Above: watch the full Forum conversation with Finberg, moderated by Harvard Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” When President John F. Kennedy spoke these historic words during his 1961 inaugural address, he inspired growth of public service in the United States. Today, his legacy of service lives on through AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America), a program that emerged from one of Kennedy’s own ideas. VISTA’s current director, Max Finberg, came to speak at Harvard’s JFK Jr. Forum, and I had the privilege of talking with him before the event.
As a former advisor at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and member of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Finberg is no stranger to public service or the fight against poverty. When I asked what drew him to VISTA’s particular approach to targeting poverty, Finberg emphasized that VISTA’s strategy “combines micro and macro-level” ways of addressing issues. Joining VISTA allows members to “tackle some of society’s biggest challenges when it comes to poverty, but do it on a one-on-one basis that changes people’s lives.” Finberg explained that VISTA members live in and form relationships in the communities they serve. Their work focuses less on direct service to individuals and more on developing sustainable anti-poverty programs. Instead of acting as tutors, for example, VISTA members may work on recruiting community volunteers for a tutoring program that will outlast their own time in the area.
I admire that VISTA values service that’s designed to leave an enduring impact on communities. As the daughter of two elementary school teachers, I have always been taught the importance of empowering people by providing them with the tools that they need to grow and achieve. By nurturing local organizations and engaging community members, VISTA volunteers invest in the long-term development of the regions that they serve rather than just treating the symptoms of poverty in those areas.
In my view, service that involves investing in others’ lives is incredibly powerful. During our interview, Finberg shared the story of a friend of his who grew up on a Native American reservation and who still remembers Walt, a VISTA volunteer there. When Walt took a school group on a fieldtrip to a national park, Walt “sparked in him a love of conservation and environmental justice” that eventually led him to his current position in charge of the U.S. Forest Service. In Finberg’s own life, he identifies the role of a former Congressman who has acted as a mentor to him for many years as helping him get to his current position. These two stories demonstrate that by entering other people’s lives, we can care for them in ways that will be extremely meaningful in the long run.
I am grateful for organizations like AmeriCorps VISTA and people like Max Finberg who remain devoted to the people and communities that they serve. They are powerful examples that all of us have the potential to create lasting and exponential change if we truly care about and invest in others.
By Michaela Morrow, Harvard '18