Our company offers the traditional tools for gathering community needs: in-person and online surveys, various types of focus groups or public meetings, and key stakeholder interviews. In fact, we’ve surveyed over 12,000 citizens and interviewed over 250 stakeholders, as well as held 70+ focus groups or public meetings.
Depending on the people from whom you are seeking feedback, we may opt for a more creative approach, especially if we want to reach the broader public or teens. For example, we have interviewed citizens at a county Riverfest. We have interviewed young people while walking a community parade. On another occasion, we interviewed high school students while touring an abandoned prison complex being revitalized for a neighborhood center.
One project that our client’s community still talks about several years later is Photovoice. For one public health department, we utilized Photovoice to offer teens with special health care needs the opportunity to share their needs and priorities with the community and policymakers. Photovoice is a participatory research method that is especially helpful in the areas of public health and community development.
In Photovoice, people are given small disposable cameras (although of course they can also use their cellphones) to capture things of importance to them, a different way for their “voice” to be heard. With these students aged 12-18, and their parents, we developed the themes we wished to share with the community at large: Stress and Happiness in My Life; Access to Resources for my Health Condition (Pros and Cons); and What My Day is Like.
For several sessions, students and their parents presented photographs and shared how that photograph offered a glimpse into their lives. The group eventually identified 37 photos that they felt would help the community understand their lives and their health challenges. These pictures would also support the health department and service providers in addressing their health care needs.
At the conclusion of the project, a celebration and public exhibit of the Photovoice Project was held at a pre-school located on a university campus. Forty people attended, including a state senator, teachers, a principal, and an assistant principal from the county public schools. Members of the faith community also attended.
Attendees appreciated the opportunity to learn about the lives of young people in their community, and the students appreciated the new way of expressing themselves. As a result of this Needs Assessment, several exciting new initiatives were adopted, including establishing a Prom and other events for children and youth with special health care needs, the development of Special Needs Ministries at two churches, and a fundraising drive for a young man who needed to go to another state for treatment.
One young person gave a presentation about her experience with PhotoVoice for Disability Awareness Month. PhotoVoice was also presented to the state health department’s Children and Youth Branch to help officials plan further for the needs of children and youth with special health care needs.
This nontraditional method of assessing community needs can complement our more established data collection methods and offer interesting new insights into our stakeholders’ lives. Most importantly, it can give “voice” to people who might not be as comfortable in traditional public input settings.