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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?

CE: I did not start out thinking that. My mom used to sort of steer us into that direction. When we were in high school, my middle sister and I, we worked with Comcare, and so that's where we started off in the healthcare field. They trained us to be private duty nurses and we worked in all the hospitals, nursing homes, long term care facilities, in the city and we were like a tag team. We both wanted to be nurses, my sister and I, she went on to be a registered nurse and I decided after a while I didn't want to be a nurse. I went into the medical lab field, I became a certified lab technician and I enjoyed that. I was really good at it and to me that's what was important to me - mastering my skill, being good at it so I can serve people and help them. I wasn’t thinking of being a leader in any way and I found people started recognizing my abilities and would recommend me for this and I was like, "what?" I quickly moved into the office and came off the front line and started managing the clinicians from inside and one thing led to the other and then I left the lab and ended up doing therapeutic care at another company and I have just been incredible. Wherever I work, I always end up becoming the leader for my division. But it was certainly nothing I planned or expected.

CW: What drove you to your career in mental health? At what point did you realize that you wanted to venture into this field?

CE: It wasn’t very straightforward. I didn’t just start off deciding I wanted to go into mental health or psychology, I went to school - went to York actually - and I was doing well. I tried to do business and I thought oh no, that’s not for me. I tried different things and they were not for me until I started taking psych courses. It’s funny as I started I realized oh, I enjoy this, you know - learning about people and how your mind works and all this. So I switched my major to psychology and I really found that I liked this. I enjoyed doing this and eventually, I got my degree doing that but it didn’t start off that way originally. So it was like I fell into mental health, it just fell in my lap in a sense. I didn't go looking to take on that role, but I enjoyed it at the time.

CW: From your experience, why is food insecurity a problem in Toronto? How has this inspired you to be a leader at the food bank?

CE: Well, food insecurity at any point could affect just about all of us. Especially during the past couple of years, two or three years with the pandemic, it has increased tremendously. So there’s a very fine line between people who are working and people who aren't in terms of what can happen and how easy and how quickly they could fall into food insecurity. So you have people in a situation where they have to choose between "do I pay my rent or do I feed my kids, which one do I do?" It is an epidemic. There are so many people, people who are working and still can’t afford to buy food and pay their rent or their bills and forget about putting their kids into any kind of extracurricular activity because you can’t afford it, you’re just trying to keep a roof over their heads.

So there are many factors that affect us and working at the food bank has really been an experience for me because I see firsthand what’s happening to people. I get to hear their stories when they come and you sit and you talk to them - "How was your day? What’s been happening?" You find out that there’s so much that they’re going through that when they come. I try to make sure that we provide a positive experience for them when they come to the food bank. It's not easy and knowing that you're trying so hard to take care of your kids, even to find breakfast to send them to school, it's really hard. I remember a case where a client came in, she came in with her daughter and apparently, I think she was going through a divorce but she had no food at home. And so she couldn’t send her daughter to school because she was afraid that the school, the teachers, and the authorities would find out that she was not eating. She didn’t have breakfast to give her child to go to school. I could see when she came in, she basically just broke down in front of me and she was crying. When I think about the stress - her stress level at that time and what she was going through when she came in - she started to explain some of her situation and I told her it was okay, no problem, don't worry about it, you’re going to be fine. And we gave her enough food for the week, and you know what made me realize how bad it was, was when her daughter said, “oh mom”, she was so happy that she had gotten so much food. She said “oh I can go to school now”. That just touched my heart and made me realize what was going on.

It’s very hard. Food insecurity is something that I think the government should put as a priority. Because you know that, I think a lot of the mental health that parents or people are going through right now would be less if we saw food security as a right rather than whether you can afford to do it for yourself. During the pandemic with people not working and the isolation, it just triggers the deterioration of people's mental health.

CW: Can you comment on how food insecurity affects mental health? And if there are certain groups that are affected?

CE: I think just the idea of not having enough or not having enough, or not being able to take care of your family’s health is probably one of the most devastating triggers for mental health. A lot of our clients - at least 40% of our clients are children. So when you have a family that has at least two children, a family of four or five and you have all these mouths to feed and you don’t have anything, you have nowhere else to turn because you’re not working. Even if you get help from the government, it's not that much, it's basically just paying your rent. You’re at a loss as to what to do, and so it’s hard, it’s hard dealing with that type of stress and on top of that the stigma that goes along with going to a food bank.

