Page 18


ISTA dropout The story of a By Dee Wilson Denver, Colo. I entered Vista in the summer of 1969 in the hope of receiving a deferment from military service. From the beginning I was skeptical about the ability of any organization to do anything about poverty without money, but I nevertheless expected to do something useful during my year of service. I had experience in pre-school education and in program writing and so I expected to be placed in association with a Head Start program or with an organization of the poor who needed a researcher and writer. I was to discover, however, that Vista works in strange ways. I took part in one of several training cycles contracted by Vista to General Electric. Contrary to what one might think, there was no obtrusive corporation influence. General Electric took the unexceptional course of hiring people out of the Vista regional offices to speak to the trainees about poverty and the role of Vista volunteers. The idea of Vista that trainees were given was the collective sentiment of Vista staff, particularly junior staff in the regional training office, and not corporate America’s. It remains a question, though, why Vista paid and pays General Electric to use its own staff, a question to be answered by someone who can analyze the lobbied Vista national office. Most of the speakers, and particularly the discussion group leaders with whom the trainees had most contact were militant, angry, serious people who wanted to use Vista for radical ends and who had convinced themselves that this was possible. Official speakers never told the trainees to organize the poor to pressure local oligarchies, but they were fond of saying that one thing leads to another, i.e., organize the poor for inoffensive purposes and the organization may well go on to pursue political aims. school in Dallas and received his B.A. degree from Colorado College. He did graduate work in philosophy at Rice University in Houston and worked as a research assistant in an educational development project at Berkeley, Calif, before going into Vista. The discussion group leaders, usually younger and less well placed in the Vista hierarchy, were more forthright. A popular piece of advice given trainees by many of these people was to begin some trivial projects to satisfy the Community Action and to do political organizing in spare time. Most of the trainees seized upon this mood and made it their own. The attitude that they imbibed from the trainers was that Vista work was hard, serious grassroots organizing with politically radical implications, therefore challenging and dangerous. Stories of Vistas beaten up by local rednecks or hassled by local powers went around the training center. Both trainers and trainees speculated on the irony of the government, the establishment itself, financing a radical thrust by the young and the poor. There was no doubt that to be thrown out of a town was a real possibility and a badge of honor. I found out later that the trainers were living a fantasy \(I gave them credit for by their seriousness. In contrast to most American radicals they believed in patience, in sustained effort, in shrewdness. They showed no taste for symbolic confrontation’s and publicity stunts. No one seemed to gild the lily to the volunteers. It was said over and over again that organizing was tough, slow, frustrating work. We were told not to expect too much from our efforts. The psychology of deflating hopes for quick results had two effects on trainees. Those who took the trainers at their word were discouraged, but most were steeled in Their determination to do something. The latter believed they were being told “only the really committed accomplish anything. Most of you won’t meet the test.” In other words, the trainers had tapped a sensitive point in young middle class Americans: the fear of failure. THE CENTRAL idea given the trainees was that the basic Vista job was community organizing. The poor are powerless, we were told, because they do not stand together, and in fact do not have faith in their ability as a social class to accomplish anything. What is required is the habit of organizing to solve problems, and that habit is built slowly by starting with small realizable goals. Given a small success “one thing leads to another.” It was emphasized that the Vista organizer is not a leader. He gets the people together. Community organization was contrasted to providing services. Doing the poor some service was described as patronizing, keeping the poor in their place. One might do services in order to win the trust of people, so as to get on with community organization. It was made clear, however, that one’s role was not to serve the poor. The designation of services went so far that trainees began to criticize government agencies for their service oriented approach. I was shocked by the ease with which the trainees accepted the idea that we were to be community organizers. Though discussion groups took up the largest part of most days, I never heard one critical inquiry in regard to community organizing. No one asked, “What conditions make it possible to do community organizing?” or “Are Vista volunteers likely community organizers?” I thought of these questions, but did not raise them. They seemed inappropriate to the time, academic-like quibbles to practical minded activists. All discussion was of the sort, “How does a community organizer work?” “What do I do in the beginning?” The .se questions were asked many times in different forms because the answers were invariably vague and frustrating. “You get to know people, listen to their gripes, learn the ins and outs of the community,” and so forth. What most trainees wanted was the feel and shape of a day, week, month at the job. What might a typical day be like? What kind of planning should be done? The trainers turned off these questions, unwilling or unable to help out. We were looking for some sort of approved structure, not knowing that none existed. The trainees were for the most part just out of college. There were some older and appeared as out of place as house mothers at a yippie convention. My favorite trainee was a country boy from Georgia named Walter. He was good hearted and ingenuous, seemingly uncaring that people laughed at him. He had got religion and carried his Bible in a little pack that was. always with him. Walter was not so dumb as he appeared and was in the habit of pretending stupidity as a defense against verbal aggression. He became famous for his wonderful non-sequiturs which later won recognition as a new form of logic called “Walterian implication.” October 2, 1970 -9 , .1 ,e 1. … it . C tr . ‘ ….. ‘To wt.., onalarr, I ..e.e .1. J.