Stevenson grad reflects on World Food program pioneer
Stevenson High School graduate Anastasia Way is in Rome fulfilling her Media Fellows Scholarship requirements. | Contributed photo
Updated: May 6, 2012 8:04AM
Anastasia Way graduated from Stevenson High School in 2009 and is a junior at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. She is in Rome, Italy fulfilling her Media Fellows Scholarship requirements working as an intern at the United National World Food program. She has participated with many teams at the UN helping those less fortunate all over the world, with her focal point being in Africa. She wrote this article about the World Food program’s Judith Thimke:
Starting in 1993 as WFP’s first female land-side logistics officer and now serving as deputy chief of shipping, American-born Judith Thimke is a beacon for women who have climbed the ranks of WFP from the ground up. Maintaining the difficult balance of not only a career professional but also as a wife and mother of two sons, Judith talks about the choices she has had to make along the way.
“My whole career, I’ve always been extremely clear that I’m actually a mother before a WFP employee,” she said. “But that balancing is what you need to be good at. And knowing that you’re working for an organization that needs you in a time of emergency — there is tremendous responsibility in that. I see a lot of overlap.”
Before she came to WFP, Thimke worked for six years in the port of Dakar, Senegal in the commercial shipping business, a field that is historically male-dominated. She believes the job prepared her to enter as one of WFP’s first female logistics officers at the start of an era of dramatic change for women at WFP — but where there were just a handful of women in senior professional posts. She was the only woman among eight colleagues in the shipping division.
“In the start of my career, it was just me and the guys. Lots of men in ties and suits — and then me,” she said. “I felt welcomed as a professional from the beginning, though, because I was well-prepared. But at every level of shipping, I found myself navigating through a man’s world.”
Today, in general logistics meetings, the percentage of women hovers between 40 and 50 percent, according to Thimke. She said the rise in women in WFP’s professional workforce is not only due to the general changing of times, but also because of former Executive Director Catherine Bertini, who led the organization from 1992- 2002.
“She decided that WFP needed more women professionals, and no one was going to stop her mission,” Thimke said. “She stuck to her word, no matter how many comments or confrontations. And as a woman, that (resistance) was something you encountered quite often.”
As many WFP employees can attest, it’s not easy finding the middle ground between developing a career and maintaining a healthy family life. Thimke said she’s been fortunate to enjoy the support of her musician-husband, Charley Anderson, who has adapted his career to their moves with the family, starting as bass player and founding member of the UK group The Selecter . She acknowledged the challenges many staff face regarding spouses who often struggle to develop their own, parallel careers and life interests. “He has his own world, his own life,” Thimke said. “He accepts change in a positive way. As a woman, it is very important to have that kind of support behind you.”
On her part, Thimke said she is “fiercely protective” of her life with her two sons, Jonathan, 14, and Danny, 12. She emphasized the importance of attending children’s parent-teacher conferences, birthdays and activities such as sporting events. Missing just one or two of these important events, she said, can start to add up in a harmful way.
“I have done everything possible to ensure that I am there for the important moments,” she said. “If these single moments slip away, next thing you know they start accumulating. I think you have to pull yourself out of the intensity of what we do. It’s not easy, but you don’t have to be apologetic about it. I don’t have excuses. I have made a number of choices regarding my career and family, and I take full responsibility for these choices.”
Thimke believes her adamant protection of her family life has had a positive outward influence on male colleagues; she has noticed more of them stopping to reflect on their own family values. “I have seen other men begin to realize that they should be doing the same thing,” Thimke said. “They too can have successful careers but still be there for their children.”
There was a time where being a mother and working for WFP had a painfully paradoxical twist for Thimke. She recalled working in rebel territory in Liberia during the ‘90s when, in a heart-stopping episode, her vehicle was blocked by a group of child soldiers armed with guns. They were noticeably drugged, and circled the car in a menacing way that Thimke suggested was an attempt to “act tough.”
“They had no concept of life or death,” she said. “I felt an incredible sense of vulnerability and saw the irony as a mother — where your life depends on the choices of child soldiers. This is a tragedy in itself.”
Thimke believes that female staff often bring some unique strengths and empathy to the work they do for WFP. When she was the deputy country director in Colombia, she visited a group home and clinic for vulnerable women and girls between ages 7 and 16, many of whom had been abused and were pregnant at a very young age. Run by women, with a WFP-supported mother-child health and nutrition intervention, the facility offered a safe haven to give birth and recover. On a tour of the clinic, Thimke passed by the crib of a 1-month-old infant who was crying. Picking up the child to comfort him, Thimke met the 13-year-old mother, a victim of sexual assault, who was clearly still in shock.
“I noticed immediately that she had very little connection with the child,” Thimke said. “I asked if the baby had a name. He didn’t. It was a very intense moment, showing the absence of the mother-to-child bonding that we take for granted. Her circumstances of violence and poverty short-circuited that connection.”
The clinic was designed to help not only newborns like the one Thimke met, but also to help young mothers learn to care for their children. Thimke said that a lot of them lose their sense of self during the shock of having a child at such a young age, and that the clinic is run by women, for women, because of the shared bond of motherhood.
“I don’t think I would have been in that situation if I was a man,” Thimke said. “There are many, many situations in WFP work where being a woman and being a mother has that extra ‘click.’ The distressing drama of the conflict within that young woman was counteracted by the vibrant sense of women taking care of women — one that led me to believe in heroes.”