Rep. Elliott Naishtat

As Interviewed by Oona Moorhead, March 6, 2012

Representative Elliott Naishtat: In His Own Words

My name is Elliott Naishtat and I’m a State Representative from District 49, which is Central Austin, the inner city neighborhood of Austin.

Originally, I didn’t come to Texas by choice. I’m from New York City, and when I finished college in the late 60s, I signed up to be in the Domestic Peace Corps, VISTA: Volunteers In Service To America. Today you hear more about Americorps. Bill Clinton wanted to start his own domestic peace corps. John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps. Lyndon Johnson started VISTA, the domestic peace corps. Bill Clinton started Americorps, which is pretty much the same as VISTA.

The reason I came to Texas originally was because of the government. When I signed up for VISTA, the people in Washington, DC said, “We’d love to have you serve, and because you are from a big city, we’ll send you to a VISTA project in a big city.” And they promised me San Francisco, but the government lied, and they sent me to Eagle Pass, TX.

That’s how I ended up in Texas, serving as a VISTA volunteer fighting poverty on the border in Dimmit, Zavala, and Maverick counties. Eagle Pass is right across border from Piedras Negras, Mexico.

I learned all about community organizing. I learned the importance of getting low income people involved in planning and implementing whatever projects they wanted the VISTAs to help with, whether it was getting water to Seco Mines (a barrio where they had real outhouses) or starting a high school program, a preschool, or a teen club. The approach of VISTAs was to find out what the people want, help them organize around those issues, to help them get either water or sewer or plumbing or high schools or roads paved and get them involved and working on these projects, so that when the VISTAs leave the people had developed their own leadership potential and can start their own projects and run their own projects. It was a very controversial phrase in the War On Poverty legislation called “maximum feasible participation of the poor,” and that was the part of the War On Poverty that was different from any other federal efforts because low-income people were meaningfully involved in developing programs, running the programs, deciding how the money would be spent. And what I took away was the importance of community organization and citizens’ input, citizen participation, and of course, I learned a lot about how one should not impose their, in my case, middle class values on other people, other cultures, that you should work with the people and make sure they have meaningful input into what’s going on and help develop local leadership potential, rather than coming down and saying this is what you need to do, this is what you should have in this neighborhood. I took that away from VISTA, but the skills I learned through training and just doing community organizing have served me well even here in the Texas Legislature.

I would argue that everything I’ve done since I was a VISTA volunteer related to helping other people, relating to help other people access services that they need and most importantly helping people learn to negotiate the system, just dealing with the system, the bureau, knowing that it was perfectly legitimate for a neighborhood associate to band together with some other neighborhood associate in Eagle Pass and go down to City Hall and lobby to get streets paved, or in the case of Seco Mines, where they didn’t have water (seco means dry, no water), those people had to learn that they could go before the County Commissioner’s City Council as a group and lobby and sometimes demand that they have services and programs that were intended to help them, to provide some assistance. Discrimination, we encountered that every day down there. Not me personally, but the people certainly encountered that all the time, so every day I feel that we were addressing problems related to social justice issues.

Back then when I was a VISTA volunteer, and when I was training VISTA volunteers in the late 60s and early 70s, we were working under the auspices of the War On Poverty, which included this concept of “maximum feasible participation of poor,” which really meant the poor would have decision making authority in how the federal money would be spent, what kind of projects the Community Action Agencies would work on, in whether or not there would be VISTA volunteers there, and if so what we would work on, and this became very controversial because low-income people, through this concept, the “maximum feasible participation of the poor” that was right in the law, they decided.

And that’s never existed since the War On Poverty. It was very controversial because low-income people in Eagle Pass, this was a national program, so low income people all over the country, had a majority of representatives on the board of directors of the Community Action Agencies that sponsored the VISTA volunteers and they called the shots. Traditionally, all federal money flows through state and then to the local level, to the mayor or the county judge. They make the decision. If they want to involve low-income people, they can. If they don’t want to, they don’t have to. They can make all those decisions. That was the biggest distinction between this experiment called the War On Poverty and implementing this unheard of concept of maximum feasible participation of the poor, which meant decision-making authority at the local level. That’s the major difference. Now you’re lucky if you can get one or two public hearings on what city government and county government will do. People go before city government or county government and say this is what we need, this is what I want, and the members of the city council or the commissioner’s courts throughout Texas don’t even have to listen. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. That’s a lot different from giving decision-making authority to low-income people.

Was the War On Poverty a success?

Absolutely. I can’t say poverty was eliminated because it wasn’t. So in that sense you could argue it was a failure. But if you understand that no one really expected poverty to be eliminated, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 that created the War On Poverty had language in it that said, “The purpose of this program is to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this nation.” They had people like me right out of college going through VISTA training trying to teach us to eliminate poverty. How do you do that? Well, they trained us to be community organizers to organize people around issues that affected their lives and their neighborhoods and to try to get the power structure to respond. Sometimes the power structure responded, but more often than not the power structure said, you’re not doing that, we don’t have enough money to do that. Maybe in 10 years we’ll get you water for Seco Mines. So no, on the surface of course, poverty wasn’t eliminated, but there were a lot of outstanding programs that were planned and implemented in places like Eagle Pass and all over the country. This was a national program that helped kids, that helped teenagers, that helped communities. The streets in Eagle Pass are paved now. Seco Mines has water now.

