Leslie Foster is President of The Gathering Place.
Full list of 2018 Colorado Women's Hall of Fame inductees
The following is a transcript of a conversation she had with a representative of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame shortly after learning of her induction.
QUESTION: You come from a family of hard workers with a sense of civic responsibility, all while struggling financially. What was the internal make up of your parents’ character that they instilled in you and your siblings to lift you up
and keep you focused on the bigger picture?
LESLIE: I am forever grateful for my parents, I was very lucky. As the youngest of five, I realized later how my parents were pioneers in their own way. My mother had me when she was 26, with only an eight-year spread between her five children. Our extended family lived back east, but my father and some of my siblings had asthma, and in the 1950s the best medical advice was to move west to a more arid climate. So, they left everything behind and moved. We lived on 17th and Gilpin Streets in Denver, which I lovingly refer to as the 'old homestead', though it’s now a 7-11 convenience store. I have an affinity for my neighborhood, and my siblings went to school nearby, which is also just down street from The Gathering Place.
My parents had a real sense of family, and tradition mattered to them. I’m actually not sure where they got their social justice background, but they were passionate about it. Dad was blue collar, and I came from a strong union family. He was a pipefitter, Local 208. We didn't eat grapes or lettuce growing up because we were supporting the farmworkers. We also boycotted Coors Beer for so long, that I never told my dad when TGP got funding from The Coors Foundation.
My mother was an Activity Director in nursing homes, which in 1963 was a very rare position. She went back to work because we needed the income, and she always struggled with that because she really wanted to be a great mother, and at that time, great mothers did not work outside the home. I remember giving her a hard time for not being able to be the room mother like she was for my other siblings. But, she loved her career and she really built a profession that at one time did not even exist. Mom really saw the need for activity directors in nursing homes. She was committed to making sure that people didn’t waste away in loneliness and with nothing to do. With just a high school education and a lot of creativity, she made sure that holidays were celebrated, people had books to read, and games to play. She started discussion groups and yes, Bingo. On occasion we play Bingo at The Gathering Place, and it always makes me think of my mother. Eventually, Mom became a leader in her field. She was a consultant and a founding member of both a national and state association. She was Editor of a professional journal, “Activities, Adaptation, and Aging.” She was involved in boards all the time. As for me, mother is the necessity of invention, as they say, and because we couldn’t afford daycare, I would go with her to the nursing home, or to her office during school vacations. I would call bingo games, change out water for people, help with arts and crafts, and just keep company with the residents. I was the kid in the back of the Board room reading books and playing while my mother was in meetings. I credit this for being a strong influence in my journey of a life in service to others in need.
My four siblings and I are very close and incredibly different people. Our parents encouraged us to be individuals. Giving back to others was our normal environment. My father's social justice actions were more political, and filled our dinner conversations growing up. He worked at Rocky Flats and Dow Chemical, so going to work with him wasn’t an option. His favorite job was working on the Strontia Springs Dam in Waterton Canyon. I remember him coming home with photos of big horn sheep. We were a very politically active family and giving back to the community was a normal expectation.
One of my mother’s life goals was to be appointed to the Governor’s Council on Aging, and Governor Romer did appoint her in 2000. She went to the public announcement for the appointment on a Tuesday, and talked about it excitedly that next Saturday at a party with friends. In tragic irony, she came home that night after the party and died from a massive heart attack at the age of 69. My father lived until 2011, and I often took him to the union hall meetings where his social life was.
Listening to that old crew of pipefitters talk about building things that last, was impactful. It was also deeply disturbing to listen to the environmental horror stories, where they talked about the “green stuff in the water” and reminiscing about having to get hosed down after work. Many of them had numerous health issues. My dad never smoked but had emphysema, from being exposed to asbestos.
The fact that the Rocky Flats built triggers for bombs during the Vietnam War, was a great source of conflict at home. My dad was a patriot, and a World War II veteran, He was all about supporting your country, but I wouldn’t categorize him as pro war. He believed in diplomacy, but when your country called, he certainly thought that you should go. My two older brothers were in their late teens at the time, and old enough for the draft. I was just 10 years-old or so, and I didn't really understand the nuances and conflict, but I was expected to. Neither of my brothers were drafted. They were in the lottery and luckily had high numbers that didn’t get called. I still remember sitting in front of the TV watching the lottery being called, watching the dates come up and hoping their number wouldn't be called. Interestingly, my dad disagreed with my brother Ken, in protesting the Vietnam War. But, I believe he was still very proud of his son for standing up for his principles.
