University Peer Health Engagement Workshop

This past weekend I was at the Toronto Peer Health Network’s annual symposium to facilitate a workshop on peer engagement. There were around 60 student leaders in the workshop who run peer health education programs at universities and colleges around Toronto. They’re working with their peers right around the age when all sorts of mental and physical health issues can emerge on top of learning to live independently and start a career–it’s a complex time for behavior change and difficult to engage somebody in making healthy changes when they’re bombarded by so many competing priorities.

We started with a simple premise that engagement happens when you find the overlap between your organization’s values, your values, and your peer’s values.

The workshop participants already knew their programs’ values so for the first hour we focused on articulating personal values. Helping somebody else change their health starts with having a deep understanding of how you change your health. Mixed in with lots of presenting and discussion that we captured on sticky notes, we did two exercises:

    • Draw yourself as a peer health educator superhero. In any workshop, I think it’s so important to have your participants drawing within 10 minutes of the start of the workshop, if not immediately. That instantly makes it clear that everybody is going to participate and it quickly gets them thinking visually and spatially, which is typically not the norm when groups of people gather. With this particular exercise, I asked each participant to draw themselves as a peer health educator superhero, making sure to show the superpowers they use to do their work, the villains they have to defeat, the super gadgets they use, as well as any vehicles, hide-outs, or other environmental factors that affect or support their heroic work. While presenting the stories behind their drawings, all of the participants are able to see the common strengths and challenges they all share. This is a fun exercise but it also lays out the complete landscape that we’re going to navigate during the workshop.


  • Share your values. Using their superheroes as a guide, participants articulated significant personal values and wrote them down on a piece of paper to save for the second half of the workshop. Then I asked to think of two stories: one story about a time they felt they were able to do something in their peer support work that aligned with their values and another story about a time they didn’t do what they valued because fear or some kind of challenge around them interfered with what they wanted to do. They shared their stories in small groups and then we all discussed overcoming fears and sticking to our values.


The second hour of the workshop was all about understanding the people we’re helping through the process of change. That involved two exercises, including one of my favorite exercises for helping transform community health programs:

    • Create a Peer Profile. This is also known as a “Customer Profile” or “Persona” and it’s about understanding the likes, dislikes, and behaviors of the person you want to engage with. It is the one exercise that I consistently see helping community projects, individuals, and companies transform how they do what they do, simply by understanding what their customer actually wants and needs. If your company is failing, you can spend a ton of money on months-long consulting gigs, or you can give your CEO a crayon and figure it out in 20 minutes with this exercise. Here are the instructions:
        • Grab a piece of paper and something to draw with.


        • Think of the person who is most likely to engage in the healthy change you want to see happen. Draw them in the top left corner of the paper.


        • Then fill in details about who this person is: Who are they? What are their likes and dislikes? How do they spend their spare time? What media do they like to watch? What groups do they belong to? Which websites do they visit every day and which ones do they visit occasionally? How do they spend time, energy, and money? Which social media sites do they use? What are their goals? What challenges do they encounter in everyday life?


      • Be honest with yourself about the person and what the Profile tells you about your plans. The Profile makes your work easier. It tells you where to talk to this person, how to connect with them, what they’re going to be interested in, and how you can help them. If you uncover that they like videos and they don’t visit charity websites, then it’s not weird that the blog posts you spent hours writing for your charity website, aren’t connecting with your audience. You didn’t do something poorly. Your blog posts could be phenomenal, but you didn’t align with your audience’s values. Learn how to create the things your audience needs.


  • Translate values into actions. Based on the insights they uncovered with the Peer Profile, participants took the piece of paper they had previously written their values on, and underneath each value, they identified the actions they would need to engage in to achieve their organization’s missions and connect with their target peer’s needs. That piece of paper became each participant’s individual action plan to use when they return to their school.

This is a set of exercises that I would recommend for any community project, whether you’re working as an individual or a larger organization. With less than two hours of work, you can walk away with clarity on what your values are and the actions you can engage in aligned with those values to connect with the real needs of your peers, users, or customers.


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