28 Days of Black Excellence: Ertharin Cousin
Ertharin Cousin, a native of Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, received her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from UIC in 1979 and has more than 30 years of national and international nonprofit, government, and corporate leadership experience focusing on hunger, food, and resilience strategies. She is a visiting scholar at the Center on Food Security and the Environment in the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, and a distinguished fellow of global agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She previously served as executive director of the World Food Programme from 2012 until 2017. In 2009, Cousin was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations’ Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome. She has also held top leadership positions at America’s Second Harvest (now Feeding America), served as White House liaison to the State Department in the Clinton administration, and headed government communications and community affairs for Albertsons and Jewel Food Stores.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:35
Hello, good people. Greetings, UIC family and friends. I welcome you to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha Al-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, past faculty and staff. Each day we have a new guest who will share their story and today I am elated and honored to introduce our guest for today. She graduated in the class of 1975  from liberal arts and sciences, Ertharin Cousin. I will I will hand her the mic. She’s been up to some really exciting things, inspiring things since she graduated from UIC. So please fill us in on all the great things that have been going on in your life.
Ertharin Cousin 1:35
Oh, professor thank you so much for having me as a part of this important series to highlight the [Cough] the successes that are many from the University of Illinois Chicago. As you noted, I am a graduate of the university in 1975 , liberal arts and sciences, with a degree in criminal justice and a minor in political science. And back then what I thought I wanted to do was to be a lawyer and practice law and practice criminal law. So when I left the university, I studied law at the University of Georgia. Thank you University of Illinois, I had a full ride to the University of Georgia’s Law School, where I studied international law. Unexpected to me when I began my academic career there with one former Secretary of State Dean Rusk. I took every course that he taught at the university. But I was still, though I was intellectually interested in what he was doing, I was still committed to coming back and working in criminal justice. And indeed I did.
When I graduated from law school, I returned to the city of Chicago. I worked for a small law firm on the South Side of the city of Chicago that was primarily a criminal law firm and did criminal law, a lot of civil law. But what I learned very quickly was that the problems that Black people in the city of Chicago were facing that were legal problems. They were just a moment in time where the structural challenges of economics, education, lack of access to good jobs and housing, were creating what was then a legal problem that I was simply putting a Band-Aid on their lives. And I very quickly realized that the practice of law was not fulfilling enough for me, and had the opportunity to work in government. And I worked in a series of positions in government as the affirmative action officer for the [Metropolitan] Water Reclamation District using that position to increase opportunities for women and people of color to have contracts at the Water Reclamation District. Bobby Steele was a commissioner at that time. We wrote Cook County’s first affirmative action ordinance and got it passed in Cook County.
I went on to actually run for office and I ran for Water Reclamation District commissioner. And I say then, you know, God knows what’s right, because if I had won, I would have been a Water Reclamation District commissioner, as opposed to that loss led to other opportunities for me, I was…I served as the first African American to run a statewide campaign in Illinois when Neil Hartigan ran for governor. I was the deputy campaign manager on that campaign and went on from there to become the director of government relations for AT&T. And back then, I was one of five Black women lobbying for the corporate business, lobbying for businesses in the legislature in Illinois. So I got to know the legislature really well. Mike Madigan was then the Speaker. He made me his appointee to the redistricting commission back then. You have to remember this is the early 1980s and so redistricting back then… I was I was interviewed by the press, and I told them, “I was representing all the poor people, people of color, women and underserved people in the state of Illinois to ensure that we pass a fair map.” And that map led to my first conversations with the Democratic National Committee, because I argued with them that majority minority districts that did not have enough registered voters of color would not elect representatives of color. And as a result, I was brought into the DNC to argue this, but before the chair who was then Ron Brown. That was my first engagement with the National Democratic Party, and representing the issues of importance to me that I was working on in Illinois. Fast forward to, I then become the deputy chief of staff for the National Democratic Party.
