By William Bunch '81 / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007
On a powder-blue September morning Matt Dunne '92 arrives at the Thurgood Marshall Academy in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., the city's poorest. The streets of Anacostia are where Pierre L'Enfant's magnificent design for the nation's capital grinds to a sudden and unsightly halt in a pockmarked landscape of boarded-up homes and pawn shops.

The Thurgood Marshall Academy, however, is an oasis of fresh paint and fresh ideas. Located up two flights of stairs in a hastily renovated church annex, the charter school, which was cofounded by Dunne's friend Jacquelyn Davis '93, opened only two weeks ago. Davis, who is now the school's executive director, leads Dunne to a freshly carpeted room lined with the latest IBM computers, but the newness of the setting is deceptive. Davis has big plans for Thurgood Marshall; although the entire student population now consists of eighty-four ninth-graders, the school is slated to move to a new $10 million building that will hold 350 students in all four high-school grades as well as swarms of volunteer tutors. The hope is that most Thurgood Marshall graduates will be college bound. And the plan calls for all this to happen within five years.

Inside the room with the computers sit twenty ninth-graders, all wearing variations on the school's uniform: dark burgundy polo shirts and khaki pants. Chairs are arranged in a U, allowing the students to pass flashcards among them. Davis lowers her voice to a whisper. "We found out that 75 percent of the kids didn't know how to use a measuring device or a ruler," she says.

Clearly, Davis is going to need a lot of help if she is to succeed in quickly transforming this seed of a school into a thriving educational center. That's where Matt Dunne comes in. As the director of AmeriCorps*VISTA, Dunne heads a thirty-five-year-old national-service agency aimed at helping low-income communities with such basics as housing, education, and safety. As the underpublicized cousin of the Peace Corps, Ameri-Corps*VISTA (which stands for Volunteers in Service to America and which was known simply as VISTA until 1993) has survived more than three decades in Washington's shifting political and bud-getary landscape - an eternity in the legislative free-fire zone inside the Beltway. Born in the troubled era of the civil- rights movement and the war in Vietnam, the agency for most of its history has been viewed by conservatives as a liberal boondoggle. Yet not only has AmeriCorps* VISTA made it into the twenty-first century; it has been escorted into it by a surprising booster: George W. Bush.

Almost lost amid the notoriety of the president's delineation of "an axis of evil" in his January State of the Union address was a proposal to hugely expand efforts like AmeriCorps, which he singled out by name. "My call tonight," he said, "is for every American to commit at least two years - 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime - to the service of your neighbors and your nation." He then announced the formation of a new umbrella organization called USA Freedom Corps, which would include AmeriCorps* VISTA, the Peace Corps, and a handful of other new and established service agencies. The goal, he said, was to add 200,000 new volunteers to the USA Freedom Corps, 25,000 of them to AmeriCorps - an increase of 50 percent. "We have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like," he said. "We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self and we must not let this moment pass."

Matt Dunne has been chasing goals larger than himself since 1992, when at the age of twenty-two he graduated from Brown and a few months later was elected to the Vermont legislature. Supporting himself as an executive with the software firm Logic Associates, over the next seven years he developed a reputation as a smart and energetic legislator. He seemed to have a knack for assembling cross-party coalitions to support his favorite bills on such issues as downtown redevelopment and court reform. As a result, Dunne came to be seen as a Democrat for whom ideology was less important than results. "Generation X has an incredible commitment to finding pragmatic solutions to public-policy problems," he says, sounding like a younger version of President Bill Clinton, who approved his selection to head AmeriCorps*VISTA in late 1999.

Dunne's vision of AmeriCorps (which in addition to VISTA also includes AmeriCorps*State and National and the National Civilian Community Corps) is also close to that of President Bush, whose support for the agency has startled some conservatives. A week after Bush's State of the Union address, for example, House Majority Leader Dick Armey said of the president's proposal: "I do not understand why anyone would embrace AmeriCorps. I think the conceptual framework of AmeriCorps is obnoxious." Yet in the years since Clinton established the agency in 1993, other conservatives, including Senator John McCain, have gradually gone from trying to eliminate it to sponsoring measures to expand it, a development that makes perfect sense to Dunne. "VISTA helps the nonprofit community take on tasks that otherwise would be done by government," he says. "So in many ways it has a conservative feel."

