The Art of Creating Connections

In her job as manager of diversity and language services at Lee Memorial Health System, Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates strives to finds common ground.

BY May 16, 2016


When Yemisi Oloruntola-Coates comes to one of the many events she attends in Southwest Florida, she’ll most likely be in traditional Nigerian dress. Inevitably, heads will turn. She’ll appear in brightly colored fabrics—reds, blues, silvers—complete with a gele, a long piece of hard fabric she’ll wrap around her head until it resembles something like a flower in blossom. The dress is a way to honor her heritage. But it’s also way to start a conversation. Naturally, people will inquire. A connection will be made. A conversation will start.

Her official title is manager of diversity and language services at Lee Memorial Health System. But, really, her job is about creating connections. She creates connections to the underserved minority communities in Lee County. She creates connections among employees of the hospital system. In fact, she rarely even uses the term “diversity.” The first thought that comes about with “diversity” is difference. She prefers to focus on similarity.

Her days are filled with meetings with community groups, coordinating Lee Memorial’s language interpreters (they have 10 on staff who speak Spanish, Haitian-Creole, French and German) or holding training seminars for employees. Diversity is more than just race, of course. It’s covering everything from age to ethnicity to disability. It’s about bridging those varied communities and finding ways their health care needs can be met both in-hospital and out. As president and CEO Jim Nathan says, Oloruntola-Coates fits her role perfectly. Personality-wise, she’s outgoing and personable, quick to smile and laugh. Her background reveals that she’s been training almost all of her life for a role like this.

Her parents came to the United States from Nigeria when she was 7 years old. They settled in Queens. She and her three siblings grew up in a diverse neighborhood. She was part of a group of friends that called themselves the “little UN.” Children from China, Spain, Greece, Trinidad—all over the map who had come with their families and landed in New York. They came from diverse cultures, but they had one thing in common—they were immigrants. That was the start of their bond.

Her father had attended college to become an engineer. But he had to drop out. Providing for a family and attending school proved too financially straining. He took work as a security guard. Her mother worked in a day care center, but her true calling was in the kitchen. Family dinners had international flavor—one night Chinese, the next Italian. Her dream: Start a Nigerian fusion restaurant. Bring her culinary culture into others, blend them together, present meals that no one really thought to try but ended up being a perfect marriage of flavors. She came close. She attended culinary school. But she died at age 38. Oloruntola-Coates was 16 at the time.

It was the first of the two most difficult times of her life (the second being a stillborn child later in life). She credits her faith in helping her through. She grew up Pentecostal and is now a non-denominational Christian. “God sends me angels,” she says. Those angels come in the form of close friends and a loving family. As a teenager, life got harder. She was the oldest child in the family, so she had to pick up work as a cashier in a grocery store. But by then, she was having dreams of her own. In part, her parents moved to America so their children could have better lives. Not pursuing those dreams wasn’t an option.

She went to Hofstra University, then ventured out into a high-profile, two-year study program in Japan. She would be teaching. She thought she’d be best-suited for an urban program, a place where people of color might fit in better. Instead, she got placed in a rural town called Wani. To many there, she’d be the first black person they’d ever see. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this isn’t going to work,’” she says. But after discussions with the organizers, she decided to take a chance. After all, they did it on purpose; they knew she could take on the challenge and learn from it. “I wanted to be stretched,” she says.

She started teaching English to junior high school students. She knew she’d have to get beyond sentence structure and proper grammar. She’d have to find ways to relate. She discovered that baseball was big in her town. So, she invented a game called spelling baseball, where she’d have words associated with bases according to difficulty. Little by little, she soon found she was connecting with students. One 13-year-old boy came up to her and said something that’s stuck with her since. He had looked up the word “black” in the dictionary and reported that it meant “dark or gloomy or evil.” Then he said, “That’s not you; you are a ray of sunshine.” The moment brought tears to her eyes. Besides the compliment, the student had made a realization about race. He was getting beyond labels and seeing the commonalities between different cultures. In her final days, she held a fashion show. On display were many Nigerian outfits. The students were quick to see the similarities to the Japanese kimono.

When she returned she went to the University of Florida for a graduate degree. She specialized in global strategic communications. She wanted to be a diplomat for West Africa. But after graduation, she and her husband, Rashid, stayed in Florida. Her husband had a good job. They were looking to start a family. Moving to Washington, D.C., or New York didn’t make sense at that moment. But she doesn’t rule it out. One day, she says now, that may still be an option. She recalls a phrase: “We can have it all—just not all at once.” She settled in at Lee Memorial about eight years ago and found that the goal of bridging cultures was needed on a local level.

Jim Nathan puts her job in perspective: 12,500 employees in the Lee Memorial system spanning five generations servicing 1.5 million patients visits each year who speak at least one of 100 different languages. In short, that’s a lot of people coming from a lot of different places in life. A team needs to be in place to make sure all of the community’s health care needs are being met. For Oloruntola-Coates, it means finding those bridges between cultures. Her touch can be felt in how the food services might bring in a sushi chef or how employees handle situations involving gender identity (which is a major area of her training programs in recent years). It can be felt in the community at large, like at the Quality Life Center, where she’s taught cultural awareness classes, helped organize health seminars and education campaigns, and even took a leadership position in its annual fundraising gala. Executive director Abdul’Haq Muhammed sees in her a “global mentality,” one that can bring together disparate parts of a community.

In many of her training sessions, she’ll show a video. It’s a civil rights leader and the Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who struck up a friendship in their old age. They found qualities about each other that challenged their perceptions (and changed the thinking of the KKK leader). It’s an example of how the impossible can be achieved—two very different perspectives finding a link. So, she’ll approach her job with a lifetime worth of knowledge that commonalities can be found—if that dialogue can get started. “Diversity does not work without respect and communication,” she says.

In Nigerian culture, the child is viewed as the crown of the parents. When Oloruntola-Coates goes out adorned in brightly colored dress, she’s showcasing not really herself but her family. She is just the representation, the bridge between generations. So, please, ask questions. Ask about the bright yellow bracelets (24-carrot gold; her mother’s). Ask about her family (now three children 9 and under). Ask about her life. It’s not a simple story. But she’s happy to tell it. And just like that, a connection will be made.


Related Images: