I served as a VISTA in the South Bronx in New York City from 1967-1968. New York was in economic decay at that time. My training consisted of a six week stay with a black Puerto Rican family whose family member (the father) had been murdered at a barber shop over politics. We lived in filth. I awakened in the mornings to dead cockroaches in my bed. The apartment reeked of dead rodents. Garbage was thrown out the window into the open courtyard (if you can call it that).
My final assignment was in a condemned building. The greatest challenge I faced while working with 'ghetto' Puerto Ricans and blacks—during the civil rights movement— was gaining the trust of the people. It took me, with determined patience, nearly two months for the tenants just to open their doors after daily introductions of myself and the organization, VISTA, that I represented. Within a year, we established a tenants-rights organization and implemented hands-on, grass-roots methods forcing slumlords to act. We were successful briefly. The realization is poverty is a cycle ... substandard housing, drug addiction, crime, alcoholism, rape and incest, poor health, no job training, lack of education, and domestic violence. To this day I question if the War on Poverty can ever be won, though great strides have been made.
As a result of my community organizing skills, I was a successful founder and director of a food bank in beautiful Napa County wine country in California. My VISTA experience also taught me that racism does not just exist between whites and blacks. African blacks don't like West Indian blacks, who don't like American blacks, who don't like Puerto Rican blacks, who don't consider themselves black. Being a VISTA volunteer was an education I will never forget. It was the turning point in my life.