Whatever AmeriCorps's politics or structure might be, those additional thousands of volunteers are likely to end up in places just like the Thurgood Marshall Academy. As is the case for so many schools in the United States, the gap between aspiration and reality is large there. Closing that gap means recruiting student mentors and tutors, courting potential donors, and getting the school to function smoothly and well.

Enter AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer Edith Jacobs. A soft-spoken mother of two and grandmother of one, Jacobs, at age forty-four, has lived in Washington all her life. She understands firsthand the travails of poverty, and she realizes how important her experience can be for others. As her children grew up, she became a volunteer counselor for troubled teens and later worked with the area's homeless. Then friends suggested she join VISTA, which pays a small stipend - just under $10,000 a year, or 105 percent of the poverty level - and provides employee benefits and educational opportunities. Now in her third year with the program, Jacobs helps Davis and other Thurgood Marshall administrators by raising money and recruiting mentors for the ninth-graders.

Sometimes, though, educational work is, well, more mundane. On the Saturday before Dunne's visit to the school, students and their mentors were scheduled to canoe out onto the Anacostia River and collect the trash that had accumulated in and around it. Then the September attacks occurred, just a few days before the trip, and suddenly all boats were banned from the river. School officials wanted to go ahead with a cleanup anyway, even if the participants would have to remain on the Anacostia's banks, but this plan included taking a lunch - for 125 people.

On Friday, Davis recalls, "I told Edith, ԉI have to teach a class now, and I need you to get lunch for 125 people tomorrow, and I don't know how you do it - but figure it out! I'll be back.' "

So Jacobs phoned half the supermarkets inside the Beltway, pricing sandwiches and chips. "They all said , ԗWe need forty-eight hours,'" she tells Dunne during his visit, "and I was like, ԎNo!' " By late afternoon she decided that Costco had the best price for what she needed, but the closest Costco store was across the street from the Pentagon, in an area closed off because of the September 11 attacks. The next closest one was in suburban Maryland, forty minutes away. Davis and Jacobs raced out to it, bought what they needed, returned to the school, and began the task of making and wrapping 170 sandwiches.

Upon hearing this story, Dunne, who already has gray flecks in his black hair, smiles broadly. To him Jacobs's exploits describe the spirit of VISTA better than a library of brochures. "The type of person who becomes a VISTA," he explains, "is not the one who would say, ԉI can't do that.' "


TO GET a fuller understanding of the political and philosophical distance that VISTA and AmeriCorps-*VISTA have traveled over the past thirty-five years, visit Dunne in his cramped tenth-floor office on New York Avenue, in the center of the capital's business district. Lining the walls are recruiting posters from the agency's glory days in the 1960s, when such antipoverty initiatives as President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program enjoyed strong public support. One poster, which depicts a young Dustin Hoffman, lampoons the 1967 film The Graduate and its famous line, "What will you do when you graduate?" The answer, in small print, reads: "You can put off plastics for a year."

Created by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, VISTA has never quite overcome its reputation as a haven for political troublemakers. "Your pay will be low; the condition of your labor will be often difficult," President Johnson told the first group of VISTA volunteers when they visited the White House in December 1964. "But you will have the satisfaction of leading a great national effort, and you will have the ultimate reward which comes to those who serve their fellow man." In fact, the work was frustrating. Many volunteers were radicalized by what they were seeing in America's streets and hollows, and in one early project that involved working with coal miners in Appalachia, a group of VISTA volunteers was briefly arrested on charges of sedition. Al Garner, one of the original volunteers in 1965, ended up in Pecos, New Mexico, helping a small Latino community without electricity get paved roads. "Antipoverty work was frustrating and disillusioning. I worked hard and was lucky," he wrote recently. "However, I thought I'd get more done."

By 1966 about 3,600 VISTA volunteers were scattered around the United States. Among their accomplishments was the founding of agricultural cooperatives and community groups. The first Head Start and Job Corps projects were also VISTA initiatives. But conservatives never liked the idea of a program that used federal money to make political trouble, and in the 1970s, when VISTA became part of ACTION, officials emphasized the recruitment of professionals such as doctors and architects, whose efforts tended to revolve around establishing clinics and medical centers, or renovating low-income housing.