My parents also exposed us to more diversity than we would have experienced otherwise. My school was not a diverse environment, and I remember when the first Jewish and African American students came to school. But at home, we had black friends because they worked for my dad. Much later, women became pipefitters. He would tell them, “You better get tough.” When they talked about sexist or inappropriate comments at work, he would say, “What are you complaining about? What are you here for, to be a pipe fitter or to have a social life? Get over it and get on with it.” He didn’t coddle anyone. He was a cut-and-dried person. I remember the day he retired. On a building site, he had to go through the metal detector at security multiple times. He got fed up, and said “That's it. I quit.” He came home and told my mother he had retired. And that was that.
My dad's local pipefitters were involved in the construction for The Gathering Place building, and that's when I realized how well known he was. So many of the pipefitters recalled stories of my dad or had heard about him. A lot of people told me how great my Dad was at teaching them the craft. It was great. Very touching.
QUESTION: While you left to go to college in Missouri and for a short time to work in Oregon, it appears that Colorado is a north star home for you. Why?
LESLIE: My parents died in the house they moved into when I was one-year-old. Going to college was the first move of my life. I often say I had an abnormally stable upbringing. College was an amazing adventure, I loved it. I came home in part because I didn't know what else to do, and because it was home. I started working right away, and did have a short stint in Oregon. Whenever I’ve been away, I really miss the sun, the mountains, and the openness. When I drive, traveling west on 17th Street, into downtown Denver, and see that view with the cash register building, I reflect on how attached I am to the city of Denver. I feel like I can breathe here. The older I get, the more attached I become to the mountains and outdoor spaces. I just turned 60 and my wife, Jane, is 64, and our dream retirement is spending more time exploring the mountains. We’ve gotten hooked on backcountry fly fishing. I’ve been fly fishing for the last 30 years, and increasingly we’re loading up backpacks and hiking in to remote spaces we like to pretend are uniquely ours. The state is so beautiful, and the mountains are a healing and grounding force for me. As an introvert, it gives me the alone, quiet time I need. I don't know if I could do my work without it.
QUESTION: How did your background working in mental health prepare you for leading The Gathering Place?
LESLIE: I was born to work at The Gathering Place. Everything in my life pointed me to work there. I worked with people living with disabilities for 10 years and learned how to accentuate their abilities, but I knew it wasn't my final place. At all my previous jobs, I always thought about how it would make me a better non-profit director one day. I kept track of lessons learned, and compiled a list in my head of who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to act when I became a Director. Through my various positions, I saw the effect of public policy and cultural times that resulted in some really bad things happening to good people. I’ve also witnessed small successes and great triumphs. I’ve had so many mentors help me learn how to act, react, balance, and cope in difficult situations. I also learned that I was a perfectly adequate case worker, advocate, and volunteer coordinator. I wasn't really great at my job until I became a non-profit director. I’ve always known that was my niche, and have remained focused on the fact that's who I am and what I wanted. Having the opportunity to lead The Gathering Place was a gift from the gods, saying “Here you go, here's the opportunity to do all those things on your list.”
My experiences in my own family and spending time at a small women's college is what I want for The Gathering Place constituents. I want them to have the support, the friendship, and the benefits of not being constantly surrounded by male dominated areas. I want the people I serve to feel connected, and like there is a safe place where they belong and are truly accepted for who they are. When times are tough, nearly all women will tell you that it's their girlfriends that get them through.
Q: What do you think is the answer for poverty given your participation in so many efforts to address this problem?
A: Poverty is one big hairy issue, and the only way it gets addressed successfully is through the involvement of whole communities. One of my college professors was a great mentor and guiding force in my life. In a community psychology class, I learned the concept of fixing communities, so people fit within them, rather than trying to fix individuals to fit in a community. That has always stuck with me, how can we create a place where a huge variety of people can belong. It comes down to finding ways to help each other and create spaces where we all belong; making room for and valuing people who live differently than we do.
One woman we serve is a perfect example. She’s been living in her car for the past two to three years, and she recently qualified for public benefits. I asked if she'd start looking for housing, which I desperately wanted for her. “No,” she explained, “There are a lot of people who have helped me while I've been homeless, and I feel like I need to pay them back first.” Do I want her housed? Yes, I do. I care about her. I want her safe. But she has a different way of approaching life, and a different value system. What I’ve learned in my years at The Gathering Place is to respect individual choices, and to realize it’s not my right or my role to make judgments about how people live. It’s their lives, and I’m not in a position to determine what's best for others.
QUESTION: Describe your passion for leadership through initiatives like the Denver Community Leadership Forum and the Executive Leadership Program for the Center of Creative Leadership.
