By: Jalen McNeal
I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Melvin P. Foote, who is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), a pioneer in the field of African Affairs, the President and CEO of Constituency for Africa, and an impassioned world traveler– specifically to the continent of Africa, where he focuses on creating and implementing progressive U.S. policies towards African countries. Mr. Foote was born and raised in Rockford, Illinois which is about 75 miles northwest of Chicago. He attended college in Colorado at Western Colorado State University, where he was the first in his family to finish college and venture out into the world on the scale of global travel. Mr. Foote explained that his main goal after completing high school was to see the world, which informed his choice to attend a school that was “the furthest away from home”– his spirit for travel and exploration seemed to be present early in his life. He was experiencing college life and travel during the tumultuous and reformative late 60s and early 70s when the height of the black power protest and tensions of the Vietnam war were taking place. As Mr. Foote navigated college as an athlete, he decided to decline his basketball scholarship during his second year to explore the other aspects of college life; during this time, he was introduced to the Peace Corps. He explained:
My roommate was a white guy out of Colorado Springs– this was really one of my first encounters with white people which was a shock in itself– everything there was a shock. This was during the late 60s– 69’-73’, which was a time of civil strife in this Country…the riots of the black power movement. Vietnam was the big issue internationally, you know who wants to go to Vietnam?’, and I was determined not to go to war. While I was in college, I played ball for a couple of years, but then I decided I wanted to see what the other part of college was like, so I declined my scholarship. It didn’t cost much to go to school back then… I started a column in the newspaper out there and I called it ‘The Back of the Bus’ and every week I wrote about black people– Martin Luther King with so and so, Malcolm X with so and so, Stokely Carmichael with so and so. That was the time when blacks had afros and there were white hippies with long hair– to me, that was the most exciting time in the history of our country. My senior year, a white guy contacted me saying he wanted to meet. We met, he had just come back from the Peace Corps in Ghana, and he had fallen in love with his counter-part who was Ghanian. He wanted my opinion on interracial marriage. You know, I can’t tell you who to love– you love who you love, but we talked about it, and I asked him about the Peace Corps. He told me about the Peace Corps and my light bulb went off– I said “wow”, I want to go to Africa… I applied for the Peace Corps and I didn’t hear anything for the first couple of months– I had thought they forgot about me. I get this letter one day from the peace Corps and the letter said “you’ve been accepted” and that I was going to Ethiopia.
During the transition from college to life in Ethiopia, Mr. Foote explained the paradigm shifts and moments of disillusionment that came with the change in environment:
I thought Ethiopia was in the Middle East, you know with Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Back then you couldn’t Google– you guys these days Google all over the place– back then you had no capacity to do the research, so I thought Ethiopia was in the Middle East and I didn’t want to go to the Middle East because of the war. I went to the library, found an Atlas, and went through the map of Africa. I saw Ethiopia was in the heart of Africa–wow– so I graduated in June and by July I was heading to Ethiopia as a Peace Corps volunteer…I didn’t know anything about Africa. I honestly thought when we arrived at the Airport in Addis, Ababa, Tarzan would be there to meet us with a herd of Elephants–don’t laugh! That’s the truth. I didn’t act like it or say it, but I was kind of scared… The first 10 weeks were language training, and we were out in a rural area called Awasa, and we had to walk about 1.5 miles to the school every morning. All the kids and the villagers would see us coming down and they would leave their soccer game and run over to us– they would shake the hands of the white volunteers and walk right past me. One of the white guys told me, “they don’t like black people here”, and after a while, I realized they didn’t look at me as a foreigner, I may have spoken a little funny to them, but they saw me as someone from another part of the country and that’s when I got comfortable.
Mr. Foote completed a difficult, yet eye-opening, two-year service with the Peace Corps and stayed a third year as a teacher in Ethiopia. Once he returned to the states, Mr. Foote served black people in many capacities before founding the Constituency for Africa (CFA) where he continued his service to black communities locally and globally. During the interview, he explained the motivation behind his efforts in uniting African peoples–especially those fragmented due to the African diaspora:
I grew up with a sense that I wanted to do something to help my people. When I think about Pan-Africanism, I think about it in terms of African people globally. Now that doesn’t mean that we all have to be in the same political party or that we have to have the same viewpoint…All the jobs I’ve had since Peace Corps– I worked at Meharry Medical College as an assistant administrator for an international center, I worked in a black YMCA, I went to Somalia as an organization director for three years, I traveled around East Africa. When I think about Pan-Africanism, I think about understanding the plight and condition of black people globally and trying to work toward the unification of black people– toward harmony, cooperation, and coordination. The biggest issue we’ve got is that we are fragmented and some of that fragmentation is intentional.
Mr. Foote continues to be a pioneer in the field of African Affairs and he encouraged young people to utilize the resources that are available to them as it pertains to success in all areas of life and being informed on global affairs. His life has been a testament to the value of traveling and seeing the many perspectives the world has to offer and he will continue to inspire many to work towards a unified effort to unite and empower black people around the world.