Even this did not satisfy VISTA's many critics, however. During the 1980s, when most federal government-aid programs were being overhauled or even dismantled, the Reagan administration changed the agency's approach and philosophy to the one that still dominates today. Under Reagan, VISTA emphasized self-help rather than government help. He also further depoliticized the agency by focusing on the relatively uncontroversial problem of literacy. In fact, by the late 1980s about a quarter of all VISTA volunteers were working on literacy projects.

Under the first President George Bush, VISTA became a source of some of his famous "thousand points of light," but the program's next real push came from President Clinton's 1993 National Community Service Trust Act. This law merged a number of programs into AmeriCorps, which itself became part of the Corporation of National Service headed by Harris Wofford, John F. Kennedy's former civil-rights adviser and a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Wofford is generally credited with fending off Republican cries of government-sponsored "paid volunteers" while pushing AmeriCorps to weave itself more tightly with nongovernmental antipoverty programs. As a result, during the 1990s many conservatives began backing off from their longstanding view that the program should be abolished. "I'm not saying that everything AmeriCorps is doing is great and that we should boost the funding," former Ohio Representative and Newt Gingrich lieutenant John Kasich told the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne Jr. two years ago. "[But] the last thing I want to do is take somebody who's involved in that sort of program and doing good things and whack them. I want to encourage them."

And so, conservatives such as Kasich and President George W. Bush are now saying, maybe putting off plastics for a year isn't such a bad idea after all.


THE POLITICAL HISTORY of the AmeriCorps*VISTA that Dunne joined in January 2000 in many ways parallels that of his own family. Matt's father, John B. Dunne, never worked for VISTA, but he embraced the spirit of the era in which it was founded. A star football player and an accomplished violinist at The Choate School, the elder Dunne won a scholarship to the University of North Carolina in the early 1960s and was soon swept up in the civil-rights movement. Arriving in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 to cover the demonstrations for the student newspaper, he wound up joining the protesters and was arrested while trying to help some African-American parents find their jailed children.

Back in Chapel Hill, he organized protests against segregated restaurants and was arrested again, this time for trespassing. That arrest resulted in a brief term in jail, but after his release he transferred to Harvard for his senior year. Yale Law school followed, and after that he moved to Vermont with his wife, Faith, who taught education at nearby Dartmouth. He became an activist in his adoptive home state and bought a ninety-eight-acre farm in Hartland - the farm on which Matt Dunne was raised.

Diagnosed with melanoma, John Dunne died when he was thirty-nine years old. (His son wonders whether the time his father spent working on a road gang during his North Carolina imprisonment contributed to his early death.) "I felt very connected to my father," Dunne says. "We had a wonderful relationship. Actually, I'm not sure when he spent time in the office. We were farming together, or he was taking me to the courthouse or to meetings where he set up a land trust for farmland, or we were going to a home for runaway youth to have dinner with them."

John Dunne left his son with a farm, a love of Vermont, and a passion for politics. Dunne says he was such a politicized child that he asked his parents for permission to stay home from nursery school one day in the early 1970s so he could watch the Senate Watergate hearings on television. He says it was his parents who taught him to work for social change, even if the issues now are more nuanced than those of the black-and-white 1960s. "Those levels of complexity make it much more difficult to put things into sound bites," he says, "but they're no less important."

Displayed behind Dunne's desk in his Washington office are several black-and-white photos of his home - not the Vermont of Ben and Jerry's ice cream or of mills-turned-into-lofts but the Vermont of struggling farmers and isolated, close-knit towns. This, he says, is the sensibility he brings with him to places like Anacostia. "Vermont has an incredibly strong sense of community," he explains. "Town meetings still run things there, and there's a sense of helping people, of running things on a small community-based level. Now I'm in the business of trying to recreate what there already is in Vermont."

Dunne attended public high school in Hanover, New Hampshire. The school was involved in a Peace Corpsдtype program called Crossroads Caribbean, and so he signed up and traveled to Dom-inica, which he now describes as "a life-changing experience" that would propel him toward VISTA. Already familiar with the fraternity-heavy culture at Dartmouth, Dunne looked elsewhere for college and says he fell in love with Brown the first time he saw the campus. "I remember walking into the Blue Room the first time I visited," he says, "and seeing students engaged in intense discussion, wearing clothes that made them look like individuals instead of conforming to someone's idea."

