Paying tribute to the Martin Luther King VISTA program

Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

National Service team members, community builders.

National Service team members, community builders

In 1985, with Dr. King’s words ringing in their ears, Solid Ground (then the Fremont Public Association) launched a VISTA program to develop community leadership and fight poverty through National Service. In 1989, the program was christened the Martin Luther King VISTA Corps.

“The brilliant thing about the program,” remembers Lynn Livesley, one of the initial corps members and current Executive Director of Literacy Source, “was always the attitude that ‘We can do this.’ The glass was always half full. It was always very positive and we got things done. … The idea of bringing literally hundreds of people into this work is ‘power in numbers,’ and working towards social justice by working with the passion and commitment of people who want to see change in our community. It was an exciting time.”

In subsequent years, Solid Ground developed National Service programs to effectively address literacy, develop community-based violence prevention, and support anti-poverty capacity building throughout King County. At one time, we managed the state’s largest group of National Service programs, with 150 AmeriCorps & VISTA members. Backed up by a deep anti-oppression training program, Solid Ground’s National Service programs developed a strong reputation in the community.

 

AmeriCorps Program supervisor Kim Gordon tutoring, circa 1999

AmeriCorps Program Supervisor Kim Gordon tutoring, circa 1999

Lynn Livesley, MLK VISTA, circa 1985. Lynn was later program manager and director of the agency's national service programs

Lynn Livesley, MLK VISTA, circa 1985; Lynn later became Program Manager and Director of the agency’s suite of National Service programs

MLK Corps member Mark Santos Johnson and Deputy Mayor Bob Watt, circa 1993

MLK VISTA member Mark Santos Johnson and Deputy Mayor Bob Watt, circa 1993

Pat Russell, former MLK VISTA program supervisor, circa 1988

Pat Russell, former MLK VISTA Program Supervisor, circa 1988

On August 31, 2014, we ended the MLK VISTA program, marking the end of an era. The Washington Reading Corps, JustServe AmeriCorps and Pathway to Career Corps had closed in recent years. All were afflicted by variations of the same fatal challenge: changing priorities and practices mandated by the federal contracts that funded them.

For instance, changes in the direction of the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) meant that “for the first time in our long history of partnering, (we) were not in agreement (with CNCS) around creating leaders who understood the connection of racism and poverty,” noted former MLK Program Supervisor, Edna Sadberry.

For over 25 years, these programs helped develop countless resources, organizations and leaders in the fight against poverty. More than 2,500 corps members graduated, and former members now hold leadership positions in many innovative and effective organizations including Solid Ground, United Way, Literacy Source, Real Change, YWCA, Seattle Young People’s Project, El Centro de la Raza, 501 Commons, Wellspring, American Friends Service Committee and many others.

“It created a space for a lot of our community leaders to grow,” stated former MLK team leader Nicole Dufva. “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.”

Our sadness at closing the program is leavened by our pride in its accomplishments and enduring contributions to our community. Edna, Nicole and Julz Ignacio were the last in a long line of incredibly talented and dedicated staff of our National Service programs. Please join me in honoring their work, the many great leaders who preceded them, and the lessons this agency has learned through their service.

And we shall have to do more than register and more than vote; we shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect, who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with an enthusiasm that enables us to rally support for them based on confidence and trust. We will have to demand high standards and give consistent, loyal support to those who merit it.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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