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She manages her hair by keeping it simple


Ertharin Cousin

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Updated: July 2, 2012 8:52AM

When the road carries a black woman to other cultures, one thing is sure to be an issue: hair.

I thought about that as I watched Ertharin Cousin deliver the keynote address at the 1,000 Days Summit­ — the other star-studded event that was in town Monday that took place at the Chicago History Museum.

Cousin, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, and head of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. Agencies in Rome, recently became the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme.

This was her first visit back to her hometown since taking up a post that has her crisscrossing the globe, representing a program that has an annual budget of about $4.5 billion a year.

Having worked for two large U.S. grocery chains and as executive vice president for the largest domestic hunger organization in the U.S., Cousin has the credentials.

But I wondered how she manages her hair given that she’s constantly on the move.

“I had to solve that one when I first moved to Rome,” she said laughing.

“I no longer have a perm. I did the big chop and cut it all off, then I let my hair grow back. So I have a natural now. When I want, I can do it straight. When I don’t have access, I can wear it curly.”

I first met Cousin on the 2008 presidential campaign trail where she was an integral part of now President Barack Obama’s team. The prominent females on the Obama team all had straight hair. Cousin’s hair also had bounce.

Recent photos of Cousin posted on the Internet show her standing on African soil that is withering under prolonged drought, her hair covered by a brightly patterned scarf.

She is the 12th executive director of the United Nation’s World Food Programme. As an African-American woman, she puts a unique face on a condition that goes unnoticed by many until a highly publicized natural disaster or famine strikes, especially when it comes to Africa.

Cousin wants to change that.

“Too often when we think about hunger in Africa, we think about babies with bloated bellies and flies on their eyes and people standing there with their hands out,” she told me.

“What I see in Africa are women who work hard. I see people who use sticks to dig holes in the ground to plant seeds so that they can capture the opportunity for reaping the next harvest. They are not waiting for somebody to bring something to them. They need our help. Yes. But they are not asking for our handouts. And it’s amazing to put that face on the challenges of Africa because that is not often the face that we see.”

Cousin grew up in the Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side and was in the school’s first class of girls admitted to Lane Technical High School.

“What advice would she give girls in her old neighborhood?” I asked.

“I believe that you can do anything,” she told me.

“But it starts with you. Working hard, studying, ensuring that you graduate from high school, and seeing college not as a way to get a job, but the way to build opportunity.”

Cousin also cautioned girls not to let their circumstances define their future.

“Only you define your future,” she said.

Next month, Cousin is headed to Haiti where she is hoping to work with farmers to help them feed themselves, a strategy that the organization is employing in Africa as well.

“Part of the organization’s mission is to build this movement so that people around the world recognize this is not somebody else’s problem, that we all share this problem together,” she said.

Cousin seems well-suited for the challenge.

After all, in Rome, she found a Sicilian who can blow-dry her hair straight.

“Like all sisters, we make it work,” she said.

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