On Monday February 22, HKS kicked off its Spring Public Service Week with an evening event featuring Max Finberg, Director of AmeriCorps VISTA. The event was hosted at the JFK Jr. Forum and was moderated by HKS Dean Doug Elmendorf.
The conversation started with a discussion of Mr. Finberg’s path to public service. From an early age, Mr. Finberg had been moved by the issue of hunger through images on television and through his faith. As a young man, he became an assistant to Representative Tony Hall (D-OH). Finding a mentor and role model in Representative Hall was a critical turning point, since it set Mr. Finberg on a lifelong path of service. This service required sacrifices, but was highly rewarding. “Money was never a motivating factor for me,” he explained, because working for Representative Hall opened up an unimaginably rich world of opportunities and responsibilities. Even more importantly, Mr. Finberg came to grasp the power of relationships and working together—a concept at the core of the organization that he leads today.
Discussing his current work, Mr. Finberg described AmeriCorps VISTA as a national service program that leverages human capital to fight poverty in America. Volunteers, called VISTAs, partner with local organizations to build the capacity of communities. One major challenge that Mr. Finberg hopes that his organization can help address is poverty in the Native American community. He explained that some of the poorest counties in the U.S. are in reservations in the Dakotas, and that he is encouraging VISTAs to serve in those communities where the need is most acute.
During the audience Q&A period, one student asked about the prospect of making national service a more integral part of the experience of ordinary Americans. Mr. Finberg noted that the motivation for such service would need to be “enlightened self-interest”—that is, volunteers would need to be incentivized with the opportunity to both make a difference and gain important skills and experiences.
Dean Elmendorf concluded the session by asking about Mr. Finberg’s incredible sense of optimism. “Hope is one of the greatest things that you can give,” Mr. Finberg replied, “In the face of challenges… you find people who go against the odds.” Mr. Finberg shared the story of a former colleague in the Department of Agriculture who grew up on a reservation and ultimately became a leading figure in the U.S. Forest Service. That colleague had, as a child, been inspired to go to school and become a public servant when an AmeriCorps volunteer took him for the first time on a field trip outside the reservation. Stories like these give Mr. Finberg hope. “That’s what keeps me going,” Mr. Finberg concluded, “It’s infectious; share it.”