He was soon involved in those discussions himself. He studied public policy at the Taubman Center, but he also gravitated to performance, singing with the Hi Jinx and directing plays with Production Workshop. "If Brown taught me anything," he says, "it was to have no fear." After graduation, he was back in Vermont and had soon made what he calls a "crazy decision" to run for the Vermont Legislature. No one expected him to win. This neophyte first had to win a Democratic primary; then he would have to face off against a Republican opponent, a well-known town clerk, in a heavily GOP district. Dunne's strategy was simple: he knocked on as many doors as he could and registered scores of young voters. He won the election by 186 votes.

After arriving in Montpelier, the state capital, Dunne had to prove himself. A few older lawmakers resented him, he says. When he seemed impatient to get a bill through, some of his colleagues would remind him of his age and say, "You've got so much time!" He proved himself by working hard. When he couldn't get a senior staffer to help him draft a bill to establish a Vermont Film Commission, he stayed up all night with a low-level aide to write the version that ultimately passed. Eventually Dunne became the youngest majority whip in the country - all this while holding down his full-time marketing job with Logic Associates.

It was in the Vermont legislature that this son of a 1960s activist learned the realities of 1990s politics. He took advantage of his age by forming an alliance with the legislature's youngest Republican. Dunne developed a reputation as a political whiz kid, and Washington noticed. In the mid-1990s Clinton officials began looking for a way to attract more young volunteers to AmeriCorps, and when the job heading VISTA became available, Dunne, who had just turned thirty, got the call.

A year later, however, Clinton was gone, and George W. Bush was suddenly interested in matching AmeriCorps and similar agencies with the nation's postГSeptember 11 mood. In fact, even before September 11, AmeriCorps*VISTA had been thriving. The program had 6,000 volunteers working across the nation, the most since its founding. The VISTAs, as they are called, include not only recent college graduates but also a growing number of early retirees looking to put their knowledge and experience to good use. In addition, the agency has been successful in attracting more and more low-income residents to serve in their own communities.

In view of these trends, Bush's call for 25,000 new volunteers for all of AmeriCorps is less surprising. In recent years AmeriCorps*VISTA has already become strongly entwined with such popular programs as City Year and Habitat for Humanity. And VISTA-supported programs are as diverse as America itself. The agency works with African-American and Latino entrepreneurs in Harlem, with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America in Los Angeles, and with welfare-to-work programs in Phoenix. Other projects are set on New Mexico Indian reservations, in the Mississippi Delta, and in the valleys of Appalachia.

Not surprisingly, given the changes the agency has undergone over the past twenty years, the rhetoric of AmeriCorps*VISTA now focuses on entrepreneurship. In fact, a 1997 study by Peopleworks Inc. of the sustainability of AmeriCorps programs found that their long-term success was directly related to their ability to find nongovernmental funding sources to support them after AmeriCorps*VISTA had moved on. "The shift in program emphasis to fund-raising and resource development enabled projects to secure post-VISTA support from a variety of sources," the study concluded.

As a result, one of Dunne's major innovations has been to craft a three-year initiative to launch the Entrepreneur Corps, which is aimed at fighting poverty by creating more self-sustaining programs. (Dunne hosted a conference on the subject at Brown last August.) The idea is for VISTA volunteers to help groups get their organization set up efficiently and obtain independent funding - and then for the VISTA volunteers to leave. Under the Bush administration the new wrinkle has been to include faith-based organizations in the mix, a still-controversial move that Dunne supports. He is also pleased by Bush's appointment of a dynamic Indiana educator, Leslie Len-kowsky, to replace Harris Wofford as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

In fact, much of Dunne's time over the past year has been spent stabilizing an agency that's been whipsawed by Washington's power shifts through the years. Now he must rise to the challenges presented by the Bush USA Freedom Corps and the prospect of a new influx of volunteers. (Inquiries about AmeriCorps are up 30 percent since September 11.) When Dunne is asked about his future, though, his answer underscores the reason for those photographs hanging behind his desk. "I don't believe in an absolute trajectory," he says of his career. Whatever comes next, he implies, will likely involve Hartland and the family farm.

"I'm loving work," Dunne says, "but Vermont is home."

William Bunch is a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News.
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