A Conversation with Sheena Foster, Executive Director, Can I Live, Washington, D.C.
April 1, 2018
Background: In April 2018, undergraduate student Deirdre Jonese Austin interviewed Sheena Foster as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Fellows Program. Foster is the executive director of Can I Live, an organization that promotes housing justice. In this interview, Foster describes the religious teachings and life experiences that inspire her faith-based social justice activism.
What does social justice mean to you?
Social justice to me means creating opportunities for those who are discriminated against, oppressed, exploited, marginalized, disenfranchised, to be able to live in a more just society and to be able to break down barriers. Especially barriers that are structural that will get in the way of any person being able to live a peaceful life where they have access to food, water, shelter, clothing. And so, social justice is activism and advocacy around breaking down barriers that will interfere with one being able to live a life with dignity and humanity.
Are there any religious teachings or scriptures that inspire your commitment to social justice in the community?
There’s one that’s very short that I use oftentimes when talking to people. It’s Micah 6:8, “Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” I’ll just be clear that I am a Christian. I am also an interfaith leader and activist, so I’ll share scripture and then some other quotes and tenets from other faith traditions that have inspired the work that I do. The scripture that most influences the work I do as a Christian is Isaiah 61, and the scripture goes, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted and to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness the prisoners to proclaim the year of the Lord’s freedom.” And that’s a longer scripture, but it addresses the crux of what I think about with Christianity and what I feel is my call as a Christian. One of the ways I live out my walk in social justice is really about giving power to people. There is a scripture in 1 Corinthians, I think it’s chapter 4, verse 20, and it says, “For the Kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power.” I don’t think that social justice can exist if there is not power, especially when people are not given power.
I’m trying to think of some quotes that mean a lot to me in the context of interfaith work and bringing power to change for all people that are oppressed. There’s a Baha’i scripture and it’s, “When love is realized, the whole human race will be lifted up.” And so social justice resides in the tenet of love. I get excited about this because when it’s in your heart, it’s in your heart. There’s one in the Qur’an, and it’s something like, “God enjoins justice with kindness.” So as we think about social justice, you think about the spirit of kindness that resides within looking after your neighbor and respecting all humanity.
Were there any pivotal moments in your life that led you to commit to social justice work? I read somewhere that your social activism and social entrepreneurship work peaked after Hurricane Katrina. What are those pivotal moments?
There are so many different inflection points in my life that sort of lead to me getting to activism post-Hurricane Katrina around housing and advocacy, but it really started for me around sixth grade. I saw the film At the River I Stand by Dr. Martin Luther King, and I’d never seen anything like it. For one, it brought civil rights alive for me and it made me want to stand up for myself, my community, for others. I can’t remember what year this was; I think it was like 1994 when I was in the sixth grade. We were talking about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Dr. King inspired me to want to be an activist and a leader and to build what he called a "beloved community": a community where all people could share in the wealth of the earth, where people wouldn’t be poor or hungry or homeless, building a community of tolerance and breaking down barriers and leading the Poor People’s Movement. So being inspired by him led me to want to be an activist.
I think Hurricane Katrina did it for me primarily because seeing so many people displaced without homes, having my entire family be displaced and having to relocate to Los Angeles. I took that activism in the spirit of building a beloved community. I infused that work within the work I did with the labor union. So I started my first job as a union organizer and the principles of working for or within the labor movement are about economic justice and fair wages, ensuring that people are paid fairly for the work that they do, making sure that their rights are protected in the workplace and that they’re not discriminated against and that everyone has equal opportunity to be able to have access to decent work. And so, that was the inflection or pivotal point in my career where I knew that this was not only work I cared about but work that I was called to do because I am a strong woman of faith. I was born and raised in a Christian household in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination. However, I am Lutheran now. That moment has propelled me to doing a lot of amazing things and has expanded my appetite to take on other social justice issues, such as racial justice, such as LGBTQ rights, voter rights, and a myriad of other social justice issues and challenges where people are marginalized or oppressed.
I know you mentioned some of your work has been with labor justice, so could you describe some of your past social justice work as well as what you are working on currently?
I spent over 10 years working in the labor movement, domestically and internationally. I’m really excited about the work that I’ve done around the cooperative movement and helping to just build and sustain more graceful economies where people are able to share their wealth with their communities. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many countries where I worked and served as a humanitarian around women’s rights and women’s justice. In 2011, I got the opportunity to spend some time in India after a Habitat for Humanity build. I spent some time with women who were disenfranchised and didn’t even have access to IDs and didn’t have access to credit. These women formed their own self-help groups, and I was able to work with interpreters to share with them best practices on how to manage their finances and how to work in partnership with each other around some of the entrepreneurial ventures they were taking on. I had an opportunity to live and work abroad in South Africa where I was able to do a lot of work around organizing domestic workers and farmers. The domestic workers often times were victims of sexual abuse and working with them to be able to use their voice and to organize and speak up so they could protect and advance their rights was some work that I was really proud of, as well as working to organize an exchange between domestic workers in the United States and South Africa.
