Winnie Foster knew exactly what she wanted for her 92nd birthday: a good old-fashioned non-violent protest.
About 50 people joined her outside the Pinellas County Jail in July 2019 to protest the disproportionate number of Black men who get arrested before they turn 21.
“Winnie Foster goes to jail on her birthday,” The Weekly Challenger reported.
Foster, a white Quaker from rural Indiana, wasn’t the face of the fight for equality in St. Petersburg. She was one of many. But she used her whole self in big and small ways to push for change.
She died Jan. 19 at 95 of natural causes.
Here are three lessons from her work to make St. Petersburg better.
Be a part, not apart
From a farm in Indiana to a Quaker high school in Ohio to organizing the PTA and for the Democratic Party in Rhode Island, Foster knew who she was and what she’d fight for by the time she moved to St. Petersburg with her family in 1969.
She found a city divided by race, where even the city charter hadn’t been updated to reflect the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, The Weekly Challenger reported.
Foster started writing columns for that publication, she started a chapter of the National Organization for Women and, during her lifetime, she was active with organizations including the Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition and the nonprofit Sojourner Truth Center, which she created out of her home.
Foster was successful, said Carla Bristol, a longtime friend, because she was genuine and part of the community. Foster’s work was influential in Bristol’s role at St. Pete Youth Farm, which provides a space for teens to grow food and build leadership and career skills.
“What I see too often is white people using buzzwords to get funding to go into minority communities and then to prescribe change, not understanding or appreciating the assets of that community that are already inherent within the community, and then typically it doesn’t work because it’s not coming organically from the community,” Bristol said.
The approach Foster took, which was to be part of the community, is evident in the nonprofit Foster created, Bristol said.
“She didn’t name it the Winnie Foster Center, and she in her own right was such an abolitionist. She named it after someone whom she admired,” Bristol said. “That in itself says a lot.”
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Stay persistent and consistent
Foster grew a garden in her yard for years, and opened it up to the community. She kept on the organizations she was a part of to stop using plastic water bottles until they switched to glass. She built a huge library and read not just about social justice but about the environment, staying up-to-date on emerging solutions.
“We once had a conversation about getting tired of the struggle,” said friend and former neighbor Linda Lucas, “and I remember her looking at me as if she had never in her world thought of being tired. It just was a concept that she didn’t entertain, that she would rest or not be committed or take a time out or take a break.”
Foster, also a mother of three, grandmother of two and great-grandmother of six, met strangers and left with names and new friends. And she remembered those names when she saw people, said son Geoffrey Foster. She worked with area universities and students. She participated in local and national politics because she understood they were key to change. And she used whatever power and influence she had, Lucas said, like making her birthday a reason to raise awareness about incarceration rates in the Black community.
“She didn’t pick easy fights, but she prevailed,” Lucas said. “She was really persistent and consistent.”
Everyone has a role to play
Foster had a soft voice, said Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg, but she knew how and where to use it.
“She advocated in spaces where we weren’t invited to the table,” Scott said.
The Woodson Museum recognized Foster for her work with the Winnie Foster Lifetime Achievement Award, which is presented to one white woman every year during a ceremony honoring Black women.
One thing Foster showed: “There is a role for us all to play,” Scott said.
And her example is one anyone can follow.
“We don’t necessarily need you to get in front of measures as much as open the door to allow our voices to be heard,” she said. “Open that door. Create the opportunity.”
Some people assume the only way to help is through money, said Bristol.
Foster showed that’s not true.
“The power can come from your voice,” Bristol said.
Late last year, Foster started planning an international women’s summit. She wanted to host it at her home and feed attendees homemade bread.
“As long as she could, she did,” Scott said. “This woman was on a walker, OK? As long as she could, she was at the forefront of things that mattered.”
A memorial for Winnie Foster is planned for 1 p.m. Feb. 25 at Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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