Beyond a menu

About a week ago I ended up channel surfing at about 7:30 am on a Sunday morning and even with about 100 channels to choose from, it was pretty meagre pickings.  I happened on the CPAC channel which was televising the conference proceedings from the Couchiching Institute of Public Affairs conference entitled “From the Ground up …Civic Engagement in our Time”.  I was mesmerized for the next several hours.

My favourite speaker was Dr. Kwame McKenzie who is the Director of the Canada Institutes of Health Research, Social Aetiology of Mental Illness Training Centre, Senior Scientist of Social Equity and Health Research, Deputy Director of the Schizophrenia Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.  He is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.  Whew …….. that’s a very long title for a man that struck me as being very down to earth with a clear and straightforward way of sharing what he believes to be important for true civic engagement.

What really reverberated with me was based on my longstanding suspicion about the use of surveys in community development work.  While certainly recognizing the value of using surveys as a data collection tool to help understand our communities, we can run into trouble when using surveys to determine what kinds of programs and services are needed and desired.  I hope if Dr. McKenzie happens to read this he forgives me for taking the liberty of paraphrasing what he said

Dr. McKenzie used the following analogy related to the dangers of using surveys to determine the needs and desires of a community: it’s kind of like being a waiter in a restaurant – you present a menu but the person being served doesn’t get to make the menu; they don’t get to tell you what they really want to eat and are certainly not allowed in the kitchen!   

I believe that if we are not careful, surveys can lead us into a trap of  limiting our choices to a menu of programs we are comfortable providing:  our resources and skill sets are limited and somehow we need to be open to ideas outside of the regular “daily fare” of strategies and follow the lead of individuals and communities who know what would be truly helpful.