Trabian Shorters at ComNet19
Trabian Shorters, the founder of BMe Community, a New York Times bestselling author, and former Vice President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (introduced by Debra Humphreys of Lumina Foundation) addresses ComNet19. Shorters challenged the audience to consider how we as communication professionals are unconsciously but fundamentally undermining our commitment to equity.
Debra Humphreys: We’re in the homestretch. I feel like we have to pause for a minute, and of course, thanks, Sean, who was an amazing leader. He throws a great party, huh. You are the true diehards, and we’re in the homestretch, but I can assure you you’re going to be rewarded mightily for sticking around. My name is Debra Humphreys, vice president of Strategic Engagement at Lumina Foundation in Indiana.
I don’t know about you, but my head is still spinning from the last few days—all the ideas and the inspiration, from all the concurrent sessions, and of course especially from the inspiring words we heard yesterday from Janet Mock and Desmond Meade, and then the amazing Stacey Abrams this morning. I don’t know about you, but this has been quite a few days, right? It’s been great.
A couple things that have been spinning in my head. I’m still trying really hard to think about how I personally can move from contribution to commitment, as Desmond urged us to do yesterday. Of course, Stacey Abrams rightly inspired all of us. We all do this. This is what our business is, but I think she inspired us to even up our game a little bit more and take seriously the words we use to really tell the truth, and that’s just an incredibly powerful message. I can assure you that this next session is in fact going to help us to do both of those things.
The inspiration is going to continue. I think the other thing that we’re going to continue with this final session is something that I always find really incredibly refreshing about ComNet meetings. I’m old. I’ve been to a lot of meetings. I’ve organized a lot of meetings—we all have. One of the things about ComNet meetings that I always think is incredible is they’re always focused not only on the problems, and we all know, the world is filled with pretty serious problems right now, but ComNet allows us to really move very proactively, very seriously, but also really optimistically to, as Stacey reminded us this morning, not just what the problem is and obsessing over it, but the why of the problems in order to move you to strategies and solutions. I’m always incredibly impressed with how much that theme and that thread is at a ComNet meeting.
We also at ComNet always have this opportunity that’s really rejuvenating to those of us who, in our day-to-day work, work really, really hard in the trenches to be reminded, as Desmond did yesterday, that ultimately, it is our humanity and our values that will ultimately lead to those solutions. That’s a simple message, but one that some of us really occasionally need inspiration and reminders about. I am really, really honored to be here today to play this role of introducing another inspirational person in the ComNet family, Trabian Shorters.
As is the case, I would guess, but for many of you in this room, my colleagues and I at Lumina Foundation, we’ve been working really hard in the last few years to try to up our game when it comes to our commitment to equity, and to move to a more solutions-oriented and asset-based approach to how we enact and how we communicate about that commitment. Like ComNet, we are actually in the midst of some pretty serious work both internally and externally with our partners to examine all our assumptions about equity, how we’re defining it, to sharpen our programming and our messaging, and to increase our effectiveness in meeting our goals related to equity. In our case, that’s equity and access to quality postsecondary learning opportunities.
At Lumina, we’ve come to think about it a little differently. We no longer think about equity as a strand of work. It is our work. It is our mission. It’s fundamental to all that we do. This concept of asset-based framing, which we’re going to hear about a little bit more in a minute, has been really fundamental to the ongoing work that we are doing. I think the work and insights of people like Trabian Shorters and his team are exactly what our community needs to just fundamentally change the national narrative about equity, inclusion, fairness, and justice in our society and what our responsibilities are, all of our responsibilities, to advance those goals.
I’m really pleased to introduce Trabian. Trabian Shorters is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Reach: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading, and Succeeding. He is the founding CEO of BMe Community, a national network of all races and genders committed to a 21st-century narrative about America, its values, and black men’s roles in them. Shorters demonstrates in his writings and his work the power of updating America’s narratives to recognize black men’s impressive contributions and leadership.
I’ve been thinking all week that this meeting really demonstrated that. We had these incredible voices of people of color in prominent places in this meeting that does not always happen at meetings, and so you actually saw that and experienced it. Trabian forcefully makes the case that this updating of the narrative is absolutely essential to modernizing positive community engagement in matters of race, cities, and America’s future.
I think most of you know, Shorters has pioneered the implementation of a very specific approach called asset-framing. I can speak personally that from Lumina’s experience, we—and probably many of you in this room—are building on his work to try to advance a more asset-based framing in our own work. Trabian developed this concept and the BMe Community while serving for six years as vice president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. BMe Community has operations in cities all across the country and is expanding every day. The network includes more than 35,000 community builders of all races and genders and more than 300 black male BMe leaders who provide youth development, human rights, and economic opportunities to more than 400,000 of their neighbors each year.
