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Economic Empowerment and Self-Reliance

Get to Know the WRC: A Conversation with Senior Program Officer Erin Patrick


Periodically, we’ll be featuring interviews with members of our dedicated staff talking about how they got into the field and who or what inspires them. Here’s the first in our series, a conversation with Erin Patrick, Senior Program Officer. Erin works with our Fuel and Firewood Initiative, which mobilizes attention and action to increase women’s and girls’ safe access to cooking fuels.

Where are you from originally?

Just outside of Detroit, MI.

When did you start working here?

In 2005.

What drew you to the WRC?

I started as a consultant with what was supposed to be a three-month project…but 7 years later, I’m still here.

How would you describe your job?

Basically, we’re trying to get the humanitarian system (and donors) to recognize that since they distribute food that needs to be cooked in order to be eaten (like beans, grains and oil), the fuel to cook that food is just as important as the food itself. Without cooking fuel, women—and it is almost ALWAYS women and girls—risk their lives and health to go find firewood, because they have no other choice. This is unacceptable—it’s like distributing an injection-only vaccine without a syringe.

We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still a ways to go. One of the things we’re working on now is figuring out the right kinds of efficient stoves and fuels for different settings. This is really important because women cook different foods in different ways in different places. So a stove that might work for women in Darfur doesn’t necessarily work for women in Thailand, for example. As a friend of mine always says, you’d never tell an Italian to cook risotto in a microwave! So we talk in depth with women in places all over the world to learn what’s important to them when they cook, and we try to figure out how to best meet those needs—safely. Cooking is such a central facet of life in every culture in the whole world. It’s fun to be a part of helping women re-build a small semblance of the “normal” family life they had before they were displaced.

Do you travel abroad for your work?

Yes, all the time…lately, mostly to eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) since we have a new project there, but also to other places in Africa, and sometimes Asia, or Haiti. Anywhere where people cook.   

What part of your job do you most enjoy?

I like being able to “translate” the needs and challenges of the people we work with in the field—both refugees as well as the humanitarian staff based there—to donors and policymakers at headquarters. Often there’s a real (unintentional) disconnect between these two groups and I feel like WRC is seen as a valuable partner for both.

What part of your job is the most difficult?

I hear so many stories from women about problems they have: not having enough food for their kids, not being able to pay the school fees for their daughters. And there’s almost nothing I can do about it at the time. Most everything we do at WRC is long-term structural and policy change, which is important and very needed. And, it will hopefully change their lives over the longer term, or at least improve the lives of people who will be in those kinds of situations in the future. But often the people we work with are literally living on a day-by-day basis, and it can be hard to leave those conversations without being able to offer anything tangible right then and there.

Any special interests outside of the office?

I love everything having to do with music. And my husband and I are gut-renovating a 125-year old brownstone in Harlem—that pretty much takes up every spare second outside of work.

What book is on your night stand now?

No books actually, just table saws, wood planers and maybe some leftover batt insulation!

Is there a person who most inspires you?

It will sound corny, but I mean it: the women and girls I talk to in eastern Congo, or Haiti, or Darfur. They have been through so much horror and hardship but somehow still manage to go on with their lives and almost always have a positive attitude. A few years ago, I was talking with women in Nepal, and they were asking me about my family and said they felt sorry for me that I was so far away from home. These are refugees who hadn’t seen their own homes in almost 20 years, and likely never would again. But they still had empathy for a stranger. So anytime I catch myself feeling sorry for myself—for whatever little reason—it’s easy to remember that whatever I have going on, I’m just incredibly, incredibly lucky to have the life I do and the job that I do.

Economic Empowerment and Self-Reliance