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START intern serves her country by fighting disease and discrimination

Intern spotlight: Whennah Andrews
Whennah Andrews
Whennah Andrews

“It was March 31, 2014. I’ll never forget this day,” Whennah Andrews said. “The Army had issued an update to our uniform and grooming regulations. There were a lot of restrictions when it came to hair, and unfortunately it looked like it was targeting one group – which was African-American women.”

A captain in the U.S. Army National Guard and current intern with START’s Unconventional Weapons and Tactics division, Andrews was also one of Glamour Magazine’s 2019 Women of the Year for her efforts to combat discrimination in the Army’s grooming regulations.

“The Army put a ban on dreadlocks and two strand twists, and they made our braid size requirement more restrictive,” Andrews said. “What happens when you only allow tiny braids is that it can lead to breakage around the hairline and the crown, and traction alopecia. It caused a disparity for African-American women, and a disadvantage.”

The regulation was so much of a controversy that the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Army, asking them to review their policies. The Secretary of Defense, in response to their letter, issued a 90-day review of grooming policies for all branches of the military.

“Any offensive language in the regulation had to be removed,” Andrews said. “There was language such as unkempt, and matted. Those type of words can be used as weapons to push this idea that professionalism or professional appearance only falls under one category.”

At the end of the 90-day review, all the branches reported back to the Secretary of Defense, and the military made improvements to the regulation. However, dreadlocks were still banned in the Army.

“At the time, I had locked hair, but I was wearing a wig over it because it was against the regulation to have them. I wasn't prepared to get rid of them because I felt attached to them,” Andrews said. “It got to a point where I thought, ‘You have to make a decision. Either you're going to stay in and serve and comply. Or you can just get out.’”

Andrews noted that she had convinced herself, like many other African-American women in professional settings, that she had to have straight hair, and so considered getting rid of her dreadlocks.

“It impacts your self-esteem, and your self-confidence,” Andrews said. “So in 2016 I remember going to the mirror, getting ready for work. I had my natural hair cornrowed down flat, and I was getting ready to put on the wig and I thought, ‘This is not me.’ I’m putting on a costume. I raised my right hand, I want to serve my country. I want to do my civil duty. But I want to do it as me.”

Andrews researched the issue and discovered that the Army had a process for submitting arguments against certain policies to the Uniform Policy Board at the Pentagon. She also discovered that the U.S. Coast Guard allowed dreadlocks in their grooming regulations in 2014, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps in 2015.

“I called the Coast Guard’s diversity and inclusion office and I asked how their inclusive regulations had come about,” Andrews said. “They told me that an officer by the name of Kimberly Young-McLear put together a presentation about natural hair for the Coast Guard, and eventually they made the changes.”

Andrews reached out to Young-McLear for advice, who recommended that Andrews incorporate visually compelling elements in a presentation to her own command. This led Andrews to the idea of making a YouTube video, in addition to a letter in which she argued passionately for inclusive grooming regulations.

“I found a YouTube channel called GreenBeauty, which offers educational videos on how to take care of natural hair,” Andrews said. “I reached out to Nikky Nwamokobia and I explained what I was trying to do. I gave her the concept, the idea, and she put together the visuals and narration for the video. I pushed the video, along with the letter, up to my leadership. It ended up making it to the Pentagon, to the Uniform Policy Board, and they made that change effective in January 2017.”

In 2019, the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act was introduced in California by Senator Holly Mitchell, which makes natural hair a protected clause, so that it would be considered discrimination to deny someone employment because of their dreadlocks, braids or twists. Several states have adopted the law, and last September it was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

“When Senator Mitchell went before the assembly to push for the law, she mentioned what happened in the Army,” Andrews said. “She said that the military is the most conservative institution and they allowed dreadlocks. So she used that as an example to help push the law in California.”

In addition to her leadership in combatting discriminatory grooming regulations in the Army, Andrews currently supports the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts. As a medical officer in the National Guard, Andrews works full-time providing contact tracing for the National Guard’s training division.

“Any positive COVID-19 cases we get across the 54 states and territories at Army National Guard training institutions, I am that single point of contact on tracking all the cases and reporting it up to a higher command,” Andrews said. “It also involves helping other National Guard units from all the different states to come up with COVID-19 mitigation strategies.”

Andrews is also a student at George Washington University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in Public Health. She received her undergraduate degree in Health Science from Howard University.

“I was a nontraditional student,” Andrews said. “I took some time off in my undergraduate work to join the military, and then came back to finish my degree.”

Before the pandemic, Andrews was a member of a civil support team, with a focus on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) response. Andrews first discovered START while she was researching internships focusing on WMD.

“I have very supportive leadership,” Andrews said. “When I showed them the internship at START, they loved it, and allowed me to adjust my work hours so that I could intern here. My project fits under what we do in the military, working with other host nations and other states to help build capacity in WMD response.”

After eleven years in the Army, Andrews says that she is looking forward to remaining in for another nine years before retirement.

“After the military I want to explore a career that combines public health concerns with the homeland security and CBRN side. That’s why I took the START internship. Ideally I would love to transition to another federal agency, maybe doing something in biodefense.”

Andrews grew up in New Jersey, the child of parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Liberia before she was born.

“My parents engrained in me my drive,” Andrews said. “They taught me to never take no for an answer. It’s because of them that I have a superwoman complex.”