Trabian has posed the question, “How do we create equitable outcomes for all members of our community?” He argues that we start by defining people by their aspirations, not their challenges. Please, to explore this question further, please join me in welcoming Trabian Shorters.
Trabian Shorters: All right. Well, good after … wait, are we afternoon? Good afternoon. For those of you who don’t know me as well as some of you may, the music that was played is the music that I walked down the aisle to get married in. I literally kicked open the door and stepped to that set. If you met my wife, you’d see why I was doing that. She’s all that. Also, just to update the record, when BMe Community was formed, we were focused on black men. The initials originally stood for “black male engagement,” B-M-E. Last year, we made the proper decision that the fellowship should not just be for black men; it should be for black men and women, and we changed our mission statement this year to be about building more caring and prosperous communities inspired by black people. Let’s give acknowledgment to our sisters.
Oops, where am I? OK. Very good. A little bit about me. I used to be a tech entrepreneur. I used to be vice president of the Knight Foundation. I helped to design this thing called asset-framing, and I’ve been teaching it in a number of places over the last few years. The reason why I think I’m here, though, is because probably since 2017, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at some really good forums, and I had a chance to publish. Some of these shops that are popping up here are examples of where we’ve been able to write and publish about asset-framing.
ComNet and Sean immediately jumped on board, and they got it right away, became a partner right away, helped me to understand that the type of community and network that they are building is the type of community and network that we’re also building, right? That partnership has felt genuine and strong. Asset-framing itself has been recognized as a major social innovation by these shops, the Aspen Institute, Ashoka, and others. Our clients are typically the CEOs, executive teams of major foundations, social impact funds, and social ventures, like the ones listed here.
I had a lot of ways that I might approach the talk today. I figured I could do another firebrand sort of sermon thing, but you got that part done over and over by really good people. I figured I could be my normal sort of, like, nerdy self and get into the minutia of asset-framing. I won’t do that and decided to strike a balance, which is more about just giving you the crash course in this thing that we work with foundations and others on doing.
Basically, I’m going to give you about two semesters of psychology, a semester of social studies, a semester on systems thinking—and I want to do it in 42 minutes according to this. Here we go. When I was working at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, I was vice president of our communities, and we discovered that anytime there’s a major crisis in any of our communities, whether it was the floods in the Dakotas or Katrina in Biloxi, the effect of it … or the economic collapse in Detroit … there are always two types of movers that came to the forefront to deal with the challenges of the day. You can figure out which of these camps you are more in or not. We actually need both of the types, but it becomes important for understanding the opportunity that we’re facing now nationally.
On one side are the fixers. Fixers tend to be problem-focused. They see the devastation. They’re the ones who jump up and rush in and make sure that things get stabilized and things are turned around. Fixers are motivated literally by the part of the mind that is survival-oriented, the part of the mind that wants to avoid loss. When we see that existential threat arising, we mobilize to do something about it. That’s the fixer orientation. You can tend to recognize fixers because they’ll use words like renew, restore, repeal, replace. They’re always trying to get things back to some stability, some sense of predictability that they’ve been used to.
Conversely, in the same times of crisis, we saw another type of mover that always comes to the forefront. We started calling those builders. Builders see that devastation as a blank slate, like whatever the crisis is, whatever is being wiped out, they see it as an opportunity to create something new. They’re motivated by the part of the mind that seeks fulfillment, that seeks growth, that seeks novelty that wants things to change. On one hand, you have the fixers who are typically about achieving some equilibrium. On the other hand, you have the builders who are about really unbalancing that equilibrium, trying to find some way forward. The builders tend to use words like create, explore, discover. You can recognize them by the language they use in whatever the context that they’re in.
For the talk today, the significance of these two mindsets, and figuring out which one you’re in, is that for the most part, from a narrative standpoint, the fixers are trying to hurt a villain, stop a villain toward some threat, whereas the builders are trying to reward some hero, encourage some hero, support some hero in whatever context, and that’s the mental narrative that they tend to play out of. Why that matters today? Here’s the context that we’re in. We worked with a shop called Ogilvy & Mather—it’s a global marketing firm—to get a fix on what’s happening meta-culturally in the United States, and abroad actually. This is not just about the US, but in this context, we’re just going to talk about the US.
