Kossiwa J. Tossoukpe is the founder of KESecurix - Diversity in Security, and a former police officer in Zurich, Switzerland. At age 21, she was the youngest in her police academy class, and the first Black woman to join the force. Kossiwa studied at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, where she obtained a Master's degree in International Relations and Global Security. She was also a Trainee at UNITAR's Division for Peace, supporting the pre-deployment training team. Kossiwa's consultancy firm focuses on enhancing and including the voices of female security consultants, and especially those of colour.
As part of our #TakeAStep campaign aimed at empowering women in the peace and security sector, the team of UNITAR Division for Peace asked Kossiwa about her experience of overcoming various barriers in her chosen career path, serving her community in a predominantly white and male work environment and promoting diversity through her consultancy company. Find all this, and much more, in the powerful personal story below:
What made you decide to join the police at such a young age? Was there a particular experience, or is it something that has always been on your mind?
KJT: I would say it was a personal decision. For a portion of my life, I grew up in foster care and personally have witnessed many children that have grown up within the system and in unstable housing environments become engaged in criminality at a very young age. I became interested in what would lead people down that criminal path and what it does to our society that we cannot provide a safe environment for young children and young people.
I wanted to know more: How is public safety administrated in the city where I grew up? And what are the forms of discrimination that children and people of migrant backgrounds face? Also, more specifically, what is the role of the state in providing security for a diverse community?
I found myself asking such deep questions at a very young age, and I was always impressed by the Civil Rights movements in the United States. It was in a time where I found my activism, and when I looked at police organisations in Zurich, I saw little to no diversity at all. It became a motivation to provide that diversity, and this was the reason why I decided to apply. I knew it would be a challenge, but I had a great support system – my foster father was the one who pushed and supported me during the application process.
Do you think there is a specific role that women can play in the security sector, and is this something you could do within your organisation?
KJT: Women in the police and security sector bring change to the industry. I want to share an experience I had as a police officer approaching a fight: when I arrived, you could instantly feel the tension come down. Some of the men that I have arrested or interrogated even mentioned that they feel the difference if the police officers are more diverse, especially when female police officers are present: they feel less attacked. When in front of a strong male presence, they assume that they have to demonstrate their strength as they are intimidated. This can often lead to violent endings on both sides. Women can [take the time to] look beyond the story, and what has impacted this person to react that way. I believe this human interaction can influence police work, and shape how police approach the community and society as a whole. Therefore, the more diverse the force is at all levels, better decisions are being made, and the police can operate more efficiently in any environment.
Have you felt any barriers in your path so far? If so, what are they?
KJT: Yes, of course, but I also feel specifically in Switzerland, and in Zurich, there is an awareness for the increasing number of women within the police sector. If you apply as a woman and you are qualified for the position, there's a good chance that you will be invited to start with the recruitment process as there is this awareness to diversify the police more.
However, once you take this step in the recruitment process, there is still a lot of hiring barriers that you have to overcome. You have to pass the written examination, the sport test, the psychological examination, the physical health test, and go through a series of multiple interviews which are mainly conducted by male human resources professionals. I would say that the recruitment process can prove to be a barrier itself and is often a bit outdated. I believe that some police departments have to adapt their recruitment process to what skills, knowledge and competences are needed today.
I have experienced such barriers, mainly during the interviewing phase, where I was told, because I am a Black woman, that I would face challenges because of my race and gender. I had to adapt a thick skin to many situations to take care of my mental health.
For me, having graduated with a Matura diploma (the highest diploma you could receive to enter university in Switzerland), I had an excellent academic background, I was able to speak up and stand up for myself. I brought language skills, I brought cultural skills, I brought excellent sports skills, having done track & field for a long time, and I overall scored higher than male police officers during fitness tests. That gave me that acceptance because they saw that I was competent and that I would not back down. I believe to be in this role; you need to have thick skin and a reliable support system to make it through.
Hearing that you're fighting every day to prove yourself brings me back to Hillary Clinton's quote that "women have to work twice as hard as less competent men to succeed." My question then is what do you say to women and to girls who might not feel as secure in their abilities as you do, but who have the capacity to be brilliant?
KJT: We live in a society where outspoken people, who are loud or who are extroverts are usually seen as more competent than introverts, which I do not believe. Therefore, especially as a quiet person and as an introvert working in a male-dominated sector, you have to stand up for yourself. I do believe with the right support system, you can make it – you need to know that you don't have to be intimidated by anyone.
You have to know that you are as competent as the other person in the room and that you are aware of this double marginalisation that you have. Especially if you're also a woman of colour, you will face much backlash, but you have to know that precisely that diversity which is lacking in that sector is in such high demand. There's high market demand, so you have to know your worth: that you're valuable; it doesn't depend if you're an extrovert or introvert, just your presence, your skills, your mindset, and what you can bring to the table is so valuable. Companies pay for that, they pay for diversity recruitment and diversity training, and I think having this knowledge can help some women who are perhaps a bit shyer or more introverted, to know that they are valuable and their skill is in demand.
