Max Finberg (LA ’92), director of AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), spoke about his experiences in anti-poverty and anti-hunger work during a discussion yesterday afternoon in Dowling Hall. The event, sponsored by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, the Peace and Justice Studies (PJS) program and the Career Center, was attended by four other VISTA volunteers, along with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members and administrators.
Chris Swan, associate dean of Tisch College, opened the event by speaking about the importance of civic and social engagement in the “Jumbo DNA.” He explained that research is currently being conducted at Tisch College about how AmeriCorps programs and other service projects enhance employment prospects for entry-level jobs. He said he hopes this research will confirm the benefits of volunteer work.
Dale Brian, assistant director of the PJS program, then introduced Finberg as an accomplished alumnus in the fields of government, non-profit and politics, noting his experiences served Ambassador and former Representative Tony Hall (D-OH) for 12 years in a series of roles, as well as working as the Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and as the first director of the non-profit Alliance to End Hunger. Brian spoke about his own personal experience working with Finberg throughout the alumnus’s undergraduate career.
“[Finberg’s] interest in social movements and social change was on his sleeve as a young student,” Brian said.
He added that he sees similar passions in many students at Tufts today.
Finberg explained that his journey after graduating from Tufts began when he moved to Washington, D.C., where he initially worked with a faith-based group in the outskirts of the city. Soon afterwards, he began to work in Hall’s congressional office, where he did a variety of projects related to combating poverty and hunger.
“That was the springboard for me to continue working on putting my faith into practice,” he said.
Finberg said his faith, education and experiences have all propelled him throughout his work. He explained that AmeriCorps VISTA was founded as a domestic Peace Corps program attempting to combat poverty within the United States, and that the program is comprised of almost 8,000 volunteers who serve at about 3,000 sites.
He said that the VISTA volunteers work together to help provide community-articulated needs in conjunction with local nonprofits that have similar goals.
“[VISTAs] focus their efforts on building the organizational, administrative and financial capacity of organizations that fight illiteracy, improve health services, foster economic develop and otherwise assist low-income communities,” according to the program’s website.
Finberg explained that the program is currently focusing on tackling three things in the United States: combating the long-lasting effects of slavery, welcoming new immigrants into the country and promoting opportunities for indigenous peoples.
While discussing the legacy of slavery, Finberg recounted his time as a student during the Rodney King trial, following footage that surfaced of several officers were on trial for beating King after a car chase, inciting national outrage. Finberg said he remembers when his classmate at Tufts was beating the ground of the Tisch Library roof as a symbolic gesture to demonstrate the impact of such a beating.
He noted that similar issues reflect the impacts of slavery today, including the Black Lives Matter movement and protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. He said that VISTA volunteers are serving in these areas to connect affected people with new opportunities.
“VISTAs are in the midst of these challenges, in confronting the legacy of slavery and recognizing how that fits into poverty, how it fits into hunger,” Finberg said.
He also explained that a VISTA program has recently been created to welcome new immigrants into the country. He compared the statements made by President Barack Obama regarding immigration reform on the macro-level to the micro-level actions of VISTAs in assisting in the transitions for new immigrants.
The next initiative Finberg spoke about was one to increase access to opportunities for indigenous peoples.
“Six of the 10 poorest places in the country are reservations in North and South Dakota,” he said.
Finberg said that he met with Native Americans while a student at Tufts, saying that exposure is important to highlight the effects of such historical atrocities on people in America country today.
“It was a big step from Tufts, to [then] learn of the poverty, to learn of the consequences of the attempted genocide that happened in our own land… and to see their place now,” he said.
He encouraged students to use the university campus as an opportunity to become familiar with new ideas and perspectives. Exposure to novel perspectives is a central point in social change, Finberg said.
“Needs are great, [but] the ability that one person, together with a community that says ‘this is our priority,’ connecting with others making similar initiatives, is powerful,” he said.