Over 40 million Americans live in poverty. While the federal government assumes responsibility for protecting this vulnerable population with safety net programs such as SNAP (formerly food stamps) and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), it also has programs that build capacity for local organizations to create longer-term solutions. AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) is one such program. Founded in 1965, VISTA fights poverty by sending volunteers all over the United States to expand and develop programs designed to bring people out of poverty. At SPEA, the VISTA Fellows program offers Masters students an opportunity to spend one year applying what we have learned in the classroom in support of VISTA’s anti-poverty goals.
At the end of my first year at SPEA, my public service experience was limited to volunteering at non-profits, short stints as an intern, and being a member of student organizations. To become an effective public service professional, I needed to work full-time in a government program. SPEA is the first and only institution of higher education to host a VISTA program. When it was introduced to the student community, I saw it as my chance to gain that much needed experience.
After a competitive application and interview process, I was honored to be offered a VISTA Fellow position at the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO). Part of the Office of the Mayor, CEO was created to implement and evaluate innovative new anti-poverty programs in New York City. The Center works with city agencies to design, implement, and advocate for a range of programs, policy proposals, and research projects that represent nationwide best practices. CEO is widely recognized for innovative public programs. Right now CEO is a semi-finalist in the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School Innovations in American Government Awards and a recipient of a Federal Social Innovation Fund grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service.
At CEO, my supervisor, the agency’s Director of Budget and Operations, has provided me with opportunities to lead my own projects and to participate in all areas of CEO. To build capacity at CEO, I’ve been working closely with CEO’s Data Manager to upgrade CEO’s performance management system. A high-quality data system is critical for tracking and managing performance for CEO’s over 50 programs. Once the upgrade is complete, data will automatically update on the Citywide Performance Dashboard, with graphs and charts that will make program management easier. I’m also developing two programs that will be a part of Mayor Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), which seeks to address the high poverty and unemployment rates of New York City’s young Black and Latino men and their peers.
Only halfway through my year at CEO, I’ve transitioned from being a student of public administration to being a public administrator. I’ve learned about program development, data management, project management, and the budgeting process, and I’ve learned soft skills – how to brief executives, how to display data – skills you can’t learn in the classroom. I even had an opportunity to share my newfound experience and knowledge when I presented an overview of CEO to 140 AmeriCorps’ Civic Corps members at a local community college.
In my year as a VISTA Fellow at City Hall in New York City, I am learning how an effective data-driven organization operates and how government implements innovative programs and policies. When I return to SPEA this August, I am certain this experience will contribute towards a career in public service working to cut down that 40 million in poverty statistic.
The deadline to apply for a SPEA VISTA Fellowship is March 1. To apply or find more information about the SPEA VISTA Fellows Program click here.
 U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2012).