When asked to write a reflection on my experience as a VISTA volunteer, my response was similar to Dorothy Parker’s in the movie “Jerry McGuire:” You had me at hello. Writing this article was an easy sale. Reflecting and writing about my experience as a VISTA volunteer in 1968-1969 is a pleasurable task.
The timing is fortuitous. I am in a reflective mood because I turned 70 in May, and in Minnesota 70 is the mandatory retirement age for judges. After serving two years as Chief Judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals and 19 years on the Minnesota Supreme Court, I must retire. It is an excellent time to reflect on how VISTA has influenced my life and career, especially as a justice — a lot!
I frequently talk to students about civics and the role of the judiciary. My enthusiastic description of my job as a supreme court justice often prompts the question: “How can I get a job like yours?” I respond by telling them to show up for life’s opportunities.
Our country continues to be the land of opportunity, and as citizens it is our job to look for and show up for the opportunities it provides. When we show up we will have an experience — most times good and sometimes not so good. We will learn important lessons from each. We will learn how organizations work, how people lead, how they follow. We will gain insights into others and ourselves. People who show up gain self-confidence, understand the nature of the human condition and learn what they can do to make things better. Most importantly, they develop the ability to look for and show up for other opportunities.
Showing up puts us in the middle of an upward expanding spiral of opportunities. The sky is the limit in this spiral. Showing up can even result in a farm kid like me becoming a supreme court justice who gets to decide interesting and important cases, render decisions that have the force of law, and travel not only nationally, but globally to lecture on a democratic government based on the rule of law.
After telling students how important it is to show up, they invariably ask me what important opportunities I showed up for. My answer always includes my service as a VISTA volunteer. VISTA provided me with a unique experience and taught me lessons that have lasted a lifetime.
I became aware of VISTA in early 1968 — an extraordinary year by any measure. The civil rights and women’s liberation movements were in full force, and anti-war demonstrations occurred almost daily. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Riots broke out in several cities and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the Black Panthers were preaching about resistance and violence against authority. It was in this environment that I, as a 25-year old law-school graduate, was seeking opportunity.
I had a job awaiting me after graduation — a position as a special assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota. But life was complex. I was draft eligible. As a law-school graduate, there were several military options available to me, but I wanted to do something different. What were the opportunities available for someone who was patriotic, wanted to serve his country, wanted to do something meaningful but did not believe Vietnam was the place to do it? That was my dilemma when I saw the VISTA recruitment poster on the law school bulletin board. VISTA looked like a great opportunity to serve my country. I applied, was accepted and, as they say, the rest is history.
My VISTA experience and lessons learned began in late August with my eight weeks of training. I was assigned to live with Mrs. Kennedy, a 65-year-old African-American woman in southeast Washington, D.C., which, at the time, was almost a totally black community. For the first time in my life I was a minority in the community in which resided. I learned much from Mrs. Kennedy. I learned that as a minority, she had been relegated to work in low-level service jobs all of her life. I learned how hard she had to work just to survive. I learned about her misconception of what life was like in the community in which I grew up. I had a very difficult time convincing her that I was not raised with servants waiting on me hand and foot.
I witnessed first-hand the insidious nature of racial discrimination and how even the perception of discrimination can be as corrosive on a person’s self-worth as actual discrimination. I learned how an imbedded power structure designed to help the poor can be subject to manipulation and how acting out of self-interest can be counter-productive. I learned that good works often come under unexpected labels. For example, a rural conservative Minnesota Republican Congressman, Ancher Nelsen, was known and liked by the minority community. This was so because as a member of the House District of Columbia Committee, he took a real interest in the neighborhood and tried to make things better for everyone.
My permanent assignment was as a neighborhood lawyer with New Haven Legal Assistance in New Haven, Conn. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, New Haven in the late 1960s, despite the presence of Yale University and Yale-New Haven Medical Center, was a tough town. I was assigned to a neighborhood office in one of the tougher neighborhoods — the Hill-Dwight neighborhood. I never felt unsafe; I worked with some extraordinary people and had an interesting and diverse client base.
I was able to help a local daycare survive by clearing up its IRS problems and restructuring its management. I helped to secure and preserve housing for several clients and worked with some local children’s activity programs. I advised a Community Action Program on how best to provide service while at the same time navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth of government downtown. New Haven was a great place to work, gain experience, and to learn.
But not everything was rosy. I saw how, in many ways, my clients, because of their backgrounds and socio-economic status, lacked many of the life skills that I had always taken for granted. I saw how complex, difficult, and even discriminatory the legal-judicial system can be for those who are poor, a minority, or an outsider. For the first time, I witnessed how an old boys’ network of lawyers and judges can treat women lawyers with disrespect and even derision. And, most surprisingly, I witnessed one of my clients evolve from a highly motivated and effective director of the Hill-Dwight CAP into a radical, revolutionary captain in the Black Panther Party. Less than eight months after I first met him, he participated in the torture and murder of an alleged Black Panther informant from New York. I had a front row seat witnessing how discrimination, racism, lack of hope, and frustration can transform a solid citizen into a radical revolutionary. All in all, it was quite a learning experience for a farm kid from Minnesota.
After 15 months with VISTA, I returned to Minnesota, worked on a political campaign, served as an assistant attorney general, and ultimately joined a small general-practice law firm. My VISTA lessons never left me, and they would show up in my political and social views — and in my local community activities. Once I became a judge, they were even more evident as I became a leader in efforts to promote gender equality, racial fairness, and the elimination of bias in both the judiciary and the practice of law. I helped to establish what became a model system for providing court interpreters. And, of course, the lessons would frequently show up in my judicial opinions.
As I retire from the court, I leave with a reputation for fairness and equality, and a willingness to protect the interests of all — in particular, the least advantaged among us. This surprises some people because when in VISTA, I was identified as being Republican and was appointed to the bench by a Republican governor. But it really should not have been that much of a surprise, because for as long as I can remember, I have been rooted in a pragmatic, progressive, prairie populist tradition that was once prominent in Minnesota. It may have been this tradition that drew me to VISTA in the first place. But once within the ambit of the VISTA experience, all of the best aspects of that tradition were nurtured, developed, and enhanced. I will be forever grateful for the lifetime gift of experience and lessons that VISTA gave me.
Judge Anderson is a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and was a VISTA Volunteer in 1968-1969.