It took several years, but the VISTA volunteers laid the ground work for that to happen. There were a lot of kids who got in trouble at night because there was nothing to do. We started the Teen Club and then they had stuff to do, and they learned parlimentary proceedings and we had meetings. Some of those kids probably wouldn’t have made it through high school, and there are young people from Eagle Pass. There were young men in other cities, again this was a national program, who because of their experience in the War On Poverty, learning, getting healthier, improved their neighborhoods. It opened a lot of doors to them. There were a lot of kids in Eagle Pass who never thought they’d go to junior college, and then go to the University of Texas. I know one woman from Eagle Pass ended up being a principal in the Edgewood School District in San Antonio. It never would have happened. She was working at the Newbury’s in Eagle Pass and we convinced her to go to college and she went to the junior college and then she went to University of Texas and then she got a master’s degree from UT. We opened a lot of doors, we developed a lot of local leadership potential, made a lot of improvements, and in that sense, the War On Poverty was absolutely a success, although poverty was not eliminated in this country. It also changed a lot of the volunteers, like me. I never would have ended up in Texas, stayed in Texas. I never would have been a member of the House of Representatives in Texas except for what I learned through VISTA and the War On Poverty, especially about community organizing.

By the way, who’s the most famous community organizer in this country? Barack Obama.

I met people every day. I worked directly with people in poverty. The people in Seco Mines—I’ll never forget the first time we had a meeting there, and I said “We just went to training in San Antonio for five weeks, and this is our first meeting here in Seco Mines, and we have a needs assessment, like a survey, that we have to take to find what the needs are, and it was about 5 or 6 pages so lets do that to start, so we know what you want us to help you with,” and this little old man who was probably about 75 said, “We don’t need to do a survey,” and I said, a little bit arrogantly, “We just went through the training and this is how we start, we do the needs assessment,” and he said “We don’t need a needs assessment. We need agua. We need water, we need sewers, we need plumbing. We need to get rid of the outhouses and have indoor facilities. That’s what we need. If you can help us, good, we’ll work together. If you can’t, then go back to New York.”

The legislation that I’ve worked on has focused on the needs of low-income people, to a large degree, and I’ve passed a lot of bills, more than 200, and a lot of them deal with welfare, CHIP, Medicaid, Food Stamps. I’ve worked on trying to improve these programs, to get more funding into these programs, and they all directly impact low-income people.

There are federal programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and in the Legislature, for example, we set the eligibility levels, the requirements to be eligible. These are state-federal programs, so the state puts up a certain amount of money and the federal government puts up the rest, and with most of these programs it’s the Legislature that determines who will be eligible. For example, how much money you can make and be eligible, and it’s always a struggle, because as you know, Texas ranks at the bottom in every important category of health and human services spending. So it’s always a struggle. But the Legislature decides who’s going to be eligible, and what they’re going to be eligible for, and we do that with respect to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, Medicaid, and Food Stamps, which is now called SNAP.

People I admire as social justice advocates? I didn’t know her very well, but I certainly admire Barbara Jordan. And Molly Ivins. She wrote many books. She passed away a few years ago. She was a journalist and an outspoken advocate for social justice. I knew Ann Richards very well. At the local level, a guy named Jim Harrington who heads up the Texas Civil Rights Project. He’s one of the most effective advocates for social justice in the state. And then going back to my days in VISTA, I’d throw in Cesar Chavez, who I met many times when I was a VISTA volunteer working in South Texas with migrant farm workers in the late 1960s.

How can you tell if things are getting better?

Families can tell you if things are getting better. Usually in Texas they’re not getting better. But when you get involved in legislation—when you help pass hate crimes legislation, or most of the bills I’ve worked on over the years that deal with social justice and improving services, putting more money into programs that directly affect low-income people, people say thank you. And that’s one way you can tell, is when people say thank you.

When I passed this major nursing home reform bill because people in nursing homes were being abused and discriminated against and neglected. People were dying—there was a series of articles about deaths in nursing homes. We changed that in 1997. Now you look at the record of abuse and deaths in nursing homes, and it’s come way down. Anti-hazing legislation that makes it illegal to haze people entering fraternities; I worked on that. There’s still hazing, but the numbers of young people who get killed or seriously hurt from hazing when they’re pledging has gone down.

You want to make an impact on the world? Get your education. Get as much education as you can, read as much as you can. Read Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. Maybe you’ll be in VISTA or the Peace Corps after college, and that will teach you more. But you need to get involved. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are many organizations that you could work with. For me, the best experience I got was being a VISTA volunteer, because it wasn’t something theoretical. Being with the people, knowing you can learn a lot from the people you are supposed to be serving, while they’re learning a lot from you.