And after that, the White House liaison at the State Department under President Clinton. But when Clinton…at the end of Clinton’s term, I came back to Chicago and became the vice president of government and community affairs for Jewel-Osco. And you know, the store on 95th and Stony Island? That’s my store. I built that store. The store on Chicago, I’m sorry, on Roosevelt and, and State, that’s my store, I built that store. And the stores on the South Side of the city of Chicago, I led the efforts to refurbish all of those stores to ensure that we had adequate access to nutritious food in a setting that was conducive to us spending our money and a recognition by the owners of the company that we as shoppers have value. And so was very excited about that, but even more excited when the company was purchased by Albertsons. It was owned by American Stores in Salt Lake and then Albertsons purchased American Stores. I was promoted to the senior vice president for community affairs and communications as the chief communications officer for the company. I was then the highest ranking person of color, Black person let’s say be honest about it [laughter]. I was the highest ranking Black person in the retail food industry. And the work that I began in Chicago was building stores in inner city, I was able to continue that work across the country. Identifying places like Hawthorne, California that didn’t have grocery stores, but had populations that had access to capital that would allow for a flourishing grocery store. So I worked in, in that area for, for the company for a number of years. But what was very clear to me was my public service was always more important to me and filled my heart more than private, than the private sector. The private sector can do things that the government can’t, but I was prepared, I really wanted to go back into public service.
So what is now Feeding America, what was then America’s Second Harvest, offered me an opportunity to become the chief operating officer, the executive vice president for all of the operations for what is now Feeding America. And in that role, that was when Katrina happened. And so I was able to organize the entire team across the country to support the response to Katrina. And you’ve never seen, at that point I had never seen devastation like what I witnessed across the Gulf Coast from Mississippi all the way over to Texas, that as a result of Hurricane Katrina. And so the work that we did to bring the food access that was necessary to ensure that people did not go hungry after this acute crisis, this acute situation, was quite fulfilling. And then… after, after my time there it was very clear to me that at that point, they were not ready to make an African American woman the CEO of the organization. And so what I wanted to do then, was to start my own company, it was time at this point for me to go out on my own to start a company that was a bring together and develop public private partnerships to support our the community, while at the same time creating opportunity to build jobs, and not just programs but to create businesses.
And about that same time I was at a Christmas party, about this time of the year. Our U.S. Senator was sitting in the kitchen eating a piece of fried chicken and he looks at me, and he says ‘Ertharin, if I run for president, will you be there?’ And I said, “Barack, Senator, if you run for president, count me in.” And he goes to Hawaii, which he does every Christmas, he comes back, about 10:30 at night my phone rings. “Who is it?” “Hi, Ertharin. Barack.” I said, “Like I don’t know your voice.” [Laughter] So, he says, “I’m going to do it and I want you there with me.” I said, “Sir, you’re doing this, I’m there with you.” Needless to say we won an election, he becomes President of the United States. And I’m asked what do I want to do. And I say to him, “I want to serve as the U.S. Ambassador for food and agriculture in Rome, Italy.” And nobody even knew this position existed. I said, but this is what I do, so I know about these types of positions.
And so he nominated me, and the Senate confirmed me and I became the U.S. Ambassador for food and agriculture, which meant that the Rome-based agencies — the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme, the International Fund for Agricultural Development — I was a U.S. representative to each one of those organizations. And I did that from 2012, to I’m sorry, from 2009 to 2012. In 2011, the position of the World Food Programme executive director was going to come open in 2012. And I went to the President’s advisors and I said, ‘I can serve in that role.’ That role requires that as executive director, you manage a budget of about $6 billion a year with 14,000 people across 85 countries. That at the time we were feeding about 83 million people a year, and some of the most acute crisis around the world. And so the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nominated me to the Secretary General, I interviewed with then Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. And what was supposed to have been a 15 minute conversation ended up being an hour conversation. And at the end of it, he called our our permanent representative in New York, who was at the time Susan Rice, and told Ambassador Rice, “I love her, I want her” and I became the executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme.