A lot of people I know who want to come to the food bank fear people knowing that they’re coming to a food bank. Or sometimes, I know people who had other people tell them, “oh don’t go, why are you going, it’s a food bank”. They add extra pressure on the person by making it seem as if it’s very demeaning and you know that’s hard and then there’s social comparison. You already have all these social issues that you’ve got to navigate. You have to find and try to get help with not just food security, but you also have to navigate services to help your family and sometimes go to the system. It’s hard because imagine you go to one of the community centers or community services to get help. You can’t pay your hydro, you can’t pay your gas, you can’t pay this, but you have to have proof of this and proof of that, and all these things. You’re looking at people who are marginalized, at risk, have all kinds of issues going on, some of them navigating barriers of language, access to services, so many things. All of these are triggers that affect people’s mental health and it’s not easy for them if they are not aware of where to turn for help. Also you’re looking at cultural barriers, as well as issues where there are people who know they need help but, because in their culture it’s looked down upon for you to go outside and get help, they don’t seek it. And so you’re adding to the pressures and creating more isolation for that person. There are so many factors that you can go on and on, that affect mental health. Especially in this environment that we live in, doesn’t it seem like we’re going backwards, you know what I mean? People keep saying "when are we going to go back to the norm?" I think we’re living in a world where it’s a new norm, where we’re not gonna go back to 100% what it used to be before. So it’s like okay well how are you going to navigate the future? So it’s very difficult.

CW: Do you primarily serve the GTA?

CE: Yes, primarily the GTA, because when it comes to the food banks, each has a different area and certain boundaries. For example in Etobicoke North, you have several food banks - they’re not all part of the Daily Bread system. I think there were three in the area. So what happens is the clients would be informed of the situation, where or when they could go to a daily bread food bank and to a non-daily bread food bank. For the most part, we tried not to have boundaries. So if somebody could get the food back and they were okay getting there, not a problem, we could serve them - I don't turn away people.

CW: Do you believe more women leaders are needed in combating food insecurity and mental health? Why?

CE: Well I could tell you why right off the bat. 50– 60% of our clients are women. You see more women coming out, their caregivers, they’re the ones - and to be honest, a lot of people who are coming to the food bank, it’s the wives that are or mothers or whoever, trying to work but they have sick ones at home they have to feed. They have to take care of them, they have to put their kids through school. So there’s a lot of pressure on the women. They are the ones out there trying to make sure that they survive. Some of our clients who are newcomers to the country - healthcare seems to be a major issue for them. I say that in the sense some of them might have issues with diabetes, cancer, heart issues or other ailments and what we’ve done in the past is, because of our partnership with other organizations, we’ve been able to offer assistance to get them help, or help them deal with some of the issues, the health issues that they have to deal with at home. But it’s really hard for women as a whole, I would say, being a caregiver and working trying to make ends meet. At the same time, if you’re in a leadership role and you have all these things tugging at you that you have to take care of, not just at work but at home. You can see how easy it is for your mental health to be affected - too many responsibilities with not enough support. But we do need it, I think - having women in power is a very positive thing for our future. We, as women, are the mothers who are going to keep our generations and our communities going and be the strength for society because it’s women who often push through when they find something is not right, something needs to change, that we don’t like this and - you know - they complain a lot, so sometimes it’s a good thing. So definitely, I think to have women in leadership is really good, it’s a good opportunity for the community, for people at large. I would love to see more women in leadership, in running the country. Women who care and remember where they came from and how they got to where they got.

Please note that this piece was transcribed from an interview and some parts may have been edited for clarity and/or length.

EWIH would like to extend a sincere thank you to Ms. Cossetta Evans for taking part in this interview in late February and to Christal Williams and Amal Abdulrahman for their hard work in making it happen.

If you are struggling with your mental health, or with food insecurity, there are places that can help.

Mount Olive Food Bank: 1030 Albion Rd, Etobicoke, ON M9V 1A7 Tel: (416) 741-1682

For a list of Daily Bread food programs, visit their website, or visit Feed Ontario to find a food bank near you.

For a list of mental health support services, visit the Ontario government website. For crisis support services, visit CAMH.

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