Fighting Poverty with Passion
This has been the most interesting VISTA engagement in my five years of service. This year I’ve taken on the task of VISTA Leader here at Tulane University’s Center for Public Service; CPS. The CPS mission, within the Tulane University’s larger mission, is to promote civic engagement among the Faculty and Students at the University. Being located in New Orleans among the various neighborhoods and communities that experienced the impact of hurricane Katrina, over ten year ago, the effort to make Tulane University an active contributor to the reemergence of a vibrant New Orleans has been a challenge. Initially the students and faculty were engaged to support the many non-profit efforts that responded to the disaster driven needs of the local community. Volunteers poured into the City to lend a hand and advance their interests. The Corporation for National Community Service(CNCS), VISTA’s parent organization, made a VISTA grant available to this effort through Tulane University’s Center for Public Service. CPS received a unique CNCS grant to start its VISTA program providing volunteers to help manage the flow of people volunteering at the non-profit relief organizations that had come to New Orleans to help the Katrina recovery. The VISTA volunteers were to serve as volunteer managers of not only non-profit recruited staff but also of CPS students and interns who were assigned to work in the non-profit organizations in the various New Orleans’ communities. The combination of the CPS mission to promote civic engagement among faculty and students and the CNCS mission to allievate poverty seemed to be compatible missions. The idea was to channel CPS faculty and students into these non-profit organizations, who had their own missions, while using VISTA volunteers to manage the volunteer supervision tasks at the non-profits and thereby carry out their CNCS VISTA mission of alleviating poverty. Whew, what a mash up of missions, tasks, and expectations.
Clearly the challenge of ten years ago, when the impact of the flood devastation and dislocation was at its height, has changed. Reintegration of displaced people, reestablishment of commerce, and engagement with the socio-cultural-psychological-economics of concentrated poverty and uneven distribution of wealth has signaled the return to the homeostasis of pre-Katrina New Orleans; a socio-cultural contest defined by a set of structures whose rules have never changed. New Orleans’ racially identifiable poverty, its structure and maintenance, its geography, and its wealth distribution dynamics has survived the Katrina experience and seems to be alive, well, and stable having survived in tact after a natural disaster and a huge volunteer effort from organizations avowedly dedicated to do the things needed to create a socially just and poverty free place. It’s a complex reality that certainly could provide some lessons for critical students of the situation. Maybe CPS VISTAs are those students and the lessons they take away from their practical examinations and explorations will be the real products of their New Orleans VISTA year of service.