A better map of the territory

I’m here at the Shaping the Future conference in Kananaskis, Alberta, on the traditional lands of the Stoney Nakoda people. I am surrounded by educators, health workers and policymakers all aiming to increase wellness in the province of Alberta. A couple days ago, I was on unceded Algonquin land at the Wabano Aboriginal Health Centre in Ottawa working with educators, psychologists, and provincial initiative heads to help two private foundations find a common and useful starting point for creating new mental health initiatives in schools for Canada’s youth.

In Ottawa, conversation was dominated by top-level thinking: how do we evaluate mental health initiatives? How do we decide where to allocate resources? How do we make compelling arguments to government to make the right decisions? At Shaping the Future, the conversation has been more pragmatic and on the ground: what initiatives are working? The conference has been, as always, an inspiring collection of inspired people who are passionate about resolving some of the issues facing society by implementing a comprehensive school health approach. The people here at Shaping the Future are, in a sense, a glimpse forward into the kind of outcomes that the Ottawa meeting will hopefully support.

And quite possibly, despite amazing successes, some or all of the organizations represented at Shaping the Future will have their funding reduced or cut by the Alberta provincial government. More on that in a moment.

As an artist and practitioner who often finds himself working with youth facing mental health issues, I found the meeting in Ottawa to be dry and removed — devoid of the human spirit we were so passionately trying to revive. We discussed data and the importance of evidence-based programs and measurable outcomes. We discussed frameworks that would be conducive to prototyping new interventions. We discussed policy, government, and how to make the better argument… but we scarcely discussed people. The conversation was devoid of story.

This is a problem.

“The map is not the territory.”
-Alfred Korzybski

I feel there is a fundamental forgetting that is taking place. To use the above metaphor, we have mapped the world with our data, but we have confused the map with the territory. The numbers and figures and charts that we use to understand wellness can be far removed from the lived experience of the people we are mapping. The same problem that stagnated a national conversation around social innovation is the same problem that stagnates power and allows governments to cut essential supports from the people who need them: our stories are not circulating in the places they are so sorely needed.

By example: here in Alberta, we are facing a steep drop in oil prices, which has resulted in reduced oil royalties and a diminished revenue base for the government. As in years past, our provincial government’s rhetoric has been around cutbacks. The government’s response is counter-intuitive: during a time of financial need our government is seeking to make cuts to social services, education and healthcare at a time when people will need it most. How can this happen?

It’s happened because government, at the upper echelons where true decision-making power resides, has lost touch with people. It has lost touch with story and the lived experiences of the people over whom it governs.

Story as salvation

I have a great deal of faith in people. I don’t believe that the government is full of malevolent psychopaths; rather, I believe that it is staffed by people who live and breathe and feel. Every decision is a human decision. So how to affect those human decisions?

Bring story to the table as a respected and valid form of reporting. We have become so detached through the use of strictly statistical measures that we have forgotten that every number is a living person. Through effective storytelling we can challenge that blindness. We can make a compelling and emotional argument for the necessity of social supports and wellness programs for those that need it most. We can include story as an additional means to measure outcomes. We can remind decision-makers that the decisions they make affect real, living people. We can change the map and through our interventions, change the terrain that it represents.

But to do that, we need to touch the ground and listen to the lived experience of the people we seek to serve.

In short, we need a better map. I believe story will get us there.

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