Oaklander: Gwen Jackson Foster ’67

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When Gwen Jackson Foster graduated from Mills in 1967, she returned to her hometown, Los Angeles. It took her four years to move back to Oakland.

Her first job was with the Los Angeles County Department of Person­nel. “I was a psych major at Mills,” she says, “because I wanted to be a social worker:’ But she decided to try another field “to decide if I really wanted to be a social worker or if I had just never really thought about anything else.” After a while she wound up handling the entry-­level exams for probation officers, cor­rections workers, social workers, and the like. “I thought, ‘Well, here’s a message. I think I’m supposed to do this.’ “

She returned to school, this time to earn her Masters’ of Social Work at UCLA. And then she left for Oakland. During her four years’ absence, Gwen visited the East Bay at least every six months. “I loved it here,” she says.

For two years she lived in Oakland but worked in San Francisco at Chil­dren’s Hospital. “I could never figure out why it was a good idea for me to drive out of the sunshine, work in the fog all day, then return to Oakland for an hour’s worth of sunshine after work.”

In 1973, she took a position with Ala­meda County, working with primarily low income minority families at the Child and Family Mental Health Center in downtown Oakland. Five years later she moved into administration, becoming the clinic’s director, then the director of Children’s Mental Health Services for the whole county.

But by 1983 she had “burned out:’ Human services had been severely impacted by Proposition 13, a tax-limit­ing measure that had been passed just about the time Gwen began as a mental health administrator. It was time to make a change.

The took her to UC Berkeley, where she became a Field Work Consult­ant/Lecturer in the School of Social Welfare. “I’m really fortunate,” she says. “I have jobs that I really like and that are unique.” In addition to teaching graduate methods courses and a field seminar, for the past two years Gwen has been teach­ing a course she created. The course cen­ters on prevention in social work practice. “Most social work training and practice are geared toward problem-solving. When people have a crisis, when they are already having major problems, when they are dysfunctional, that’s when social workers get involved. Yet our his­tory and our skills are such that we really are able to look at situations early on and begin to reach out to people who are not necessarily having problems yet, but may have them later.” Students tell Gwen that her course is the only place in the curric­ulum in which they are asked to think preventatively.

Most of her time at UC, however, is spent outside the classroom. As Field Work Consultant, she screens social serv­ice agencies, places students in agencies, and acts as a liaison between the school and those agencies. She is a field work consultant for about 25 interns in place­ments from Napa to Santa Clara.

Gwen finds particular satisfaction as a part-time program executive for the Zellerbach Family Fund. The foundation initiates projects in primary prevention, child welfare, mental health education, and community arts. Gwen provides technical assistance and consultation, from proposal development through eval­uation, and monitors the process and results. “This work draws on my social work background and enhances my teaching. And having worked in public agencies, I find it’s a real challenge to think of a problem from the foundation’s perspective, ‘What shall we do with this money to creatively help society?’ In the public arena the problem always is, ‘There is no money to help society!’ “

Meanwhile, Gwen is also head of a household that consists of a daughter, Toya, a senior at Oakland’s Skyline High School, a parakeet, and a poodle named Video. (“That’s the name he came with. I considered changing it, but decided he was a little old to do that.”)

In her spare time, Gwen gardens, reads, walks, and occasionally takes a yoga class, in addition to various volun­teer activities. The most recent of these is serving on the Board of Governors of the Alumnae Association.

Gwen returned to Oakland in 1971 partly because of the experiences she had had at Mills. “Mills was wonderful for me. It was the place that I needed at that point in my life, very stimulating but also very protective in a lot of ways.” She thinks of the College as being very much a part of Oakland. “When I was a student at Mills there were a lot of activities in the community—students were involved in internships and volunteer activities. Now that I live here, Mills is still a part of the community for me; it’s my swim­ming pool, my library .. . it’s the place I go to think and have a quiet time. I’ve never thought about Mills as not being a part of Oakland.” She finds it unfortunate that Mills has closed itself off from the community more than was the case in her student days—there are fewer gates, stronger fences, and guard patrol cars­—but “I understand the reasons.” And she agrees that Mills should have more out­reach programs to connect the school with its city. “But as a teacher at UC, I hear the same rap there, comments that the university is not a part of the commu­nity.”

As a woman who has worked with many of the social problems of the city and who has lived in it for over twenty years, Gwen has strong views about what’s wrong and what’s right with Oak­land.

“I like Oakland because it’s so diverse at every level. Oakland is really a community of ‘pockets’ where you can be in one place, go three or four blocks and find yourself in a very different set­ting altogether. I like that. I like having that kind of mixture of people, lifestyles, climates, and all kinds of elements.

“I take visitors to Lake Merritt, to Jack London Village, to West Oakland, to parts of East Oakland, and I usually take people to Mills. If we have time, we take the ferry boat from Oakland to San Fran­cisco. It’s one of the prettiest excursions around.

“There are problems, particularly with getting the downtown area econom­ically viable and as culturally vibrant as it could be. But there is terrific potential there. Oakland agencies do a pretty good job, but they face the problems faced by every other community. Sometimes it feels like building sand castles at the ocean. You build something and get some control and then something comes along and knocks it down and you have to start all over again. In Oakland there is a major problem around poverty at every level. I don’t mean just poverty among individuals and families, but Oakland itself doesn’t have the resources that it really needs to address a lot of the issues. I think we have some hope now. Mayor Harris will push buttons and get things moving in ways that previous leadership did not do.”

Gwen is especially concerned about the young people of Oakland. “Our schools are beginning to make some pro­gress, but they still have a long way to go. I am encouraged by the change in the Board of Education’s membership and by our current superintendent’s commit­ment to improving the system. Also our kids don’t have anything to do or places to go where can feel safe and comfortable. That really bothers me. There is not even a major shopping mall in Oak­land. My daughter and her friends go to San Leandro to ‘hang out’ in a mall, and they have to think more carefully than we did about what movie theaters they go to and what parties they attend.”

Gwen is concerned about the “bad press” that Oakland gets and the effect it has on, particularly, young people and the pride they have in their hometown. “Kids from here are really proud of being in Oakland, but what they experience here is not what we see in the newspa­pers. What we see in the newspapers is ‘drug city,’ ‘murder city; ‘there’s no safe place in Oakland.’ That’s really damaging to everybody.”

She says, “Most of the bad press is not intentional, but some of it seems organized.” San Francisco-based newspa­pers are still biased about the East Bay, she thinks, and “I also think it is negative in part because of institutional racism. The negative public image of Oakland really has to do with the fact that this city is as ethnically diverse as it is and that the leadership is predominantly African­American, Latino, and Asian. I saw a multi-media presentation that was developed to attract businesses to the City Center in downtown Oakland. The crea­tors managed to go about the first fifteen minutes without showing any minorities. I thought, ‘They really had to work at that.’ How could they get pictures of Lake Merritt and downtown Oakland and manage to have no minorities? Finally they began to show Asians and Blacks. But it was clear to me that they thought they could push us all under the rug. Those big corporations they attract are going to be very surprised when they walk out on the corner of 14th and Broadway!”

Two activities will change the public image, Gwen thinks. “We can combat the image just by doing what it is we all do. We take these issues on, and we keep showing people what Oakland is.” Sec­ond, we can continue programs and peo­ple-powered actions, such as community policing, which are “beginning to take on some of the issues that affect us. As we reduce drugs, violence, crime, homeless­ness, we change the image of the city.”

As an Oaklander who teaches aspir­ing social workers, supports social agen­cies, and finds time for Mills, too, Gwen Jackson Foster is certainly doing her part.