What does community participation look like?


Photo from Institute for Circumpolar Heath Research

I was invited to present a topic of my choice at The Institute for Circumpolar Health Research [ICHR] during their “Rooftop Talks” in Yellowknife. The Talks are meant to “have casual conversation on northern health and wellness research topics and to build on relationships for a northern health research network”. My guess was that a discussion about community participation might be a good fit for the folks from northern health services.

During my work with the Toronto Drop-in Network, I spent a lot of time working with this idea of community participation. At that time, I supported homeless community service centres (called drop-ins) in Toronto. Drop-ins were often trying to offer their participants as much control and ownership over the social services that were provided to them. With this strategy, community centres’ services were much more closely aligned the needs and vision of drop-in participants.

The process of participation was also very helpful to the lives of drop-in participants too. For example, having someone listen to your needs, feel heard and seeing a change can be especially meaningful for people who are street-involved.  For example, Drop-in participants would offer feedback to the workers and funders (through town halls or member advisory committees) or be paid to take training and later sit on hiring committees and boards. If you’re interested what it looks like in practice, check out these Toronto-based drop-ins who are major champions of this approach: Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre, The Stop Community Food Centre, St. Christopher’s The Meeting Place and Sistering.

It is not only homeless services that could benefit from working towards increase participation. Instead, I believe that all social services have much to gain from considering how to meaningfully increase and support the participation levels of service users.

But what does this community participation actually look like? How can service users or community members offer feedback that is actually taken seriously and fully implemented? What participation tools are available? There’s certainly a lot to explore.

I decided to offer an adapted presentation of Sherry Arnstein’s “Citizenship Ladder”. I explained the different participation levels and what would need to be considered while moving towards increased community participation in a social service system.

It was a fun talk on the shore of Great Slave Lake. I even managed to sneak in a mini public consultation exercise  concerning the start time of future events.

Arnstein certainly isn’t the only person with a participation model. There are may different kinds of “ladders”, “spectrums” and “continuums” out there. Here are 2 useful resources I highly recommend if you are looking to dig deeper into what community participation looks like.

Public Participation

  • The Citizens Handbook offers all sorts of well-tested tools for groups, organizations and communities to use. Here’s a brief look at some of their tools.