By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times
For those used to Dontrelle Young-Foster being super-friendly when they approached and found a possible change, there was a reason. It wasn’t her, but rather her twin sister, Chondrelle.
“Since [I’ve been named president and CEO of HABD], everyone has learned that I’m a twin sister because a lot of people have been approaching her thinking it was me,” Foster said. “People would say, ‘I saw you.’ … and I have to say, ‘That wasn’t me. It was my sister.’”
Dontrelle is the president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD). Her sister Chondrelle is an account executive in the health care industry. And although they may look alike, the twins have different personalities.
“We have more in common than we do in difference,” Dontrelle said. “Growing up, my sister was more athletic than I was, but we engaged in the same activities. We were born only three minutes apart, but she held the big sister role. Even though we have the same friends, she is more sociable, what one would call an extrovert, while I tend to be more reserved and introverted.”
The HABD head recently took time out of her busy schedule to speak with The Birmingham Times and provide some insight about her role. As leader of the agency, Foster said she faces “new challenges and opportunities that require my full attention and the support and collaboration of my team.”
After working more than 20 years with the authority, Foster was named president and CEO in June 2022, removing the “interim” title she held since Feb. 1, 2022.
“Aside from focusing on the broader vision and strategy for moving the agency forward, I oversee the HABD’s day-to-day operations, ensuring that the department leaders I’ve put in place and their respective teams are functioning efficiently and have the resources they need to be effective in their efforts [on behalf of 23,000 residents],” said Foster.
The HABD as an agency has more than 170 employees, but Foster meets with about 10 daily, and that includes the agency’s department heads.
“The work truly never ends when you serve as many people as we do, so we’re always working,” said the CEO. “Though every day has its challenges, we aim to find a ‘win’ in each one.”
“It can be difficult to plan and strategize for years ahead when you’re faced with recurring deadlines, staffing shortages, resident concerns, or efforts to capitalize on funding availability that require your attention right then and in the moment,” she added. “Thankfully, I have a team committed to helping ensure that the day-to-day runs smoothly, so we can build on plans for the future success of the HABD.”
Foster grew up in Selma, Alabama, most known for the 1960s Selma Voting Rights Movement and the Selma to Montgomery marches to press for voting rights.
“[My siblings and I] were brought up and educated about the history that goes along with Selma, and everyone knew each other because it’s [a small city]. We were neighboring families. … They say it takes a village,” said Foster, who was raised in a single-parent household with three other siblings, including her twin, Chondrelle.
Foster and her sister did everything together, she said, adding that when they were students at Selma High School, no one could tell them apart: “We played tricks on people. We were never called by our names. People would just say ‘Twin’ because they couldn’t tell us apart.”
What set the twins apart growing up was that one was athletic and the other was on the sideline cheering.
“We both were track stars, and Chondrelle played basketball. I tried out because she tried out but, I ended up being a water girl just so I could travel,” Foster laughed.
The twins also attended Wallace State Community College, located in Hanceville, Alabama, and then went on to attend Stillman College, located in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Being away from home was a breeze for Foster, especially with Chondrelle by her side.
“We were each other’s support team,” she said. “She is my sister and best friend, so we have a bond with no secrets.”
While in college, Foster became pregnant and gave birth to her first child.
“That kind of prevented me from doing a lot of extracurricular activities, so that’s why it was important that I identified the most important things I needed to do,” she said. “I used my time to do a lot of internships. People kept saying you can have all of this education, but without experience it will be hard for you to be able to find a job.”
After graduating from Stillman College in 1998, Foster married her husband, Andre, and moved to Birmingham. She soon took a position as an accounting clerk through a staffing agency at the HABD. Many would assume that most accountants love numbers because of their profession. Foster says she was good with numbers, but she didn’t like them.
“I enjoyed analyzing and solving problems,” she said. “I gained the nickname ‘Eagle Eye’ because of my keen eye for detail, but I quickly learned that working solely with numbers just wasn’t fulfilling.”
After working for a year through the staffing agency, expressing how much she loved working with the agency and wanted to become a full-time employee, she was promoted and hired as an account technician general ledger for the HABD.
“I had my daughter, so it was important for me to have [health and dental] benefits. I expressed my concerns and asked which way this position is leading me,” she said.
Foster began to work her way to a leadership position, even though she may not have known at the time. She started as an accountant and applied for other positions within the company. She would interview and not get the jobs.
“I kept saying, ‘I’ve been here for a while. I know the agency. Why am I being overlooked?’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe my time is up here,’ so I began to apply outside of the agency,” she said.
Eventually, Foster got a position as an executive staff administrator to then HABD CEO Naomi Truman. Foster analyzed every document that came across her desk, educating herself on them, doing more research, and reading regulations notices to understand all of them.
She learned how Section 8, Section 3, and other federal programs worked. In addition, Foster got to travel with the executive director to different meetings.
“I would just sit and listen,” she said. “So, when she would be out of the office, I would be able to take phone calls and respond to questions or concerns that were brought up in her absence. It got to a point where, when the department heads started submitting their documentation for her approval, they would request that I look at it first. I had gained so much knowledge, I almost became that expert.”
Still, Foster never imagined becoming a president of any agency.
“I’ve always enjoyed working behind the scenes,” she said. “Being in [the executive staff administrator role] and learning the things that I learned put me in this position.”
Foster got a chance to learn her job under several former HABD executive directors, including Truman, Michael Lundy, and David Northern, serving as interim director under each of them before becoming permanent president and CEO.
Foster’s final stint as interim executive director was for six months in 2022, and she learned that it was no time to be shy.
“It was a new world for me,” she said. “I had to manage an agency with individuals that in their mind were questioning ‘why me?’ I had to get to the point where they could take me serious enough and trust that I could take the agency forward.”
Foster had a response: “Believe in yourself, be patient, and follow God’s plan.”
She added, “Going through my transition helped me enter into some of the challenges and things I have to deal with. It gives me more of a backbone. I had to quickly come out of this shy role because I understood that if this was my purpose, I had to show that I could fulfill this purpose. I don’t mind standing for what’s right. I believe in being fair and true and following policy and regulation.”
Outside of her role at the HABD and pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at Troy University, Foster enjoys spending time and traveling with her husband, Andre, daughter, D’Miyah, and son, Dreyden. She also is on the board of directors with Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as a member of the National Foundation of Black Professionals Association; Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated; and the Family Guidance Center Advisory Council.
After her interview with The Birmingham Times, Foster sent an email with a message she wanted to share, that read in part, “For many years, I tried to identify my purpose in life. I remember a conversation with my daughter when she was young; she thought my purpose was to be her mother. I love being a mother, but I knew that my purpose was to serve in additional capacities. I sought after my purpose for years and tried to plan my life according to what I thought it was. I later realized that God had a purpose for my life, way greater than any purpose I had for myself, and it was important to me that I follow His plan not my own.
“Each season of life is different, and people experience seasons at different times. But I encourage people to wait for their season and embrace it when it comes. It may not be an easy season or a season you thought would be for you, but persevere through its challenges. One last thing: don’t be afraid to self-evaluate. Know your strengths and weaknesses, have faith in something, and be patient. The better you know yourself, the easier it will be to combine your passions with your purpose to lead a life of impact and inspire others to do the same.”