The #TakeAStep campaign is all about giving, helping or allowing women to find the practical tools to empower themselves. Are there any tools you could recommend? If we have a young girl who is listening to this, and she wants a career in the police force, what practical tools would you offer? Your words inspire her, and she knows that she is valuable. What does she do next?
KJT: That's a difficult question because everyone is different, but I would say, close your eyes, and just do it and apply or start that business. You will get many reactions from different people, but if you listen to what other people say, you're never going to do anything. When I started my company, KESecurix, it was a big step for me because I didn't know if I should do it and I didn't have the financial resources.
Have that "do it" mentality, and during the process, reach out to the women who have already done it. There is a big network; I'm also part of it, a mentorship program called Women of Colour Advancing Peace and Security. There are so many women out there who have similar experiences with similar worries and fears. You can reach out to those women, and trust me when women reach out to me, I am the first one to support them, and reply or have a Skype meeting because I know how important it is, and I know I didn't have that.
That's so important, and you've touched upon something that we need to be doing more. All of us need to reach out, we need to mentor, and we need to lift people up. My next question is a little more personal. What is challenging, and what is the most rewarding part of your work?
KJT: I was proud to be a police officer. I was proud to serve my community; I was proud also to show that I am a child of immigrants and when other young Black girls see me in a police uniform in Switzerland - that's a statement. It says, "Hey, you can do it, you are worth it, and you're valuable, and you have a skill set that is in demand." That was something that became important for me, and it was also the work itself. For example, you go to a family that had a dispute, and you go, and they see that you're a woman, and you are a woman of colour. When you approach the migrant family, and they immediately see a connection that is there, that can impact how open they are to you and what information they give you for the police investigation.
This is essential for intelligence gathering, for the whole police work, if you cannot connect to the community, how are you getting the information that you need? If you cannot build that trust, the police work will not be as competent and as professional at it has to be. I was proud to be a police officer because I knew I could bring something to the table that a white male police officer could not bring, and that was my added skill above all my other competences. There is still a lack of diversity within higher positions, and that is my approach now - to be present at bigger decision-making tables and to bring that voice into it because that's where it is urgently needed.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I would like to see myself happy. I think being happy in what you are doing is very important because that keeps you going. I am delighted in what I'm doing currently, and I want to continue to empower young women, and also women of colour, throughout the world. That is where I see myself again in ten years – continuing doing that and talking with the same passion, the same motivation I have today and not being dragged down by outside circumstances that would hinder me from succeeding in what I want to do because of my gender or my race. I want to be happy with what I am doing while continuing to support and inspire other women.
As you have recently started your consulting firm, KESecurix, how has the current (COVID-19) climate challenged you to adapt to this new environment?
KJT: We have to understand how this global pandemic has impacted women's lives. More women are confined at home, especially if they live in an abusive relationship, and they are confined with an abuser; children are also exposed to violent exploitation, sexual and violent abuse. Unfortunately, that has also impacted police work because it is happening behind closed doors. Women or children cannot necessarily go out and go to police departments to reach the help that they need. Therefore, we need to find more innovative ways of how vulnerable population can access health and security services remotely. Post COVID-19, we also need to evaluate what has happened; we need to continue to stay informed and be conscious about it. I will always speak up on this topic because I feel women specifically have to advocate very strongly for this issue and to provide better support systems for women and children during the crisis.
Further, I learned to take advantage of social media and reach out to donors and organisations that support social impact consulting firms. I also had to improve my technology skills, being able to present workshops online and provide consulting services virtually. Through the use of technology, I was able to continue providing diversity awareness, and this is crucial during a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting the safety of women, children and poor people.
If there's anything else you want to say or to share that we haven't given you the opportunity to so far, we'd love to welcome you to say anything.
KJT: Yes, first of all, I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity and for reaching out. I believe this campaign, #TakeAStep, speaks for UNITAR and your excellent work as a diverse team. I enjoyed my time with UNITAR, and I feel you uphold this advocacy for inclusive work environments, to make sure women's voices are present at the global stage at UNITAR. I want to applaud you all for that!
And lastly, I would like to say that every woman who wants to go into the security sector. Don't be afraid to take a leap of faith, really do it, know that you will face challenges but know that it is an enriching career, where you can have an impact, and contribute to change.
Note: The opinions expressed in the article are those of their authors and do not reflect the official position of UNITAR or its staff.
To learn more about UNITAR’s work in peace and security, please visit https://www.unitar.org/sustainable-development-goals/peace