A `wonderful' life; New Phelps-Stokes president Badi Foster wants to take nonprofit to next level; New leader hopes to build on fund's success
Foster can smile now. But not when he was 11 years old and going places in Chicago: Boy Scout patrol leader, doo-wop crooner, one of Jet magazine's top salesmen on the South Side. And his parents, missionaries in the Bahai faith, had decided to move the family to... Liberia.
"For me to be yanked out of there to go to AFRICA?" Foster recalled. "Well, that was the calamity."
But an adolescence spent in exile, first in Liberia and then Morocco, became a blessing. Badi (an Arabic word meaning "wonderfulness") learned French, flourished in vastly different cultures, developed a healthy respect for other views.
"I'm a peacemaker," said Foster. "I'm always trying to get people together."
Those talents have helped him shift easily from the corporate world (vice president at Aetna Life & Casualty Co.) to government (board member of the National Institute for Literacy) to academia (director of Tufts University's Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs) to philanthropy.
Now 59, he caps a career in education and business as the newest president of the influential Phelps-Stokes Fund.
"This job is so congruent with who I think I am and want to be," said Foster.
The Watertown resident is only the sixth president in the history of the nonprofit foundation, for 90 years a quiet force advocating racial amity and improved education, especially for blacks, American Indians and poor rural whites.
Perhaps too quietly.
"Everybody recognizes it," said Foster, "but they don't know what (the Fund) did."
In its early years, Phelps-Stokes' landmark studies changed government policies toward blacks and Indians. It helped found several historically black colleges as well as the Harlem Boys Choir, the United Negro College Fund, the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the Bishop Desmond Tutu Scholarship Fund. To date, its Books for Global Literacy program has delivered more than 2 million volumes to sub- Saharan Africa and rural and urban America.
id he feels "enormous responsibility" to fulfill the fund's mission of education and interracial harmony. After reading 40 years' worth of Phelps-Stokes correspondence and meeting minutes, he was struck by the similarity of the issues he and his predecessors faced - and by how much the founders achieved with so little money.
The Phelps-Stokes Fund currently has an annual budget of $3.5 million.
"I don't want to be in the position of someone saying, `He had so many more resources and did so little,' " Foster said.
The foundation has launched two major commissions in Africa, to examine the education and training of civil servants - a key to public-health, economic and judicial reform - and the role of service learning in universities. There will be new offices in South Africa and Ethiopia and a larger training program in war-ravaged Liberia, where Phelps-Stokes has always had a presence.
In the States, the foundation hopes to provide practical tools to help educators reach underserved populations, rebuild curricula at historically black and American Indian tribal colleges and focus on youth leadership and volunteerism.
Foster also wants to expand the NIA Project, a mentoring program created by Tufts students that pairs African-American college pupils with high schoolers to solve community problems.
"It may sound corny and it may sound all-American, but those are the kinds of things that I think we've neglected," said Foster. "And the young people are hungry for these kinds of activities."
Rob Hollister, dean of Tufts' new University College of Citizenship and Public Service, praised his former colleague's leadership skills.
"He's a world-class teacher and the style he exemplifies is one that is highly interactive. I admire his gift for challenging students . . . but also accompanying that with support. It's not a preachy, didactic style.
"He's a community builder."
Foster will need to summon his formidable skills to face a multitude of unforseen challenges. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he expects individual contributions to the fund to shrink, as donors instead give to disaster-related charities. And Phelps-Stokes' New York headquarters, just 1 1/2 blocks from Ground Zero, remains closed. Files are unavailable, symposia have been postponed.
It's hard to find providence in this calamity, though Foster is confident Phelps-Stokes will persevere. He'll increase the fund's Washington operations, broker partnerships, forge alliances. He has always been a bridge builder, not a niche player.
"It has really psychologically set us back," Foster said. ". . . So many programs that were in the works are being delayed, rescheduled. We'll lose a little bit but I think by January we'll be back on our feet."
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