Learning VISTA

Ken Miller
FORUM ON NATIONAL SERVICE

Fresh out of school in 1970 and scared witless about Vietnam, I joined VISTA and came to the Pacific Northwest. This was my first job other than restaurant work, selling knives door to door [one half day] and a week ticketing illegally parked bicycles on campus.

Part of our training was to live for a week with genuine poor people, in my case a vaguely defined family in Cottage Grove OR. The patriarch was a disabled mill worker who smoked and coughed incessantly and I, being well educated, pointed out the possible link.

“I have to smoke,” he told me. “It fills the holes in my lungs.”

I was a liberal arts guy so this seemed credible. How’d he get the holes, I asked.

“Wife used a shotgun while I was sleeping on the couch,” he said.

No one in the family disputed this account and for years I marveled at how well the they all had reconciled after the brutal attack. I wasn’t stupid, exactly, but I could have used a little more common sense.

That, I suspect, was the idea. At least to help me glimpse what I didn’t know, if not to wise me up. Wise us up, I should say, us being the more than a million people who have served in AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps or VISTA. Not everyone is as zoned out as I was; some of these folks would be welcome additions to any organization. But a lot of us needed seasoning before we were ready to be served.

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My project was welfare rights organizing in Tacoma. Two things were different then. One, people in VISTA did community organizing as well as helping to staff agencies like Legal Aid. And two, there was welfare. Poor people received money from the government along with health care and food stamps and subsidized rent.

Welfare recipients weren’t necessarily thrilled. Government subsidies were barely enough to stay alive much less thrive. Complicated rules made progress difficult. Earnings from a part-time job, for example, reduced the amount of welfare, even though the job required a uniform, child care and transportation. And the rules were often administered inaccurately or unevenly.

So around the country “welfare rights” groups emerged, led by an organic chemistry PhD named George Wiley. Wiley was a CORE activist as well as a Berkeley professor, and - probably because he wasn’t a liberal arts guy - understood the value of bonding.

Wiley died at age 42, when he fell off a yacht in Chesapeake Bay. Tragic but also a little odd. And the first glimmer of a theme I’ll return to in a minute.                                           

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My job in Tacoma was to serve as staff for the welfare rights group. With others around the state, ours pushed for more money, simpler rules and fairer administration. Seemed reasonable.

In a visceral sense, I had no clue.

My nuclear family was lower-middle class. My dad sold sewing machines and my mom worked the line in an electronics assembly plant. My extended family included a couple of relatively successful people [a somewhat famous yoga instructor, the owner of three rental units] and some people on welfare.

I had no idea about the realities of people’s lives beyond my own. I didn’t get being poor. Sure, I understood the words and saw pictures of Appalachia and knew it was horrible. Conceptually. But when we lived on rice and frozen chicken pot pies it was to save money to get high. Until VISTA I never opened a ‘frig - a real one, not a college kid’s - to find mayo, a little baloney and a blackened banana. 

So I re-wrote newsletters and raised money, rented microphones and talked. We talked a lot. Some of it was germane: the legal boundaries for a demonstration; how to disseminate leadership in a group.

And some of it was strange. Like the time I rode the train to Spokane with three women who realized I never touched a black person’s hair and let me check out the differences among theirs. (It might also have been the first time a white person touched their hair, but I don’t know for sure.)

Did we make progress on our stated goals? A little. We aggravated the local welfare office enough it became a little more service oriented, a little more consistent. And when busloads of welfare recipients arrived in Olympia and scared legislators so badly they barricaded themselves in the House chamber? That made the news, all those women in shapeless dresses with hand-made signs and babes in arms, pounding on the huge carved wood doors, demanding to be heard. It was harder to ignore poor people after that.

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But look: people are still poor and the government is still hammered. I went on to another job, and another. I’ve been broke - which is like a long layover in being poor - but I never quite went native.

It’s because of my privilege, you see. Part of it skin color, part of it education, which in turn comes from class. Okay, my teeth aren’t straight enough and my manner isn’t so languid I could pass for upper class; but I’m clearly part of the broad middle. I belong. I talk that way, I walk that way, I ask and answer questions with the authority of an owner.

And that’s what the Kennedys and the Shrivers wanted to pass along in service programs like VISTA: the secret de-coder ring, the way an owner of America acts. If we could help poor people carry themselves that way, think they had the indisputable right to do so, they’d have a better shot. It’s the difference between my aunt in subsidized housing and the one with rental units. They were equally smart, equally healthy, equally poor to start. But for some reason they saw themselves differently. They stood differently.

I was often the first “friendly” to stand that way in kitchens and back yards I visited around Tacoma. Pathetic as it sounds now, I was a role model, for standing up for myself and others, for thinking past tomorrow, for assuming I could win.

That was my secret mission - so secret I didn’t even know about it.

And the people I “served?” They provided an advanced degree in human life for me. They put up with arrogance, ignorance, flat-out ineptitude and gave me way more than I gave them.

That’s over the trite line; I know. But it’s true. So if a goal of national service is to bring different parts of the country closer - in understanding each other if not in material circumstances - then it worked for me. Better than a lot of things in fact.

Editor's Note: After his volunteer service Ken Miller managed a dozen VISTA organizing projects for the University of Puget Sound. His daughter served in AmeriCorps in New Orleans.