LESLIE: I've learned a lot about leadership at The Gathering Place. So many people are extraordinary leaders who simply never get the opportunity to lead. One woman I've known for 27 years, could have been me if not for basically luck. She is African-American, and she was put up for adoption shortly after birth. She grew up in unstable environments. She has wonderful leadership qualities, but those qualities were not nurtured during her formative years. She had so many fewer opportunities than I did – fewer available resources, fewer positive mentors, teachers, and guides. My parents always said to each of us kids, “You are a Foster, you can do whatever you want, and be the best at what you choose to do in life.” So many people don't have that, no one ever told them they were great or encouraged them to try new things and seek educational opportunities. I can't count the number of mentors I've had, and I believe unfulfilled leadership potential in a person is such a tragic waste.
When you see someone lead who never had the chance, it's remarkable and incredibly inspiring. I go back to the woman I mentioned who sleeps in her car. She is now on our Advisory Committee, helping our Board and staff develop a more inclusive governance structure in partnership with our members. It’s a long process that requires ongoing commitment. It has been unbelievably moving to see her emerge as a leader. Recently she facilitated a committee meeting that included board and staff members.
QUESTION: How do you define the intersection of leadership and helping women impact families, local communities and the economy?
LESLIE: Women quietly do a whole lot of heavy lifting. We are frequently in the background, and we’re often not forthcoming with our strengths and how we make things happen. The research repeatedly shows that when women have more influence and power roles where they can contribute, the world does better. It’s true at a national, state and local community level across the globe. Having women in the mix raises up the whole thing. I love my t-shirt with the quote, “Women hold up half the sky” (from the book Half the Sky).
QUESTION: What women inspire you and why?
LESLIE: First and foremost, I think of my mother. She was my first and most important model of a woman who had a career she loved that involved social justice and helping people. Only now do I realize how critical that was in developing who I am. I also am very inspired by my wife, Jane Berryman, who is a former chef and now a personal trainer. Jane worked her way up in a predominantly man's field, and then at mid-life switched careers. She’s unbelievably courageous and the most honest person I know. Jane is thoughtful and supportive of others, and is the kind of person who speaks up and will sincerely compliment and thank the random customer service rep, person in the hallway, close friend, and acquaintance. She actively supports women, by helping them become stronger, and more confident. She encourages us and teaches us how to take care of ourselves. She does all of this for me, for her family, and her clients. I have great admiration for the example she demonstrates on how to positively support other women, rather than compete or tear each other down.
Betsy Metzger, was in my freshman dorm. She spent over 20 years leading the
Higher Education Resource Services (HERS), which was housed at The Women’s College building at the University of Denver. HERS is a leadership development organization for women in academia. For the last ten years or so she has been Assistant to the Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at UCD. Betsy is an amazing leader and Colorado treasure. She taught me that not everyone leads from the front. Leaders are at all levels in organizations, and some of the best leaders are the ones that are quietly doing the work behind the scenes. That’s what Betsy does. She makes leaders better by supporting them with intelligent feedback, access to information, and through stunningly good logistic management.
BJ Dean, a member of The Gathering Place has been one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me in the over 25 years I’ve known her. She had a very challenging life and could’ve been an amazing organization leader given different opportunities. She has certainly been a leader among the people served at The Gathering Place. BJ brought me into her world, and taught me crazy things like what the drug scene looks like when you are living on the streets. She’s opened my eyes to the realities related to addiction, intolerance, and poverty. Over the years she faced discrimination in harsh ways. At the same time, BJ is kind, thoughtful, incredibly funny, and someone I am proud to call my friend. Currently, she’s off the streets, housed and enjoying a life with good family and friends. Besides “real” friends, we’re friends on Facebook where she inspires me almost every day with a selfie where she wishes everyone a good morning and a blessed day. My wife, Jane, is her personal trainer, and BJ is becoming stronger physically and emotionally. She works incredibly hard and unabashedly celebrates her achievements – a real lesson to so many of us who shy away. The deck has been stacked against BJ in such big ways and she has created a fabulous life. I’m so honored to be part of it. It moves me to emotion every time.
In terms of celebrity women, who is cooler than Maya Angelou? No one! And, I’m an unabashed lover of Hillary Clinton. I appreciate what she’s done for all of us in leading, facing adversity and never quitting.
The Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame was created to recognize, honor and preserve the contributions of trailblazing Colorado women. Both historical and contemporary women have shared foresight, vision and accomplishment, but lacked a forum for recognition. Since 1985, the Hall has inducted 152 extraordinary women who have been outstanding in their field, elevated the status of women, helped open new frontiers for women or inspired others by their example. Inductees include scientists, teachers, social activists, philanthropists, authors, business leaders, elected officials and more.