Supporting communities of color

February may be Black History Month but Dr. LM Alaiyo Foster (BS ’01, BA ’04, MA ’07) asserts that black history is important 365 days a year. “A dedicated ‘month’ does give us focus to honor what we as a people have contributed and sacrificed for this country,” she grants. “It’s a time for all children and adults to be reflective, recommit ourselves, and be aspirational.”

Foster knows a lot about commitment and aspiration – both personally and professionally. She is the current Executive Director of the Black United Fund of Oregon (BUF), an organization that serves as a conduit for the community to support people of color. For the past 28 years, BUF has distributed $550,000 in scholarships annually, all through community-sourced funding and endowments.

Legacy of service

Foster’s longstanding ties to BUF began with her volunteer efforts there when she was only 10 years old.  Originally, she planned to be a neurosurgeon and graduated from Portland’s Benson High School with her CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) certification. Foster’s plans changed in college, and she declared sociology as her major when she transferred to PSU as a sophomore.  Concurrent with her bachelor’s degree in sociology, Foster earned a certificate in Black Studies. “After seeing the inequities in my community and looking for ways to explore them, Black Studies became a personal passion,” she says. While working on her Master of Education, PSU offered its inaugural bachelor’s degree in Black Studies and Foster became a member of its first graduating class. She went on to attain a Doctor of Education in Leadership from Lewis & Clark College.

While attending school, Foster worked fulltime in social services, public health, and alternative education as an administrator, school counselor, and classroom teacher. “Every one of my degrees was fueled by my students,” Foster says. “I didn’t have a lot of black teachers growing up, and it was important that students had someone they could relate to who could show them what’s possible.”

Transformative leadership

Foster credits mentors like PSU’s Ridwan Nytagodien and Dalton Miller-Jones for encouraging her toward authenticity, honesty, and finding her own voice. “The Black Studies department was my lifeline,” Foster recalls. “Black voices weren’t championed at the time, and to be able to express my feelings and then press on – that gave me balance.”

She worked to further diversity, equity and inclusion in Portland until she became burnt out. Foster needed a break and decided to move to Texas to visit family in the South. When BUF had an opening for an Executive Director last fall, however, she jumped at the opportunity. BUF’s 35-year history includes all black female Executive Directors, making Foster its fourth. “Now, I’m back doing transformative leadership and it’s amazing,” she says.

Foster and the BUF staff continue to advance the organization’s mission. “I plan to improve BUF’s capacity for what we already do so well while exploring avenues to do more.” Foster asserts. “We are in a state of emergency for our youth of color, and my team and I are proud to be a part of the work that helps these children advance themselves.”