And people ask me, “What was the difference between serving as the ambassador and being on the governing body of the World Food Programme and serving as the executive director?” I said, “As ambassador, I was responsible for telling the organization how to spend U.S. taxpayer dollars. And as executive director, I was responsible for spending and not just the U.S., but the contributions from the entire global community in a way that was fit for purpose, that provided the support, that people across the globe needed.” I was there until 2017 when my term ended. It was clear that the then President of the United States, Donald Trump, was not going to support me for a second term with the United Nations. And so Stanford offered me an opportunity to come to become a distinguished fellow in their Institute on Food and Environment [Center on Food Security and the Environment] and inside this Freeman Spogli Institute [for International Studies]. And I took it for two and a half years I taught and did research around hunger and conflict, as well as what would it take, exploring the question of ‘What it would take to address access to nutritious foods in underserved communities?” Not with programs, but by building companies that could provide economic opportunity, as well as access to nutritious food. And so Rockefeller [Foundation] gave me a grant and BCG [Boston Consulting Group] supported me and Stanford supported me and we performed the landscape study that resulted in us standing up what is now Food Systems for the Future. Food Systems for the Future is a 501(c)(3) that works to build through education and advocacy and partnerships and outreach, the ecosystem that is necessary to support business growth.
Nobody starts more businesses than Black women in the United States of America, but our average business is one and a half person and has revenue of about $150,000 a year. We don’t grow businesses. Even in the food and agriculture space, we don’t grow businesses. And so what I’ve identified is, I’m not interested in being another one of those programs that’s providing an incubator or an accelerator. But I want the company that has graduated from there that is, that is earning revenue, but maybe not a profit, and is not set to grow because it doesn’t have that next level of operational support or partnership, or the policy support that is necessary for it to grow higher. And finally, it doesn’t have the capital. So the what we have is this 501(c)(3) that also wholly owns a impact investment fund, that is a social enterprise that will provide the capital to see businesses grow, to help them scale. And I’ve been asked a million times, “Don’t just do that over there in Africa, do it at home.” So we have two teams working. One in the United States, one in Rwanda right now to demonstrate proof of concept on each one. That if you provide the capital and the wraparound support to businesses that are often deemed too risky in the agriculture and food space for commercial capital, and even VC [venture capital] to invest, that we will take those risks and invest and provide the space for these businesses to grow that make them commercially viable, and then bring in that additional capital. So that’s what I’ve been up to. That’s what I’m working on now.
I serve on boards. I serve on the Bayer board, I serve on the Monsanto board, working on issues related to to DI [Diversity and Inclusion] increasing the number of people of color in these organizations and the in their supply chains, but also on issues related to sustainability. We must address the food system challenges of sustainability, because the food system is the most vulnerable system to the climate crisis and it also emits about 30% of the greenhouse gases on an annual basis. So addressing food system transformation, in a way that provides for the health of the planet, as well as the health of the people and the economic return for all of the actors across the food system is work that I am doing through all of these different projects that I’ve talked to you about. And it is the work that I will spend the balance of my life working to ensure that we leave a pathway forward for the next generation for prosperity and for life.
Aisha El-Amin 18:14
Oh my gosh, so you’ve been quite busy [laughter]. Wow, you are inspiring.
Ertharin Cousin 18:25
Well, thank you.
Aisha El-Amin 18:26
Your passion and your brilliance is just explosive. As you think about your, back on your journey. And I know UIC is so so far in their journey and helped you to you know, as a starting point. What are some fond memories you can share and, and some even some challenges?
Ertharin Cousin 18:48
Sure, sure. Fond memories…first of all the friendships. I have friendships that I made at the university that were important to my getting through the university, but they’ve they’ve been important to my getting through this life. They’re, they’re the people who know me, who knew me before I was Ambassador Ertharin Cousin or executive director. They know the challenges that…I came to U of I as a single parent. When I started my freshman year at U of I the reason I attended U of I, and not all the other schools I had gotten accepted to was because I gave birth to my son in June and started in the U of I in September. Gave birth to him. Graduated in May, gave birth to him in June and started at the U of I in September.
