Black and white illustrations of five community changemakers on a multi-coloured background

Illustrations By June Anderson

What’s going right in Toronto

Five changemakers share what’s working in an otherwise effed-up world

Being thankful for what we have is tough when it feels like the world is falling apart. But it’s important. It makes us realize that progress is not linear, and the pursuit of justice and equity in our communities is a cause worth celebrating.

Luckily, Toronto is chock full of inspiring folks who spend their lives, day in and day out, making The Six a better place. But how do they deal with adversity while they’re out on the front lines doing the hard work? Here, five activists from across the GTA share how they keep their chins up, and what they’re grateful for.

(NOTE: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

“We are on the right side of history”

“I am deeply thankful for all the people who do the hard, persistent work of organizing and showing up to protest against racism—particularly now, when so many of the hard-won gains of activists are under assault, and the forces of overt white supremacy have been emboldened.

Growing up in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 and the launch of the Global War on Terror, and witnessing the institutionalization and normalization of Islamophobia that has entailed, was deeply formative for my identity as a Muslim in Canada. The more I learn about Islam, the more I see it as a powerful message of social justice. And so, it pains me to see how Islam and Muslims have often been stereotyped in public discourse as a source of violence, ignoring the great beauty that also exists in our traditions and communities.

Toronto prides itself on being one of the most multicultural cities in the world—a pride that threatens to blind us to the deep problems of racism that exist here. The mere fact that people share the same geographical space does not mean that they share a common social and economic experience. Toronto is a divided city.

It’s hard not to be discouraged. But looking at history, we see how struggles for justice that seemed almost impossible at the time—and that were strongly opposed by the forces of power—have been won by the collective, sustained efforts of committed individuals working together. When I see the power and beauty of social justice movements in Toronto and Canada, it reminds me that we are on the right side of history.” —Azeezah Kanji, director of programming at Noor Cultural Centre, North York

Black and white illustration of Rebecca Shielfs wearing black glasses above her quote:

“Each person is worthy, and we can all play a part in alleviating suffering”

“I was raised in a family where belonging to and giving back to our community was a core value—getting involved is just something you do. But it wasn’t until I moved to Vancouver and began engaging in my community that the passion took hold and my career path was born: supporting mental health. [I’ve been able to do that by] bringing innovative programs like Bounce Back to Ontario and launching Ontario’s first mobile walk-in clinic for youth.

There are countless people who have stepped up and helped me in profound ways, and offered help and support that I know I will never be able to repay. [It has shaped] the perspective I bring to every relationship—that each person is worthy and we can all play a part in alleviating suffering and sharing in the joys of our shared accomplishments.” —Rebecca Shields, CEO of Canadian Mental Health Association, York and South Simcoe

Black and white illustration of Mark Aston on a teal background above his quote:

“Individuals continue to inspire me”

“[I’m thankful for] the National Housing Strategy, though we have yet to see much impact on the ground in Toronto. Individuals continue to inspire me; both those who work in the sector and those who receive service.

I have worked in social service for 25 years and am currently the CEO for [United Way supported agency] Fred Victor, a not-for-profit organization that works with people experiencing poverty and homelessness. [What inspires me are] personal experiences when someone very close to me receives assistance that demonstrates the immense value of social services. There are 10,000 people who experience homelessness each night in Toronto, [and] Fred Victor is working with others to end this situation.” — Mark Aston, CEO of Fred Victor, Toronto

Blaack and white illustration of Vicki Zhang on a pink background above the quote:

“Be inspired by the people you have inspired”

“I’ve been a community service worker for 15 years and I coordinate volunteer services at a charity. I was inspired to enter this field so I could be a part of doing meaningful work that makes a difference for people and for the community. Many people I serve are newcomers, and they value the opportunity to experience Canadian work culture even with their limited language ability.

Volunteers build communities. Volunteers also explore and discover their own potential while they give their precious resources, such as time and talent, to the community. The city could provide more funding for volunteer services and encourage people to give back to the community through volunteering, but I’m thankful I can be part of the team that helps people and the community. Be inspired by the people you have inspired.” — Vicki Zhang, volunteer service coordinator at the Centre for Immigrant & Community Services, Scarborough

Black and white illustraion of Chief Lady Bird on a purple background with the quote:

“There is ceremony in our tears; there is ceremony in leaning on each other at the end of a hard day”

“I am thankful for everyone that I get to interact with, both online and in real life, who is willing to have tough conversations and share their vulnerabilities with me. I am an Anishinaabe artist from Rama First Nation and Moose Deer Point First Nation, and I create work that empowers, uplifts and creates space to discuss the nuances of our experiences, especially Indigenous women and two spirit folks. My story wasn’t told. My sisters’ stories weren’t told. So I decided to create work that makes space for these stories to be told. I strive to make work that inspires Torontonians to do some deeper research on whose land the city sits upon and engage in conversations about colonization and the underlying systemic issues that continue to erase important perspectives. (See Chief Lady Bird’s art in our story on Indigenous land acknowledgements.)

I am continually inspired by the strength and resilience of our communities. And by strength, I, of course, mean the courage and bravery that it takes to fight for the land, disrupt colonial narratives and spaces, endure being berated daily by white supremacists on Twitter, reject pipelines, protect whales and waters and human rights; but I also mean the courage to break down and cry together. There is ceremony in our tears. There is ceremony in leaning on each other at the end of a hard day. One of our coping mechanisms is humour, and we are damn good at being funny, especially when we gather.” — Chief Lady Bird, artist at @chiefladybird, Toronto

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