Community Health Needs Assessment: a reflection of our values

Editor’s Note: MAPP, Mobilizing for Action through Planning & Partnerships, is a local coalition that aims to use and build upon our strengths to im-prove our individual, family and community health. Health is defined broadly to include cultural, economic, educational, environmental, mental, physical and spiritual health.


Every three years MAPP comes out with a Community Health Needs Assessment and the latest one is getting finalized right now. It is a thick collection of all kinds of data on our community, everything from population statistics to leading cause of death to survey results full of local opinion.

Looking at this huge stack of data makes it tricky to decipher how our overall community health is changing. Is it getting better? Is it getting worse? What are the data points that mean we are a healthy community?

I’m going to take an aside here and interrupt myself. I should explain that I am not a data analyst nor a community health professional. Sitting on the MAPP steering committee is just one of the hats I wear in town. As school ramps up, I start thinking more and more about the hat I wear as debate coach for the high school.

What does debate have to do with data? Everything. One of the common lines I will hear from new debaters is that they are good at debating, but only on the side that they believe in. I always aim to change that. By their senior year they can stand up strongly for either side of the topic with conviction.

I coach value debate. Students identify the value system that motivates either side of an argument and take that perspective when debating. Then they need to find statistics that support their side. Often facts and statistics and data can be spun to the benefit of either side depending on how it is presented.

Now I’ll come back to the Community Health Needs Assessment. Going over it with editing in mind recently, I suddenly realized that almost everything in it could be used to reflect our values. And just like the students on the debate team learn, one can see that the world is not black and white.

For example, one of the parts of the Community Health Needs Assessment is called the Forces of Change Assessment. This is simply a list of all the things happening right now that are affecting the community but are all out of our control to change. A few years ago the list included a volcanic eruption, this year it included low gas prices.

How do we decide if these things are good or bad for community health? It depends on who you ask and what they value most. Folks who got stuck in airports or missed work because of the volcano would classify it as bad, whereas gardeners relished in the nutrients it brought. Low gas prices might be celebrated by the commuter or boat captain, but not the state worker whose job is on the line because of the budget crunch.

Nothing is black and white. What’s interesting is that there can be two people about to lose their job thanks to the budget crunch and one will be healthy and adaptive and the other will spiral into personal turmoil.

Depending on perspective, the same bit of information can be positive or negative.

Can we create a healthy community by looking at statistics? Maybe not, but we can learn to see both sides of the debate. What makes a healthy community is when that guy spiraling into personal turmoil feels supported enough to turn the situation into a positive.

We need to figure out how to measure caring, gratitude and appreciation. This will help us answer the question as to whether we are a healthy community or not. Can we be adaptive and resilient in the face of the challenges that come to us? Do we have the kind of community that will be supportive of those who are struggling?

Or do we debate who is right and who is wrong?

Kyra Wagner is the coordinator of Sustainable Homer and a member of the MAPP steering committee, among many other things.