Lessons from the cutting edge

Edna Sadberry, former program supervisor for Pathways and the MLK VISTA program.

Edna Sadberry, former Program Supervisor for the Pathway to Career Corps and MLK VISTA programs.

Over 40 years, Solid Ground and our forebear the Fremont Public Association have helped incubate many of our community’s most effective responses to poverty. These include the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), the Economic Opportunity Institute, Community Voice Mail (now called ConnectUp), FareStart, the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, and many others.

Unfortunately not every good idea is successful in the marketplace of nonprofit programming.

Sometimes a principal funder pulls out, such as when the federal Corporation for National & Community Service discontinued funding the Washington Reading Corps, which ended our demonstrated success at closing the achievement gap through literacy tutoring and support for elementary school students.

Other times, the business model does not pencil out, which is what happened with our Working Wheels program, an attempt to provide low-cost cars to people living on low-incomes who needed a reliable vehicle to get or maintain a job.

Sometimes the program design itself is not sustainable. A few years ago Solid Ground pioneered a new National Service model, Pathway to Career Corps (Pathways), designed to provide underserved young people from communities of color a training- and work-based model to prepare themselves for higher education or the workforce.

While designed by experienced, successful National Service Program Managers, Pathways proved unable to meet all of the challenges faced by its team in the first year, according to Program Supervisor Edna Sadberry. Looking at a large fundraising goal to support a second year, Solid Ground’s Board of Directors chose to close the program.

Sadberry went on to manage Solid Ground’s Martin Luther King VISTA program, a National Service-based program Solid Ground ran from the late 1980s until 2014, which was a groundbreaking effort to infuse anti-oppression analysis, training and action into the service model. Though the legacy of MLK VISTA’s work was incredibly powerful, this anti-oppression focus was ultimately not in alignment with state National Service leaders’ priorities, and the program was forced to shut its doors this past summer.

What lessons can we learn from these program closures, and how do we incorporate Solid Ground’s commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression principles in our anti-poverty work?

In this video, MLK VISTA and Pathways Program Supervisor Edna Sadberry shares some of her insights, learned on the cutting edge.

Advertisements

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.

1989_MLK-edited

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.

%d bloggers like this: