Fosters work is all about social justice

May 29, 2012
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Title: Diversity and inclusion consultant
Age: 39
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Single
Business/Community Organizations: Grand Rapids Urban League vice chairman, Kent County Black  Caucus vice chairman, member of Varnum Law’s diversity advisory council, policy volunteer for the NAACP, member of Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell’s Wage Theft Task Force.
Biggest Career Break: Serving for three years in Washington, D.C., for Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ administration, where he worked in a variety of capacities and learned the skills he uses today.

When he was growing up, Eric Foster spent the summer months with his grandparents who lived in segregated Ponchatoula, La.

During those hot, steamy days, Foster would listen to his grandfather tell him about racial discrimination against African-Americans, such as where they could live, work and being denied the right to vote.

His grandfather’s stories made Foster wonder why white people insisted on holding back people of different ethnicities.

“As I was growing up, I was always attentive to asking myself what I would do to address that issue,” he said.

Now that he’s near 40, the articulate and persuasive Foster has some answers. He has dedicated his life’s work to bringing those answers into a way of life for all.

“I want to live a life creating, protecting and expanding opportunities for all people,” said Foster.

The Grand Rapids native regards social justice, diversity and inclusion in the workplace as something more than a pie-in-the-sky platitude.

After graduating from Hope College in 1995, Foster worked as the college’s advancement officer for diversity and inclusion, a position he started to bring multicultural and international education to the college’s A Greater Hope endowment campaign. Prior to that, he served as the college’s regional advancement director in the office of college advancement where he was responsible for the coordination and management of college fundraising activities with alumni, friends and supporters.

Next he worked a variety of public and private sector jobs for nine years in Washington, D.C., including special assistant and public affairs advisor in the corporate diversity counseling group of Holland & Knight LLP, the seventh largest law firm in the nation.

Prior to that Foster worked for three years in five different capacities in Washington, D.C. He held positions with Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration, dealing with congressional, federal and local affairs to deputy manager of special constituency offices, such as offices for Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, religious and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered affairs.Foster also worked as press secretary for U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), as her legislative assistant in budget, tax, campaign finance, ethics and District of Columbia appropriations and as interim chief of staff.

Before deciding to become an independent diversity and inclusion consultant late last year, Foster was director of The Imagine Fund, a statewide nonprofit scholarship granting organizations focused on expanding equal opportunity to higher education for students based on their race, gender, color, sex, ethnicity, national origin and other cultural characteristics. The Imagine Fund was formed in 2007 in response to passage of Proposal 2006-02, an amendment to the state constitution that banned affirmative action in public contracts, education and employment.

His previous work served to expand Foster’s understanding of inclusiveness to include sexual orientation, gender, religion, nationality, disability, marital and parental status, geographic origin and socio-economic background.

“Always in the back of my mind, I never lost interest, as well as an obligation to in some way address inequity,” said Foster, who earlier this year was one of two recipients for the Progressive Women’s Alliance’s the Progressive Leadership Award. “I want to strengthen my resolve to understand and embrace all diversity, to welcome and affirm those individuals who at the time may not feel welcomed and respected.”

Foster’s list of clients include Advocates for Senior Issues, a senior advocacy group Sister Agnes Thiel founded in 1982. Foster is working to help the nonprofit diversify its membership.

The group is on a learning curve, he said, adding they know they would not be as effective of a group if a large section of seniors are not among their members.

In 2010, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell appointed Foster to the Mayor’s Wage Theft Task Force. Its purpose is to survey and research the non-payment or underpayment of workers’ wages. He is working with fellow volunteer colleagues in developing public-private solutions to the problem in Grand Rapids.

For the last 10 years, Foster has made it a point to once a month visit the service of a Christian denomination other than his Roman Catholic faith.

“I believe there are unfortunate examples where religious intolerance is a challenge for some when it comes to respecting differences,” said Foster. “I’m not a perfectionist by any means. I am instead a practitioner.”

Foster said life is interesting to him when he’s out of his comfort zone, even during those times when he didn’t ask to have it imposed on him.

“I’ve dealt with adversity and recognized adversity, and it can almost always be a learning experience if you do not let it set you back but learn from it,” he said.

When he was a junior in college, Foster penned 173 goals in his journal. They serve as sort of a biographical map of where he wants to take his life.

“Each of them affirm what I do is who I am,” he said. “Some people can’t say that. That’s why I’m an adherent to free will. Our destiny and our purpose is known by an entity other than us, but in terms of exercising that journey, it’s totally up to us. That’s the humble part of living because I’m always looking for direction and advice. That’s what makes free will interesting.”

Foster considers his mother the greatest influence in his life. She was among the millions of blacks who left mostly rural areas in the South to migrate to Northern and Midwestern industrial cities for better paying jobs. She raised him by and large as a single parent, working a variety of factory shifts. But his mother made sure she attended almost every milestone in his life, including parent/teacher conferences and birthday parties at school.

“In the middle of her shift she’d bring in a cake,” recalled Foster.

“Everything I’ve done is because of her … lessons of hard work and commitment and energy.”

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