MLK VISTA program closure means one fewer ‘space for our community leaders to grow’

2013/14 MLK VISTA leaders Julz Ignacio & Nicole Dufva

2013/14 MLK VISTA leaders (l to r) Julz Ignacio & Nicole Dufva

As of August 31, 2014, Solid Ground’s  MLK VISTA program closed its doors due to funding challenges, ending an important chapter in Solid Ground’s history. Since 1989, the program has built strong ties in low-income and communities of color, and its loss will be felt deeply by the Solid Ground community and among some of our most grassroots partners leading the way in social justice work in Seattle/King County. Today, we’d like to honor this work and celebrate some of the achievements and empowerment that MLK VISTA has fostered over the years.

MLK VISTA was a partnership between Solid Ground and the Corporation for National & Community Service. It recruited AmeriCorps*VISTA members, sometimes local (and sometimes not), to perform a year of service in one of around 20 grassroots organizations in our area. “It was a team of AmeriCorps members that focused on leadership development from an anti-racism perspective,” says Nicole Dufva, MLK VISTA Team Leader for the 2013/2014 year. “Members worked in communities doing indirect service,” she explains, meaning members were in charge of large internal projects and also conducted structural evaluations to recommend potential changes (as opposed to engaging in more hands-on direct service activities). This allowed VISTAs to learn more about the how-tos of organizations from an operational standpoint.

The MLK VISTA program’s mission is in direct synchronicity with Solid Ground’s mission to end poverty and undo racism and other oppressions that are root causes of poverty:

  1. All people have the right to food, shelter, social justice and opportunity.
  2. Our community has the resources and ability to end poverty.
  3. Racism perpetuates poverty. To end poverty, we must undo racism.
  4. Community interest, input and ownership are key to the development, growth and expansion of the community. True solutions to community issues are found within its citizens.
  5. Power rests within the citizens of each community’s experiences. Therefore, the best evaluators of a community’s true condition lie in the wisdom of its members.

Organizations that participated in this AmeriCorps/VISTA program in the past year included the Kent School District, Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), The Queen Anne Food Bank at Sacred Heart, El Centro de la Raza, Express Advantage, Asian Counseling & Referral Service (ACRS), Volunteers of America Food Bank, Jewish Family Service and the University of Washington Foundation – Bothell Youth Court.

Describing some of the specific projects that members worked on while in the program, Nicole says that “one of the VISTAs created a whole mentoring program for LIHI. For El Centro de la Raza, one VISTA provided comprehensive feedback on all of their programs. They also archived their history, looking at all the different pieces of their history. They looked at, ‘How do you save their history for future generations to learn from?’ ”

Members of the 2013/14 MLK VISTA team attend Solid Ground's Stand Against Racism event, 2014.

Members of the 2013/14 MLK VISTA team attend Solid Ground’s Stand Against Racism event, 2014. (l to r): Michelle Jaquish, Nicole Dufva, Edna Sadberry, Meghann Wiedl, Shannon Armstrong & Kate Sedney-Read

With such a wide variety of program focuses, the opportunities for learning and growth while serving their communities were endless. But more than just administrative work, members also “worked on skills on how to address institutional oppression,” says Nicole. In fact, members of the team as well as program staff at Solid Ground would meet weekly for leadership development workshops. During these workshops, she says, topics of discussion ranged from “UIR (Undoing Institutional Racism) trainings, trainings around sexuality and about theRACE: The Power of an Illusion’ video. API Chaya provided training on human trafficking and domestic violence,” Nicole informed me.

After the program’s ending was announced, Nicole took a new position with Solid Ground’s Hunger & Food Resources Department as a Cooking Matters Program Coordinator. When asked what she misses most about MLK VISTA, she says, “I miss the team and the meetings. We always had fun, always had food. The team is like the heart and soul of the program. They really kept me grounded. That learning and growing environment challenged you – your growth with each other and individually. Meetings were a time to unwind with people who were growing in the same way you were.”

In a statement for Solid Ground’s employee newsletter, the “FYI,” former MLK VISTA Program Supervisor Edna Sadberry wrote about the program’s impacts: “This is a program that truly understands the challenges of examining personal biases and prejudices as well as the courage it takes to sit in difficult discussions each week around the sensitive topic of racism and its impact on poverty. You will recognize [former MLK VISTA members] by the probing social justice questions they ask that are uncomfortable to think about.”

MLK VISTAs from 2009/2010

MLK VISTAs from 2009/2010

And MLK VISTA alums really are everywhere. Nicole says, “There are many people in Seattle who have gone through the program. It created a space for a lot of our community leaders to grow. You learned a lot and you grew a lot. What it teaches, what it draws your attention to – it can be that starting point for a lot of people.” And so it was. Former members now hold leadership positions in many different organizations including Solid Ground, United Way, Real Change, YWCA, Seattle Young People’s Project, El Centro de la Raza, 501 Commons, Wellspring, American Friends Service Committee and many others. Given such a strong leadership presence throughout the social justice community in King County and beyond, the absence of this program, although silent, will definitely be heard loud and clear.

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