TBT Spotlight: Winnie Foster, Political Activist

By Grace Maselli

Speaking truth to power—a non-violent political tactic—is Winnie Foster’s destiny. Winnie was also born with the gift of energy, a potent combination. A TBT member, at 91 years old the political activist and founder in the 1970s of St. Petersburg’s Sojourner Truth Center for citizen empowerment, is a staunch supporter of Andrew Gillum, the liberal Tallahassee mayor and Democratic nominee this November for the governor’s seat. The people of St. Petersburg where Winnie’s lived for almost half a century treasure the work she continues to do. In fact, on July 14, 2016, Winnie’s 90th birthday, St. Pete’s recognized Winnie by throwing her a party, with Mayor Kriseman personally handing her the Key to the City. It’s one of at least two keys (“the front and back doors,” Winnie impishly notes) that she’s been bestowed by St. Petersburg. And they’re just two of many such symbols acknowledging her substantial contributions to Gillum and everything else Winnie stands for in support of community.

The story of Winnie would be incomplete without talk of her Quaker roots, a denomination affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends, and deeply aligned with the principle of non-violence.

“War is always wrong, and non-violence must be taught,” says Winnie. We can’t do this effectively until we can make systemic shifts in our educational systems,” starting early to develop non-violence, as in the long tradition of Quaker education. “I’m dedicated now to electing young progressive people—women and men—who see this and are determined to make a difference,” says the nonagenarian. This helps to explains Winnie’s ardent support for Andrew Gillum,  an anti-war, human rights proponent who unsurprisingly favors strong gun control laws to protect against violent acts. Winnie attends and speaks at Gillum campaign rallies and town hall meetings, advocating and connecting the dots among her civic and political affiliations to get the vote out.

There’s Power in a Name

Winnie chose to name her  non-profit the Sojourner Truth Center after the “much neglected historical figure. I wanted to honor the vision she lived,” Winnie says of Sojourner Truth, former slave, tireless abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate. “We can use her name to speak truth to power,” Winnie says of the non-profit through which she continues to raise awareness of voting rights for all, environmental sustainability, organic and community gardening, among other aims. “l get calls for help through the Center from the public and members of the media” and as of this writing, Winnie’s ambition is to “rebirth a Board of Directors.”

In the name of Sojourner Truth, Winnie’s volunteerism for Florida politicians can be traced to the 1970s and her work for the first African American female legislator, Gwen Cherry. Winnie was a political aid to Cherry and supported her progressive legislative agenda that included introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, among other groundbreaking legislation. Cherry was likewise an educator and lawyer in Florida and founded the National Association of Black Women Attorneys. In 1972 Cherry also chaired the National Women’s Political Caucus, among other pioneering efforts.

The inevitability of Winnie’s intention to serve on behalf of society’s most vulnerable is in keeping with the tradition of her grandparents, parents, and sister; like them, Winnie left her home town in Danville, Ind. at age 16 for co-ed boarding school at Olney Friends, a Quaker school founded in 1837 in Barnesville, Oh., 28 years before Congress would pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the U.S. “I value my Quaker heritage very much,” says Winnie. “It had a big influence on my life.” At Olney, “we studied the history of anti-slavery, women’s education, and many progressive issues,” she says.

One speaker at Olney in particular stands out in Winnie’s mind. Bayard Ruskin, key advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the student body when Winnie was a high school junior. Representing the non-violent, anti-war “Fellowship of Reconciliation” religious organizations, Ruskin spoke out against racism as part of his involvement in early grassroots protests to support civil and economic rights for African Americans and other oppressed people. “Bayard Ruskin was a loyal friend and confidante to Martin Luther King, Jr.,” says Winnie, adding that he was with King in the summer of 1963 when King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. “He likely helped King write some of that famous speech,” Winnie says. “Bayard also identified himself as gay; the other Southern pastors tried to keep him separated from King for this reason”—because of the associated stigma at that time in history. “But King valued Bayard as an adviser and friend and kept him close,” Winnie says. “Bayard Ruskin was a great inspiration to me.”

A Move South of the Mason-Dixon Line

Winnie met Albert Foster, her husband of 60+ years,  in high school at Olney, or as Winnie describes it, “the Quaker Matrimonial Bureau.” “Our mothers were roommates and friends at Olney and our fathers were friends there too,” she says of the couple’s parents who also first met at the Quaker school before walking down the isle together. Winnie and Al and their youngest of three kids—a son, moved to St. Pete’s Bahama Shores neighborhood 48 years ago when Al Foster was promoted by the jewelry manufacturer he worked for to run their new Florida factory making leather watch bands.

Born on a farm in Indiana, Winnie never lived in a city until she moved to Providence, RI. She relocated with her “intellectual and bookish” boyfriend-turned-husband,  she says, when Al, as he was best known until his death in 2011, went to Brown University for a degree in English Literature. The two of them bought five acres of woods in a small suburban Rhode Island town outside Providence. “We were without much means,” Winnie says of that early time in their marriage. So to make it all work, the couple got busy. “We built our own “rammed-Earth” house where our three kids were born. We cut down trees on our property to make roof beams; we were also given wooden boards from a Quaker meeting house for our construction. We cleared part of the land and grew a garden and fruit trees. And we dug our own well for water,” she says. “We were young and ambitious, and everything was an adventure.”

A self-described people person, for her part, no matter where Winnie lived as an adult—Rhode Island or Florida—work outside the home, including grassroots community efforts, “was my education,” she says. When her kids were being raised, she waitressed in the evenings at small coffee shops in Providence. She got dinner on the table for Al and the three children before heading to work while Al  stayed to manage homework. “I was at the coffee shop one night when we got the news by radio of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I can still remember the face of the customer I was talking with all those decades ago.”

Before she was serving coffee and pie on the night shift, Winnie volunteered in the 1960s at the Brown University Library. “From a very early age I always felt that the contents of libraries were like universities that can be endlessly explored,” she notes. “At the Brown University Library, I worked at the circulation desk and had access to the stacks. When I got pregnant, they relocated me to the cataloging department in the basement.”

The PTA as Training Ground for Community Organizing

When she wasn’t in the basement or waitressing, Winnie was a PTA member at her daughter’s Rhode Island school. “My mother was a PTA person in Indiana; I felt it was my duty to join, and I was very active,” says the woman whose book shelves are lined with the works of Noam Chomsky, Cornell West, and Bernie Sanders, among other eminent scholars, social activists, philosophers, politicians, and authors. Her experience deepened with the help of a PTA mentor who served as a Board of Directors member for the statewide Rhode Island Parent and Teachers Association and president of three local PTA Boards. “I learned a lot from this person. Citizens can really be their own worst enemies sometimes, when they argue about what kinds of cookies to serve at the sports’ team event. My PTA involvement provided a great grounding for learning about community organization,” and how to focus energy effectively on key issues for the greatest positive impact.

The results of this sustained focus over decades speak for themselves. Winnie’s life experiences, the cumulative learning through community connection, moved her along the path mapped by the people she admires most—Sojourner Truth, Bayard Ruskin, and Gwenn Cherry, among them. And like her heroes, she’s a pioneer and a person single-mindedly dedicated to positive change and protection of what’s vulnerable and precious: People in her community and our beautiful planet. Peace and civil rights. The intention to undo racism and sexism in our societal institutions and structures. A widening of access to economic freedom, education, and ultimately, self-realization—not just for the privileged and powerful, but for everyone. “No matter what,” Winnie says, “we have to keep fighting.”