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A Discussion with Cossetta Evans on Food Security, Mental Health and Biases in Healthcare Leadership

This is the transcript of our interview with Cossetta Evans, the former Director of the Mount Olive Community Service. Cossetta's work has helped many families in the community achieve food security and access mental health and rehabilitation services. Drawn from her years of experience and providing thought-provoking inspiration, her interview brings attention to some of the critical issues faced by women in healthcare. She shares heartwarming examples of women as leaders in the field and uses her unique perspective to contextualize the history and challenges that diverse groups face in healthcare while climbing the ladder of leadership. If watching an interview is not for you, or you want a condensed version, then read ahead - you won't want to miss this!


CW: Please tell us a bit about yourself.

CE: I am a product of Jamaican and Canadian culture in terms of my background. My parents are from Jamaica, I grew up here in Canada. My parents came to Canada; we lived in Montreal first, then eventually, we got to Toronto. My experience growing up - I’m sure everyone would have similar background growing up in the early 70s. There were not many Black people in Canada when we went to school. It wasn't until grade 12 that I saw more West Indian Black persons in the school.

We grew up in Little Italy at St. Clair and Dufferin with Italians as friends. That made it interesting meeting other Black people and students in school. My music teacher thought that Trinidad was a part of Jamaica. We got exposed to Black history at summer school. At first, we didn’t want to go but learned so many shocking things—something I cherish today. I learned about our history and contributions. And what our fore-parents through so that we could have these opportunities.

CW: Was the Black history summer school teaching Canadian Black history or global Black history?

CE: It was global history. We learned about those who would stand up and fight against slavery—persons like Marcus Garvey and Paul Boggle. Movies came out at that time that showed what Black people went through.

CW: How long have you led operations at Mount Olive Food Bank?

CE: I have been the head of the Food Bank for over 11 years. I have always been involved at the food bank. It has been around since the church has been at that location. It started out operating from our home, using a barrel to fill food. The director at that time was a truck driver who helped to identify who needed assistance from the service. I then worked for two years as assistant secretary of the Adventist Community Services – the GTA Federation from the Ontario Conference. Then I went back to the church as a volunteer. The Leader of the Food Bank then became ill, and I assumed the role.

CW: What benefits have you received, or what are some things you have learned from your leadership experiences?

CE: Over the years, I have learned, firstly, I can't do anything without God, and He has always been my guide. I realized it was called to do this position even though it has been challenging. It's not easy when you're the leader of something where other people do not support it. Dealing with that is like holding the community in one hand and the church in another. Because of that, I have learned to be patient be more understanding. To be a good leader, you must also be a good follower. Giving support and valuing people allows you also to get support.

CW: In your opinion, what are the benefits of having women in leadership? CE: Being a woman in leadership, I have realized how strong women are. We have families that we have to take care of at home and help the community simultaneously. Luckily I have support from my family along the way. We are strong and resilient. They push through the challenges.

CW: What has been the most significant barrier in your health career? CE: My honesty. I have realized that people are not as welcoming when you're too honest. We have to be careful not to offend people. Having the truth doesn't mean you need to speak it. How you say, it makes a difference. I find that sometimes when you do, it can get you into trouble. At the same time, it's very important to me that I do because I think people should stand by their word. Your integrity is something that you don't have a reputation for without it. It's essential, to be honest, and when people sugarcoat things, I tell them to give me the truth because you can work with the truth if you know what you are doing.

In my first week in the therapeutic industry, I had three suicidal cases back to back. I remember asking my supervisor how do I handle this, and she said you can do this, you know. Of course, I prayed first. One of the clients already had a plan and was on the verge. I had to be careful with what I said to him. In that situation, I learned that you couldn't be too honest; you have to be careful how you approach things because I could have said the wrong thing. That opened my eyes, and I had to learn in such a difficult way.

CW: What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? What are some of the barriers you have faced as a leader? CE: One thing is being a Black woman. Racism is one thing. One of the things I've experienced is mostly with other women. I find you have women you will encounter who are just go-getters, and they’re trying so hard to break through that glass ceiling that they don't care who they step up to get there. Women need to be a little more supportive to other women; I think we have the tools to get there, but that aggressiveness with trying to prove that I can be better than a man or it can be like the same is not necessary because we have our own skills, we have our own ways to contribute.

CW: Do you experience resistance when you are leading men? How do you deal with it?

