontas County and that may be the point. Serving as a VISTA in Pocahontas County rewired my brain and remapped the path of my life. I was radicalized there, pushed from my modest intellectual ambitions into the intense contradictions of living under late stage capitalism in a place America prefers to forget exists. It was in Pocahontas County as a VISTA member that I began to see how one form of oppression connects to another, the ways that poor white people and poor black people are pitted against each other in an environment of unnecessary scarcity, the way the same thing happens between poor women and poor men, poor straight people and poor queer people, and the ways that it is in the best interests of those in power to try to keep us all on alcohol or pills, sick or depressed, so we stay numb to these truths.
We are told this is true: service only works if we all look alike when we do it, if we are bound by certain rules. If we are selfless; that is, if we have no self. But what if it could be the opposite?
It’s a tricky thing, this word, service. It covers all manner of sins. It is a slippery, adult thing to live and work and play in a community of people who you care about both in idea and in practice, to be an authentically good member of community that is not your own, to fall down as a person and grow yourself up in front of people at the same time as it is your actual job to help those people get stronger.
In the real story of service, there is no telling who gave what to whom or why or if it was proper or right to give it. In the real story of service, sometimes what you can give is nothing and what you can get is your life. Sometimes the needy one—in fact, not platitude—is you.
I served best, I think, when I served truest, when I drank and played Bluegrass music with a group of twenty-something local men who worked construction which lead to some poor choices on my part but a lot of conversations about work and god and queerness and violence and the past and when I drove teenaged girls around and around those switchbacks blasting Rihanna and getting a flat tire we all had to figure out how to fix.
But was it for them or was it for me? It may be that national service programs like VISTA are not effectively for the communities they purport to help, but rather that they are for those who serve: to employ us, to radicalize us, to wake us up. “We had basketball games in the elementary school gym in Nellis,” wrote John D. Rockefeller IV, who after being raised in New York City served as a VISTA in Emmons, West Virginia in his twenties. “I was on the team because I was still young enough then to play. We had baseball games. We never won a single game in two years…It was exhilarating. I was reborn—like I had finally found my soul.”
This may be alright, necessary even, as an investment America is making in educating and equipping young people and educating us in the meaning of “service.” But a single VISTA costs the government about $22,000; at around eight thousand active annual VISTA members, that’s about $176 million per year, money that could be spent on changing systemic policies that affect the rural poor or creating opportunities for those central Appalachians impacted and then discarded by the coal, timber, and fracking industries.
But then, always, what if it’s both—what if it was for me and it was for others. According to the CNCS, in 2017, VISTA members generated $158 million in cash donations and an additional $49 million in in-kind services for their organizations.
What if we could have a government program that acknowledged that it is both ways, a program that made possible sufficient funding for national service opportunities and for poverty alleviation initiatives with proven results? That’s a corps I’d like to serve in.