Be a Better Citizen


Donna Paris

We live in confusing times. Nothing is black and white. It’s hard to even know what’s right or wrong when legitimate media reports are called fake news, actual fake news is trumpeted as truth and Twitter rants are given the same credence as facts.

In this milieu, how can we possibly know how to be good people, good citizens? How can we be better? Can we be better together?

For many, being a good citizen means following the rules, voting, paying taxes. But is that enough? We polled faculty, students, staff and alumni to get their take.

Do it
I teach courses that explore inequities and injustices that undermine health. I ask students to think deeply about these problems because once you see them, you can’t unsee them. I also hope to help them see that wicked problems can be solved. It isn’t hopeless. Social justice is central to being a good global citizen and it can take many forms. Ask yourself what kind of world you want to live in, then find like-minded others and take action together. Don’t despair – keep going. Work together to find thoughtful, caring ways forward.

There are many struggles that warrant attention. I moved into an area where I could affect governance. That’s why I teach in the health policy stream. Recently, I also set up a doctoral scholarship for women’s health research at the university to support the next generation of leaders.

So don’t just think about taking action, do it! There are so many ways that change can happen. Where to start? Try volunteering. When you find an agency you believe in, it is a wonderful way to give back and affect change. And you get hooked.

– Suzanne Sicchia, assistant professor, Interdisciplinary Centre for Health & Society

It’s the small things
Being a good citizen happens in small moments – it’s never one thing. Sometimes being a good citizen is that you’re not the one speaking, but rather you are the one creating the space for someone else, so we can hear their voice.

– Nana Frimpong, vice president equity, Scarborough Campus Students’ Union

Teach your children well
to the institution. Citizenship has the same philosophy: we are all responsible for the success of our society and it requires more than passive floating through life with whatever is easiest or happiest. We are all better off if everyone takes on the community work that needs to be done, the public clean-ups at parks, for instance, and by teaching kids to stand up to bullying even if they are not the ones being bullied. 

I am tremendously inspired by the students here — they are so involved! Some of them study and volunteer and hold down part-time jobs, too, along with other responsibilities. And by my own kids. I have a teen who is even more socially aware that I am, she watches documentaries and challenges me on things. And my son, who is younger, who is becoming aware of the respect due to Indigenous peoples. It’s wonderful to see how education can build empathy and foster the desire to help others.

– Maydianne Andrade, professor; vice-dean, Faculty Affairs & Equity

Be open
… to people expressing their views, listen to people you disagree with, and be willing to change your own views.

– Margaret Kohn, professor and acting Chair, Department of Political Science

Use your talents
I was raised to be a good citizen. My mom made sure that I know that I’m no better than anyone else, and to be grateful for it. I feel like a lot of us are forced into politics now — and every conversation leads back to Trump. With journalism, that is one way I can help to send out truth. And good information: Recently, I wrote an article about Olivia Rennie, a student who landed a research grant to look at mental illnesses. She’s so smart and so sweet and she has such a bright future ahead of her. I really love seeing good things happen to good people.

– Alum Anna Boyes, former intern with UTSC Commons

Do it consciously

It’s not accidental to be nice. It’s a decision. It’s not like crying, when we have no control over our behaviour and emotions. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own personality and life that we may know nothing about, and to constantly be aware of that. But if you’re in a bad place and you hate yourself, it’s hard to love the rest of the world. They go hand in hand. So how you engage starts with how you treat yourself. If you don’t have a healthy relationship with yourself, then eventually that comes out. In high school, it wasn’t the best environment for me, and I was nasty and angry. I see it now when I look back. But at university, the focus is outside myself, and I have a different outlook on life. I’m in a happier place, and I can be my authentic self.

– Alum Téa Mutonji

Keep your eye on the prize

I wish I were a better citizen. I know that there are things I’d like to see happen in society and I know they would require a lot of effort on my part. But one thing I know is that you should know what your values are, and part of that is figuring out what is important to you. And probably the answer to doing the things you value can be as simple as paying attention to the right things. If being kind and charitable to others is important, for instance, then keep that in mind.

We fail not because we don’t care, but because we forget how important that is to us. We need to be mindful and think about this every day. Maybe it’s as simple as sending yourself a text to remind yourself: don’t forget you want to be x or do x. Or leave a sticky note on the wall, or perhaps ask someone else to remind you once a day. Find ways to keep that goal in mind.

– Cendri Hutcherson, assistant professor, Department of Psychology

Get woke
We are so interconnected now — we are part of a race, part of the world, and we need to recognize our privilege and become aware of what we have. We need to figure out where the gaps are and if there is some way we can contribute.

Am I a good citizen? I’m very hard on myself but I’m getting better. A few years ago, I went to Malawi to do a three-month internship. I chose to go there because it was outside my comfort zone, and I worked for a local NGO that was helping people out of high school get skills training. I taught them business presentation skills and developed a course in marketing and marketing research. I was born in India and I’ve been back, so I know what it’s like. But Malawi is different — it’s one of the poorest countries in the world. They have so little, but their lifestyle is totally based on community and they want to give you whatever they can to make you feel welcome.

– Management student Yashvi Shah

Be engaged — wherever you are

Ironically, I’m not a Canadian citizen yet. I emigrated in 2013 from Pakistan with my partner and two little ones. We came to Canada because it really resonated with us (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was underway, advances were being made in LGBTQ rights and freedom of religion was a given).

After settling in the GTA, I quickly got involved with organizations working on what mattered to me: I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity the month after we landed, have worked with the Aboriginal Sport and Wellness Council of Ontario, and became a member of Generation Squeeze, which advocates for the rights of young Canadians. Currently, I am on the board of Sandgate Women’s Shelter of York Region, which provides services for women and children who have experienced violence. 

Because that’s what I think makes a good citizen. It’s a toss-up between service and civic engagement. It’s important to be engaged wherever you are and however you can. Whether you are a CEO or a mom with kids at home, you can impact your circle of influence: In a new country, for a while, it was just my family and the five people who follow me on Twitter! My kids are active volunteers as well, and I like how they think. Their minds go there automatically. My husband is starting a dog-training business, and lately the conversation has shifted to how he can include training service puppies. As they grow up, I will be proud of my kids no matter what, but I will be truly happy to see them giving back.

We applied for citizenship earlier this year. I love living in the GTA and the way it welcomed us. We want to make it our permanent home and are doing what we can to make it an even better place for everyone else.

Maliha Hasan, grants and sponsorship officer,
Office of Student Affairs & Services, Development & Alumni Relations Office


Ensure that no one is left behind
To be the best we can be, to be transparent, to look at things not just from your own perspective but from the perspective of people around you, to try and achieve our goals but not to impede others in their pursuit – that’s what I think makes a good citizen.

Ten years ago I co-founded eSSENTIAL Accessibility, an application that bridges the divide, allowing people with disabilities to access the web using assistive technology. We took a different approach – a social impact model – and reached out to brands like Canadian Tire, Cineplex and Metro to enhance the customer experience for people with disabilities (and empower them!) and the response has been overwhelming. We then formed a coalition of private and public-sector organizations to create an inclusive web experience.

Automatic doors at grocery stores, braille on elevator buttons, real time captioning for television…all these innovations are increasingly widespread and indicative of an overall trend in general and digital accessibility in particular. About 17 per cent of the population identifies as persons with a disability and almost 50 per cent of the population has an emotional connection to disability. It’s a no-brainer: organizations and brands want to do the right thing, meet regulations such as AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) and it’s an opportunity for them to ensure that no one is left behind.

 – Alum Spiro Papathanasakis