Early in my VISTA experience I organized a community tenants meeting. I spent four weeks knocking on doors to invite residents, asking local groceries to donate refreshments and door prizes, convincing speakers to make an appearance, and translating information into bilingual formats. And what did I have to show for it? Seven people came to the meeting. Seven! My dreams were dashed. A thick sense of despair engulfed me. I failed.
I was so embarrassed I almost quit VISTA service early. I was ready to do it at our debriefing meeting, right after my VISTA supervisor had his say. While he spoke though, I couldn’t believe my ears. He called the tenants meeting “real progress.”
Fortunately, my VISTA supervisor, Father Brian J. Karvelis, was much wiser and more grounded than me. He could do this because he held the history and desires of the community before himself, and understood what it took to bring about real, substantive change. For him, the gathering of seven folks that evening to discuss their vision for affordable housing was not “a failure,” but real progress made through the efforts of a lot of people, including the dreams and struggles of many tenants that long preceded my arrival. His gentle reframing of my lens helped me understand my place in the work, the struggles and the history of that community. How he saw it and lived it taught me what I needed to approach my service and work. It’s all about honoring the history of a community and joining my legacy with its legacies.
A few months earlier, in the summer of 1968, with one year of college and community-active Asian-American parents as role models, I signed on with VISTA for a summer internship program in my home town of Seattle. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, mounting unrest across U.S. urban communities, and increased student activism on many campuses provided the backdrop to my service. That initial experience with VISTA launched five years of living and serving in Brooklyn, N.Y.
It was an important opportunity for me, not only to serve in the very poor, multicultural, multiethnic communities of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but also to be coached by a dynamic team of community youth and leaders. They taught me about organizing a community. They used buzzwords like development, community building, anti-poverty, social justice and anti-oppression. Whatever words you use, our goal was community empowerment.
Father Karvelis was my main “coach” and VISTA supervisor/teacher. I was privileged to join his team because he had a vision for the community. In fact, he gave the community a vision for itself. Instead of watching Williamsburg crumble, he spoke of development. Instead of living on the welfare rolls, he pushed for community ownership. Instead of apathy, he spoke of mobilizing, leadership and empowerment. All with a gentle hand because he never wavered in the faith that it could be done. For me, this was truly service and learning at its best.
By day, I served with a team of VISTAs and VISTA lawyers on reforming housing and education litigation. By night, I worked at the Transfiguration Youth Center as a gang counselor, youth program developer, and grant writer. During my years in Brooklyn we tackled problems with a holistic approach. We implemented educational initiatives by establishing a bilingual pre-school, an after-school study club and enhanced youth programming. We helped the community gain greater control of local schools. Financially, we helped establish a community credit union. We established a community chapel to tackle issues of faith. Youth leaders became peer counselors. A community half-way house helped some get back on their feet. In short, we engaged the community and challenged its citizens to be community advocates.
While I worked hard to put in my “24-7,” I know that my role was a part of a whole. The legacy passed on to me by community members easily left a far greater imprint on my life than my years of VISTA service left on the community and the many lives I had an opportunity to connect with. My personal perception of poverty, diversity, service, community, compassion and commitment were defined by the work and passion of community members… a list too long to name. Each of them holds a special place in my heart, especially Father Brian.
For the past number of years, I, along with several beloved colleagues and friends, have been invited to help facilitate and contribute to the preparation and training of AmeriCorps*VISTA supervisors and VISTA members. Paying the legacy forward has translated into the values we instill in new VISTA members, VISTA leaders, and supervisors throughout our training. The sense of pride and purpose, admiration, community connectedness, and hope I have after each training event for VISTA candidates and supervisors has everything to do with the legacy of my VISTA service.
Had my VISTA service never happened, I know I wouldn’t have developed in the way that I have. My VISTA service facilitated life choices that included law school and continued volunteer service, both with VISTA and other organizations across the nation. The perceptual lens that Father Brian helped shape so long ago helped me retain my ongoing focus on human relations, diversity, and cross-cultural collaboration. Now, lots of work and many, many cities later, my internal reflections continue to be about addressing issues of poverty, contributing to sustainable strategies. My continued involvement over more than thirty-six years has allowed my legacy to touch many communities.