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.


Put Food in the Budget

In November 2010, I took part in the Do the Math campaign in Toronto part of Put Food in the Budget Campaign  – eating on a Food Bank diet for one week encouraging folks to increase the budget for food in the Provincial and Federal budget. Friend and living from scratch innovator Elizabeth Frasier sent out the invite and requested participants to write their reflections online – and I thought I would record it. The video captures my visit to Fort York Food Bank, cooking with my given food, touring The Stop Community Food Centre , and a discussion with the main organizer Mike Balkwill.

As the video shows – I came to realise that the funds offered to those living on social assistance in Toronto were clearly not enough. According to the policy Food Banks in Toronto follow, someone living on social assistance with a rent of $400 (which is barely possible living in Toronto), could go to a Food Bank 3 times a month. But with each food hamper supposed to last 3 to 4 days, the rest of the week is spent looking for other official and unofficial food banks or soup kitchens around the city. As expected, the donations acquired by the Food Banks are made up of the foods many people do not want – almost expired foods and pre packaged canned starches were most common. I pointed out a innovative organization called The Stop Community Food Centre that hopes to address many of the challenges that face those dependent on social assistance in Toronto.
There were some moments that were not captured by the video:
  • Being diabetic, keeping to the food bank diet of starches was very difficult. A daily regimen of peanut butter and kraft diner spiked my sugars and I found myself preparing to quit many times throughout challenge .
  • I visited a soup kitchen on St.Clair, but chose not to record the participants. I spoke to many of those served and found a range of challenges and solutions:
    • The quantity of food was plentiful: soup and bread appetizer, coffee and a full plate of food – even some greens.
    • A creative writing class was planned for later that evening in conjunction with an evening meal
    • Everyone seemed to know of “the best” soup kitchens around town on any given day – as food banks are ony open certain days and hours. This added to the Food Bank Pub Crawl mentality I mention in the video.
    • Some members do not feel safe in the meal halls – with some drunk, drugged up and passed out. However, the majority of clients kept to themselves – I found most women were sitting together.
    • I also met a woman being served who was vegetarian. This raised some interesting questions related to how a social food service could be as inclusive as possible – or on the other side of the debate, should vegetarianism be considered a right?
  • Many friends who tried the challenge eventually quit before the week’s end. The quotes from people feeling bad from the poor food were only a sample of longer conversations of those coming home crying and in pain  from not having enough food that day.

The solution is a conversation worth having.

As Mike Balkwill explains, $100 is just the beginning. Food is linked to every social challenge we see – and from my experience, it is a worth while entry point into larger issues such as housing, education and health care.

There are still plenty of questions that lingered following the campaign: Would food stamps be a more effective solution? Who regulates the food bank infrastructure? Where can I put pressure? For the moment, I am keeping my ears and heart turned to local food advocacy groups in Toronto, especially Put Food in the Budget, The Stop, Local Food Plus and Push Food Forward – making sure that I keep my obligations towards an honest food support system moving.