I still do a lot of racial justice work here in D.C. I just started doing some work with the Black Lives Matter Movement here in D.C. around gun violence because prior to getting involved with the gun violence work with Black Lives Matter, a lot of my work has really been around interreligious dialogue and working with faith communities around social justice and bringing different communities together to have respectful dialogue. Oftentimes people might engage in denominational battles because they may not embrace positions of the church. For example, my church, Luther Place Memorial, is an inclusive and beloved community that welcomes LGBTQ, and some faith traditions are not in harmony with welcoming people who practice gay and homosexual tendencies and oftentimes will remove themselves or not allow themselves to have a seat at the table because of their religious beliefs and traditions. I think it’s very unfortunate that gets in the way of being able to have progress in this movement.
How do you connect your faith with the work you do in the community? I know you said you come from a Christian household in the AME denomination and now you’re Lutheran.
For one, my faith is what inspires me. My faith is what gets me up every day and out into the community. I believe in the practices and teachings of Christ, and I also, I think I mentioned earlier, am inspired by Dr. King. So as I think about my faith and I think about Dr. King who was a Christian minister and activist and organizer. He said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” So, my getting up every day as a Christian and as an interfaith activist, I know that my work and my activism is about inspiring and igniting change in the hearts and souls of everyday people who may not be people of faith, but reminding them to embrace humanity. One of my personal mantras is to serve humanity with humility without boundaries while spreading the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.Of course when I’m out doing the interfaith organizing I always embrace the Divine Creator out of respect for other people’s faith traditions. But yes the things that inspires me to do this work are the teachings of Jesus as well as other theologians and scholars that preach and teach about social justice and respect for humanity and a common good and who embrace dignity and humanity for everyone.
What is the role of interfaith work in your organization or congregation, and to what extent is this a useful conversation or a useful engagement in your work?
So, currently I run a national nonprofit. It’s called Can I Live, and I am the executive director. So, Can I Live is a national residence association that promotes leadership development as well as self-sufficiency for residents of public housing. Can I Live is a faith-based organization because we embrace the tenets of affordable housing, and we embrace the tenets of supporting the poor and those who are less fortunate. The way my work plays out is that I oftentimes engage with not only Christian denominations, but other communities of faith around what justice looks like, especially within housing, because housing knows no religion. Everyone needs a safe and affordable place to live. Poverty knows no religion. Unemployment knows no religion. A lack of education or illiteracy knows no religion. It impacts all people and all communities. I think that’s one of the common things that unites people in this work is that we are all in this fight for justice together. As long as we are able to engage respectfully around restoring humanity and inspiring one another, then we can come together to share our ideas and successes and frustrations around a system that is oppressing people of faith regardless of their faith tradition.
Do you see interfaith engagement growing in your work or faith community?
Yes, absolutely! People of faith, especially millennials, are organizing more around their commonalities as it relates to stewardship and humanity especially around things pertaining to global warming and environmental issues. For one, the Civil Rights Movement and every major movement has been brought to us by churches and congregations and mosques. Folks have organized to bring the Civil Rights Movement. There will be a rally this weekend, the rally against racism, that was organized by the Council of Churches. So, I think as more people continue to stand up that we will be able to restore humanity and dignity to all people. I’m excited that people are crossing denominational lines and they are standing in solidarity with each other despite what their positions may be on some social issues. The church for a long time in some instances has been considered a place that politics shouldn’t be involved in. However, faith and politics go hand-in-hand because faith is the answer to advocating on behalf of unfair and unjust laws and execution of those laws. So, I’m really excited to see more faith and interreligious advocacy organizing around some of the most pressing and salient issues that we are facing in our community.
Could you share some of things that you think young people should learn about religion and its effects on society?
One thing is that I think young people should never use religion as a tool to oppress anyone. Oftentimes religion has been used as an oppressive tool. In fact being a Christian or becoming a Christian, that religion was born out of oppression. So, as we are in 2018 as people of faith, young people should never use religion as a weapon to oppress others. I think young people should think creatively about how they can engage with people who are both religious and non-religious on tackling issues of social justice. I think that they should live their faith out loud and act boldly if they are people of faith. I think that oftentimes younger Christians or younger people of faith may be ashamed, but I think they should find networks to be a part of where they can express and engage in respectful dialogue around similarities and differences of their faith tradition. I think they should explore, so like I said, I was born AME and now I’m Lutheran, although I’m still part of the Protestant and ecumenical framework of my faith tradition. I think that young people should explore and learn about different faith traditions whether it's Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Baha’i, Buddhism, etc. I think that they should learn and explore different faith traditions and see what works for them and not feel like they are stuck in a faith tradition because that is what they were born and raised under.