Gwen's Take: Two Women Who Expand Hearts and Minds

Posted: Thu, 03/13/2014 - 11:39am

In October, Gwen wrote this piece about Michele Norris and Etharine Cousin for Politico's "Women Rule" series. For Women's History Month, we are republishing the piece [Photos: The Race Card Project; WFP.org)

I am fortunate to enjoy the company of a number of smart, supportive and accomplished women in my life. Most are expert jugglers, adept at balancing stellar careers while setting correct family priorities. Like many women, they were leaning in long before it was cool.

By far the most impressive of that group — women I would want to be when I grow up if we were not already roughly the same age — are two women who are devoting their energies to expanding our minds and worlds in essential and important ways. Among my closest friends, they are living their passions.

Ertharin Cousin has fed 97 million people just this year.

Michele Norris has spent the past several years challenging us to rethink how we define ourselves as Americans.

Ertharin is the executive director of the World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian program. And she is saving the world one hungry mouth at a time, overseeing 15,000 staff members who serve more than 100 million people. As the chief United Nations hunger emissary, she is steward of nearly $4 billion in contributions from around the world, spending a lot of her life on planes calling attention to the crises most of us largely ignore.

Forbes named her its 49th most powerful woman in the world — and until they tallied it up, I did not grasp the enormity of her accomplishment.

She has met with Syrian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon, and traveled to Yemen, Rwanda, Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Israel, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. In Rome, where she is based, she was granted an audience with the pope.

And she’s had the job only since April 2012. Hungry babies could not have a more tireless advocate.

Michele, a special correspondent at NPR, is well-known to radio audiences for her dulcet voice and incisive interviews ranging from politics to culture to children’s literature.

Michele thought she was writing a simple family memoir when she set out to create “The Grace of Silence,” a heart-tugging meditation on what it was like to come of age as a young black woman at a time when our nation was in severe racial flux. She introduced us to her midcentury American family and unearthed secrets that reminded us how far we have come in a nation that only recently began to live up to its promise for minority citizens.

But to her surprise, Michele touched a nerve by turning her curious eye and ear to other people’s stories as well. Aware that talking about race honestly is one of our great national taboos, she began asking audiences, readers and listeners to talk about race themselves — not by pointing fingers but by boiling their own experiences down to just six words.

She was unprepared for the flood of replies that poured in from 40 countries — 32,000 archived responses, so far. It overwhelmed her tiny website daily. “I’m a bit like Lucy in the chocolate factory,” she told me the other day. “Hustling to keep up as the cards roll in by the hundreds.”

Many of the submissions are hurtful, clear-eyed and poetic. Many take you to stories the writers would otherwise be unable to tell.

“First saw black person at 16.”

“Not understanding doesn’t make me racist.”

“He looked down to stay safe.”

“Are you Hispanic, or just Italian?”

“Want to forget. Need to remember.”

“The chains are made of air.”

Set aside some time if you go to theracecardproject.com because the stories they tell will draw you in.

Both Ertharin and Michele are mothers who bring their special nurturing gifts to their work. They have dedicated themselves to tackling difficult and essential topics in a manner that makes it impossible for us to look away.

They improve our lives, and they improve my world.

Originally published in Politico.

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