Thursday, November 6, 2014

Black Paris Profiles™ II: Erma Manoncourt - Part 2

Part 2 of this Black Paris Profile™ focuses Dr. Erma Manoncourt’s career at UNICEF and her thoughts about living in Paris.

Dr. Erma Manoncourt
Image courtesy of Dr. Manoncourt

Erma worked for UNICEF for 16 years, fulfilling various roles at posts in the U. S., India, and Egypt. Yet joining the UN was not part of her original vision of her professional life. She planned on a career in academia and early on, held the position of Associate Professor and Chair of the Health Communication/Education program at Tulane University in Louisiana. But “life happened” – she married a French physician (Serge Manoncourt), moved to West Africa, and subsequently realized that she enjoyed the practical application of behavior and social change theories and skills in the field more than teaching others about it.

A colleague convinced her to apply for a UNICEF position. Because she assumed that the internal competition was stiff, she was surprised when she received the job offer. She carefully weighed her options (she was attracted by UNICEF goals and approaches and considered the opportunity of living and working in other cultures to be a strong lure) and finally accepted a position in New York to lead the organization’s social and behavior change work.

When she left her post in New York, she went to New Delhi to serve as Deputy Representative, Programmes of UNICEF in India. She subsequently accepted a post in Cairo as Country Representative of UNICEF in Egypt before retiring from the agency and founding M & D Consulting, Inc.

She faced many challenges in “switching cultures” in these posts, but emphatically states that she enjoyed her life as a “rolling stone” because of the opportunities and challenges brought on by these changes:

…there was the excitement of learning about ancient cultures of these countries and people perceptions of the world and foreigners who come to live and work I their land, as compared to the “younger” United States. At the same time, I had to be a quick learner on what is and is not acceptable behavior, what works/doesn’t work and with whom one should engage, when, where, how and why. Living in Cairo during the Egyptian revolution in the spring 2011 will never be forgotten – it was an experience of a life time. The first six months reflected rapid social and political change in a “blink of an eye."

In fact, Erma found traveling for the UN to be as natural as taking a breath of fresh air!

Being a “military brat,” I traveled a lot with my family at an early age and as a result, developed the love and excitement of “uprooting” oneself to discover new cultures, different ways of thinking about life and the work, and starting over again with a new home, a new school and new friends.

I am fortunate in that I have a husband who has been supportive and encouraged me in my work while maintaining his own professional career. I have been lucky in having a partner who understands me and has been willing to undertake the life adventure and “nomad” life together. He is my rock.

While serving in Cairo, Erma was asked to do a talk about international development work for TedXCairo. She entitled her talk “Learning to Walk on Shifting Sands” and her intent was to interest young people in the audience to consider a career in international development working with a UN agency of their choice. She wanted to share with the audience her pride and joy in working on behalf of children and women for the United Nations, what it means to be a “global citizen,” and the importance of remaining open to new learning experiences and viewpoints different than one’s own.

Though Erma retired from UNICEF in 2010, she is returning to work for the UN to support the fight against Ebola in West Africa. Taking up a temporary assignment in Accra, Ghana, she will create and coordinate a communication/social mobilization strategy that can be applied in the affected countries by working closely with behavior change professionals located in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Conakry.

Erma’s initial interest in France was born when she was a high school student living in Turkey. This was where she first learned French. Her first undergraduate degree was in history with a specialization in the Haitian Revolution and she continued her study of the language because she intended to visit Haiti and France. She later married Serge and they eventually moved to Paris. Her favorite area of the city is Bastille, where they now live.

Place de la Bastille
© Discover Paris!

Everything is here – easy access to public transportation and services, lots of funky, cozy restaurants and a constant flow of people, both tourists and natives. Something always seem to be happening - I enjoy the great marché on Boulevard Richard Lenoir every Thursday and Sunday, the demonstrations or protest marches that either start or end at the Place de la Bastille, and even the tourists trying to find their way around and practicing their French.

I asked Erma whether she considers the U. S. or France to be home. She replied:

I was born in Denver, Colorado. My parents moved to Las Vegas in 1969 and I lived there for only two years after graduating from college. “Home” has a dual meaning for me – my family home is Las Vegas but my home is Paris, where I have settled and established new roots.

I may have been born American, but my soul has always been French, I think! I love the immense complexity of the culture and am still discovering new aspects of different regions in France, even today. I like the freedom of being able to be who I am and the heady mix of being cross-cultural and bringing my “American-ness” to my French way of life, as well.
Because she married a French man, Erma has dual (French and U. S.) nationality. She finds that this has advantages and disadvantages:

The advantages - It means being somewhat of a schizophrenic in a positive sense of the word – I see both sides of an issue and have access to strengths that both nationalities bring. On the French side, I see the long view, I relish the debate of discussing and arguing with someone who holds different ideas then my own and I appreciate that “old” still has a place in the world. As an American, the brashness, the willingness to take risks and try something new and belief that “nobody” can become “somebody” is still in my DNA, too. Of course, since I travel a lot, having two passports comes in handy when trying to get multiple visas at the same time. Plus I have more freedom of travel.

The disadvantages – On a practical level, taxes of course! Both the US and France have high taxes and sorting out who gets what can be painful, especially given the current tax laws in both countries. At times, I feel the misconceptions of who I am – an American in Paris on one side and in the US, folks who sometimes ask what country I come from because I don’t sound or act as they thought I should. I no longer fit the easy classifications and that can be a challenge, but it’s one I enjoy.

For those who want to move to Paris and work in the public sector – particularly people starting their careers – Erma has the following advice:

Competition is stiff so I think it is important that one holds at least a Master’s degree and is fully functional in French. If one has a third language besides French and English, that’s an additional asset.

In my area of work, it is probably easier if one already has had some experience in related areas such as working with immigrants or low-income and/or ethnic communities in the U.S. Seeking one’s very first job here would be extremely difficult but not impossible – I must admit though, that I don’t know what it takes to obtain a work permit.

Do your homework – read up on France and employment opportunities in the public sector (who is hiring and with what type of profiles), look to interact/engage French citizens who are living or studying in the U. S. (look up community groups, foreign exchange programs etc.) and try to make connections or contacts with employers prior to coming to France. Some American universities have great contacts and strong alumni networks here so it is worth exploring that option and a number of American companies have branches in France. Besides the U.S. Embassy website, search other websites such as or American Church in Paris for information about living here. There are several social networking associations in which Americans living abroad are involved, such as InterNations and Meet Up that might be useful as well.

To read Part 1 of Erma's profile, click here.


Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.

If you like this posting, share it with your friends by using one of the social media links below!

No comments: