UTSC Teaching Award recipient Suzanne Sicchia on the power of community

Prof. Suzanne Sicchia (second from right) at the 2018 Annual International Health Film Series & Expo she organized. Pictured with Médecins Sans Frontières physicians and UTSC student organizers in the Meeting Place

Prof. Suzanne Sicchia (second from right) at the 2018 Annual International Health Film Series & Expo she organized. Pictured with Médecins Sans Frontières physicians and UTSC student organizers in the Meeting Place
When Suzanne Sicchia – associate professor, teaching stream, in UTSC’s Department of Health and Society – was designing her course on violence and health last year, it wasn’t a solitary endeavour. She worked with Taibu, a community health centre dedicated to Black health and Black excellence in Scarborough, to create the course about structural violence and its impact on the health of racialized communities.
“People have told me, ‘It’s not normal to have community help you design your syllabus,’” says Sicchia, who is a recipient of a 2020 UTSC Teaching Award for excellence in the classroom. “But if you want the course to be relevant to the community – and the communities to which our students belong, then why not?”
The idea of collaboration, and of respecting others’ lived experiences, is ingrained in Sicchia’s teaching style. Her expertise is critical public health, which centres on equity, justice and social change to promote health and well-being. “What I’ve learned in my own training is context matters, and structure, hierarchies and inequities are present in people’s lives – although not in equal ways,” she says.
Sicchia talks about inequities in academia – and how she attempts to address them in the classroom. “Higher education is a meritocracy with winners and losers. But that’s not innate to people; that’s imposed upon them by the structure,” says Sicchia, who is cross-appointed to U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and is also associate chair, Undergraduate, Department of Health and Society. “So if you come to your classroom and you let students know who you are – the silly parts, the not-certain parts, the sad parts, the excited and committed parts, your failures and successes – they see when you are being authentically you. When you talk down to them or assume they’re not equipped, they pick up on it and they shy away from you – so you’ve immediately failed in your role as an educator.”
Sicchia adds: “What we study from a critical lens is the way society is structured to undermine some and benefit others. If that’s what you study, write about and read about, how can you come to the classroom and not live that? We need to walk our talk.”
Very early in her life, Sicchia started walking her talk and developed a deep-rooted ethos to helping her community. In high school, she created and published a newsletter that was for, and by, female survivors of violence and their supporters. “[I created it] mostly because I was coming to terms with violence in my own life and in the lives of some people I love and in my community,” she says.
Sicchia continued to be very active on issues around violence against women and girls. At York University, she wrote her undergraduate thesis on the impact of sex education curriculum on rape myth acceptance. After working at the Peel Committee Against Women Abuse, she earned a master of health science in health promotion at U of T which had a strong focus on community development and social determinants of health. Her focus shifted from interpersonal violence to structural violence – how larger historic, political, economic and social conditions affect health and well-being – as a research associate at the former Centre for Research in Women’s Health in Toronto. “That’s the critical public-health lens that moves you upstream,” says Sicchia, who then earned a master of science in social theory and health at U of T.
It was during the last year of her PhD in medical science that Sicchia hit a dark period. Her scholarship funding ran out and “just by fluke, life got very complicated,” she says. “Those were some very rough times. My partner got very sick, he couldn’t work, I didn’t know how I would pay for my tuition and I couldn’t concentrate because I was so stressed about life.”
Her mentors, mostly female, rallied around her. One provided tuition support. Another offered her a quiet place in her home to work. Another bolstered her self-esteem: “I wasn’t a square peg for the square hole; I never quite fit,” says Sicchia. “She helped me understand that different wasn’t bad or poor quality; it was just different.”
Sicchia very carefully lists the names of people who helped her – from U of T professors who encouraged her in academia to workplace mentors – and angsts over leaving someone out. But she has honoured each of them by establishing the Suzanne R. Sicchia Scholarship for Women’s Health Research at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “My mentors inspired me to set up a scholarship for doctoral students in women’s health. That was really to pay forward the kindness that I was shown,” she says, her voice lilting. “I was super excited about it, because I knew I wanted to do it even as a graduate student.”
Circling back to the power of community, Sicchia talks about what she hopes students take away from her classes. “I want them to come away with a deeper understanding of their capacity to affect change in the world and to learn to have humility. If we’re going to address some of these wicked problems – whether its climate change or issues around Black Lives Matter or Indigenous rights – you can’t do it without critical social theory. But critical engagement also demands action: It’s not just thinking good thoughts for the sake of thinking them, or for the sake of publishing or for one’s personal growth and development. It is to join together to affect a change in the world to make it a more just and healthy place for all.”
She adds: “I don’t want students to feel helpless in the face of challenges. And certainly not helpless in the face of their own lives and learning. But the way to not be helpless is by deep engagement with critical theory and evidence and always in communion with others. I want them to understand that they are not a lonely island. There’s a sense of belonging that comes from building community, but also a power that comes when it’s a ‘we’. That’s how real change happens.”   – Stacey Gibson