Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA (now AmeriCorps VISTA), was launched on December 12, 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson met with the first enrollees at the White House. Vice President Hubert Humphrey called VISTA “one of the most exciting adventures of our time. VISTA brings to the lives of people the precious commodity of hope, and no opportunity can be more rewarding than this.”
I am not sure when I applied to VISTA, but it must have been sometime in 1967. I applied to both the Peace Corps and VISTA because I knew that my deferment from the draft would run out in June 1968, and I would then have to decide what to do: depart for Canada, resist and go to jail, or find another way to avoid military service. And as I was adamantly against the war in Vietnam, a year in VISTA would offer me a one-year reprieve.
The telegram came to my mother’s home and advised me that I had been accepted into VISTA and would be receiving an official letter soon. I should be prepared to report to training in Baltimore in September. What a relief!
The connection between VISTA and the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work dates back to 1967, when George and Patricia Wright came to Pittsburgh and eventually became faculty members at the School of Social Work.
The Wrights were among the first VISTA recruits nationwide. They were in the second cohort to be recruited and were trained at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Pat was a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C.; George graduated from Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Pat earned a degree in psychology, and George majored in physical education. Both said they were inspired by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
When I arrived in Baltimore for VISTA training at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, I met Marvin Feit, who was working on a dual degree at Pitt—a PhD in social work and a master’s degree in public health. Feit was to be our supervisor in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and would become my first connection to Pitt.
We were trained to be community organizers. We were warned that our nonprofit sponsors might try to use us as clerical staff or in some other capacity. But Feit, our supervisor, made it clear: We were organizers, and he did not want to see us in the office. He wanted us to get out into the neighborhoods and on street corners, get involved in pickup basketball games, and find out about the issues that were troubling the community so that we could work to rectify those issues.
During my year in VISTA, I helped to organize a campaign to reduce racial discrimination in the McKeesport Housing Authority, organized a campaign to fight corruption in a local magistrate’s court, and brought dozens of mothers to downtown Pittsburgh to protest cuts to the Mon Valley Early Childhood Development Center Program. I helped Major Mason III, who chaired the local community action committee, to publish a community newspaper called NOW.
Tracy Soska (BA ’74, MSW ’78), a former faculty member at the School of Social Work and a national leader in community organization, joined VISTA at a time when it had shifted its focus from recruiting nationally to recruiting people who were native to where they’d be volunteering.
Soska signed up and went to work at the East End Cooperative Ministry, where his main assignment was making breakfast. The nonprofit organization had a free breakfast program for 300 youngsters, and Soska was the pancake maker. He also tutored and supervised a group of students doing home repairs. Over the summer, his participants learned useful work skills and helped low-income and elderly residents with home repair projects. This work led him to graduate school at Pitt and a master’s degree in social work. Before he graduated, he was hired by the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Alliance, and he later served as its director for a number of years.
He worked briefly at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh with ex-offenders and then for the Human Services Center Corporation in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, for 26 years. Ultimately, that led him to seek a teaching position at Pitt, and while working with Jim Cunningham and Moe Coleman, he developed and refined the Community, Organization, and Social Action program, becoming recognized as a national leader in community organization.
Michael Eichler (MSW ’86), founder of the Consensus Organizing Model, originally began his career as a conflict organizer. He served as a VISTA recruit on Pittsburgh’s North Side in 1975-76, working with Tom Murphy (who would later serve as mayor of Pittsburgh). Eichler also helped to launch the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council and later created a credit union for residents. He also created a real estate office to help market homes in the Perry Hilltop community. I bought a home through that real estate office.
In the early 1980s, Eichler was contracted to work for the Perry Hilltop neighborhood. The community was the target of blockbusting by several real estate agents, which involved provoking racial fears; flooding the market with home sales; and, ultimately, decreasing property values. Eichler responded in traditional conflict organizing fashion, and the community of Perry Hilltop was successful in its immediate efforts. However, Eichler realized that conflict organizing led to short-lived victories and did not have long-term effects; from this realization, he developed the Consensus Organizing Model, which ties the self-interest of the community with the self-interest of others to achieve a common goal.
Following his success in Perry Hilltop, Eichler was contracted by a new project in the Monongahela Valley of Pennsylvania, where he applied the Consensus Organizing Model. Through the collaboration of community members and owners in the steel industry, the Mon Valley Initiative was established. For the first time in Mon Valley history, stakeholders of all socioeconomic levels were working together to formulate solutions in which everyone benefited. From this experience, Eichler learned that the Consensus Organizing Model could not only be successfully replicated in a different community but also could facilitate long-lasting systemic change.
While these alumni and faculty members are only some of those who were involved in VISTA, the connection between VISTA’s mission and methods and Pitt Social Work is unmistakable.