CE: Well I would say that for them sometimes, but not a lot - not as much as I found with women. Women tend to have, women tend to be more jealous, more ambitious because they’re fighting to find their foothold whereas men tend to feel like it's owed to them, that it's their right, you know what I mean? It's a different perspective. So for women it’s like, "oh okay, she’s a woman so I can, you know, go against her - I can try to fight my way up". I find with most men, I try to treat them the same way I would treat women. I try not to see them as different adversaries. Whatever I need to do - regardless of who you are - I'm going to do it. Its like you have to find that balance and you have to realize yeah, they’re coming from different perspectives, but if I hold true to who I am and what I believe in any situation, it's going to be the same. It might not come out just like affecting you the same but obviously you know there are other factors involved. However my outcome, what my expectation is for the outcome is, will be the same. If I have to tell you something, or if I expect you to leave or do something because it’s what I need you to do and it has to get done, then so be it.

CW: How can women navigate power structures? How can we motivate women to lead?

CE: I think some women are not - not everybody wants to be a leader. Some women are quite content to just be comfortable with whatever life they have chosen for themselves. But I think almost all women are born leaders and I say that because we don’t realize the power that we have. Especially if you are a mother and you have a husband or a spouse - whoever is at home - and you’ve got to take care of your family right there. Running a household is a business, it puts you in a position to be a leader whether you like it or not. You’re a leader and if you have a good companion and you become part of whatever they’re venturing out to do, you’re well respected for that. However, outside of the home, if you’re seeking to know any leadership role, I think it's important to support each other to encourage each other and say, "yeah you can do this!"

I’ve been fortunate enough that God has really, really opened doors for me. So whatever position I find myself in, I always rise to the top - I end up becoming a supervisor, like I’m always ending up rising to the top. I didn’t notice until recently when I’m going through, that has been my experience in the workforce. So I realized - how did I get here? It wasn't by myself, I had support from other women, other people along the way, and people who are not necessarily in power over you or anything like that, but people who had your best interests at heart and would push me and would guide me. Women are people who need each other, we depend on each other. But when you’re moving from one position to another situation, I find that support that you get is incredible because it’s like a sisterhood. This bond that, as women, we share and we help each other and it’s like okay, I can fly. I remember telling someone that they’re going through this difficult time, but they are going to get there. You can fly and there’s nothing more important than having somebody really believing in you and telling you that you can reach the stars.

CW: What are some modern-day barriers you believe prevent women from leading or from even wanting to lead in health care?

CE: I think one of them is fear. And this self-defeating attitude that we tend to have, you know, it’s like "I want to" or "but I don't think I can", "I don’t think I have the skills or the time or the opportunity". There are so many things, you know - yes, there are external challenges as well. But I think most for me, what I've seen is the times that I don’t achieve something are because of how I think about myself. In other words, I feel like I'm just going to fail, so why bother? Then I won’t even try. It’s like this self fulfilling reality that you’ve created for yourself that doesn’t exist but in your mind, when you’re telling yourself "I’m not going to do this, I can’t do this". And there is no such thing that we can’t do but fear trends to make us feel like we don’t have the ability and we can’t do this.

Self awareness - everybody has flaws, everybody has weaknesses. If we allow our negative things or things we don’t like to hold us back, then definitely, we’re not going to achieve our goals. We have to learn to overcome them. So those I think are probably the most important ones, the ones that we inflict on ourselves.

CW: How has your career in mental health and rehabilitation assisted in your leadership at the food bank?

CE: I have worked in mental health for almost 10 years, in various capacities, up to actually managing all the portfolios for the hostel outreach - which is working with the homeless, the court diversion program, access program, and various different programs. But I think what I learned from then was not to give up, and I say that because of the clients that we served during those times. There are times when we had clients who were going through severe schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But one thing I admired was their tenacity and their strength; the fact that they would even seek help was amazing and to hear some of their stories and what they were going through it was, basically, even though you’re not supposed to get close to the clients, you couldn’t help feeling like, oh my goodness, you felt sorry for the situation but at the same time I admire their strength with what they were going through - issues with medication (the medications were not foolproof, they have a lot of side effects). But these people were reaching out and that took courage and I thought what I would take away from them - from their experience - would be the strength and the courage and endurance that they had in the worst time in their lives. If you could go through that, I can overcome whatever.

CW: When you began your career in health, did you imagine you would have a leadership role in the future?