And I was, I worked full time at the post office during the time that I served at the university, that I attended the university. And while I was…while I worked full time, it didn’t stop me from making friends. It didn’t stop me from having a full college experience. I had a family that gave me the safety net that I needed in order to ensure that I didn’t miss anything. Not a party at the student union did I miss. Nor did I miss the opportunity to engage in class and after class with students who were deal, many of them dealing with both personal challenges and life challenges while they were also attending school, but just as committed as I was to getting through the university in four years. And so it was a great place to have people hold you up and one of the things I tell young, particularly young women all the time, ‘Build a circle of support.’ And that will help carry you through the challenges in life and also give you those who can celebrate the victories in life. And many of those folks who remain in my circle today are friendships that I made at U of I.
You know that you asked me, you know, an issue, let me just tell you an issue. I graduated four years, walked [laughter] up and got my diploma, called my name. And then three weeks after graduation, I received a letter from the university saying I was three hours short and that I was not going to graduate. And I was already accepted in law school, had a full ride to law school. And they said I was three I was short they were not going to let me graduate after everything I got through. And I was in a complete panic, I could not tell my family this. I did what every student should do and that is I had relationships with some of many, several of my professors. And one of them was the late great Dr. Grace Holt, who was in the Black studies department at UIC when I was there and I took every class that she taught. And she, she said, ‘Okay, first of all, stop crying.’ [Laughter] ‘That’s not gonna solve anything.’ And so she sent, sent me to see Dean Bond. And the two of us, the three of us sat down together and Grace explained to him, you know, that I was one of her students and that I’m on my way to law school and all the things that I’ve gone through. And together, we worked out a solution that got me my diploma. So that last three hours, so that I started law school on time, and my parents never knew that [laughter] that when I walked across that stage I wasn’t really fully qualified. That was, it was, it was…though the university during that period it was a much colder place than what it looks like now from a physical standpoint. There were no, they just built the first dorms during my senior year. And so there was no real on-campus presence at the university. There was still a sense of family, a sense of commitment between the students as friends, and your professors as people who were more than just somebody you saw in the classroom for 50 minutes.
Aisha El-Amin 23:37
Wow, wow, that is a beautiful story. And I think, wow, I want to actually just sit and talk to you for hours. [Laughter] You have such a great and rich history. And so I’m, I’m thanking you, thank you for the advice of, you know, making sure that you have folks that you keep, keep in your circle that encourage you.
Ertharin Cousin 24:02
Aisha El-Amin 24:03
Professors and administrators that they care about you, they can also help you through some hard times. And thank you for doing everything that you do. We continue to, you know, be beneficiaries of the legacies that you have have gone on and done just phenomenal things in the world.
Ertharin Cousin 24:20
Aisha El-Amin 24:21
Thank you for being part of our series. If you have any, any last words that you want to leave as words of advice for current students, and folks that may be you know, struggling and trying to figure out what they want to do in the world, please?
Ertharin Cousin 24:32
Sure. So what I would say to students as I close is seek out faculty and staff at the university, and talk and get to know them and know… let them know what you want to do. You’d be surprised how many people can open doors for you if you just ask. And so often students and students from, particularly students from the inner city as I was, having grown up in Lawndale, we’re not, are not accustomed to going to professors and just engaging with them. That is so critical to maximizing the value of your college experience. And and so I would say to students, you know, if you bottle up that fear and let it be the driver, not the inhibitor of you doing the engaging with the faculty, engaging with staff in a way that will ensure people know you. Know your dreams, know your challenges, and that they can open doors for you in ways that you would never expect.
And the last thing I’d say is enjoy. You don’t get those four years back again. And so it is a time to discover everything, go to the lectures, attend the special events, broaden your horizons, you don’t know what you don’t know yet. And so completely use this college experience to know as much as you can by the end of those four years.
Aisha El-Amin 24:32
We will end with your advice and I will just applaud and give gratitude from the UIC family. We appreciate you. We applaud you and we admire everything that you’re doing in the world.
Ertharin Cousin 26:22
Tariq El-Amin 26:24
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.