It turns out that the baby boomers, who are the largest generation in the history of the country … they’re the civil rights generation. They are the generation that has defined everything about American priorities, policies, personalities for the last 50 years. It turns out that on that group’s watch, we’ve seen these things happen in the last few years. We’ve seen Obama win, we’ve seen love win, and we’ve seen Trump win, all in a whirlwind type of fashion. There’s a reason for that, it turns out, according to the research by this mega-global marketing firm.
The reason is that the boomers’ narrative about how society runs really was defined 50 years ago. I pulled off some … if you can’t read it there, I’m just going to say some things about what’s on this arrow. Some characteristics about this group that are being challenged right now are, as a group, they tend to be analog, and they grew into a digital world. They focus on and believe in institutional authority. They respond to crisis narratives. This is the generation born after World War II, the largest mobilization in the history of history. You’ll notice that this is the group that declared war on poverty, and they declared war on crime, and war on terror, and war on war on war. War is a metaphor for this group to get them motivated. They tend to be more gap-closing and fix-oriented than build-oriented.
Well, along comes this next generation, which is now the largest segment of our workforce and an increasingly mainstreaming generation: the millennials. They are the most digitally connected generation in the history of the country. They are the most diverse generation in the history of the country. They tend to be digital, and they assume digital in their thinking. They tend to respond to growth narratives rather than crisis narratives, and they tend to be more opportunity-seeking than gap-closing. This will end up mattering as we progress.
Since I get to talk to heads of foundations a lot, I like to remind them that this is the world that we’re in today, not some future thing that they’re always looking forward to. Today, we are in the last generation of white majority in America. The last generation has already been born. The generation in school now will not be majority white, is not majority white. We’re also living in a world where the digital revolution is permanently global. No putting that genie back in the bottle. It’s just a reality that we’re going to have to deal with.
More and more identities are going to assert their significance in the era that is unfolding. I told you it’s the most diverse generation in the history of the nation. The generation behind them is equally diverse. More people are going to assert how much they matter, and there’s no putting the genie back in that bottle. Ideas like educational equality today have become a moot point. The reason why I have certain things in the side banner here is that according to PISA, if you are able to get black kids and white kids doing math and reading at the same level, then we’ll all be 31st in the world together. It’s not enough to try to seek equilibrium anymore. We have to think about ways to continue to grow.
Then last but certainly not least for this talk is science is totally changing the game too. We’ve had the Human Genome Project. We’ve had the acceleration of AI, artificial intelligence, in almost everything we do. We have one other breakthrough that I’m going to share with you that I think really does affect our field and our opportunities for the future. I call this The Science of Decision-Making. What it’s really about is that subtitle in the parentheses: your mind and you.
Most of us think that we are intentional about our thoughts and our actions, and we don’t make this distinction consciously between our minds and our conscious selves. I’m going to show you why we probably should pay more attention to that distinction. Raise your hand if you know Daniel Kahneman. Danny Kahneman fans. Yes, great. OK. I knew I was in the right room. Daniel Kahneman is a research psychologist. He published a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow. But more importantly, Daniel Kahneman earned or won the Nobel Prize in 2002 in economics even though he’s not an economist because his 30 years of research, along with his peers, on how cognition and decision-making actually works fundamentally disproved a premise that most of your organizations are built on.
Most of us think that we are intentional about our thoughts and our actions, and we don’t make this distinction consciously between our minds and our conscious selves. I’m going to show you why we probably should pay more attention to that distinction.
It fundamentally disproved rational choice theory, which is the idea that we make our decisions by weighing evidence, and so if you have proper data, you’ll make proper decisions. It turns out that’s not how human beings make decisions. There’s another process that takes place before you get the conscious thought that ends up having a major influence on all decisions on all things you consider. Let me spend a little bit of time with you exploring that because this is really the heart of the understanding that we need to have if we’re going to be effective at making the types of changes that we say we want to make.
When it comes to the question of equity and our commitment to equity, I’m going to challenge everyone in this room to consider how we are accidentally but fundamentally undermining our commitment to equity, and here’s why. According to the research psychologist, 95% of our mental functions happen before conscious thought. We have an intuitive mind, an associative mind, and we have a conscious mind. The intuitive mind is the source of our memory. It stores our language. It builds our habits, and all of it is constantly offloading the heavy lifting that we might have to do. It is highly associative. It loads familiar narratives instantly. Again, this is before conscious thought. These are not things you’re choosing to load; this is just priming. It’s constantly making suggestions to your conscious mind about how to interpret what it’s seeing. That’s what it does. That’s its role. Its role is to offload all that heavy thinking so that you can focus.
When it comes to the question of equity and our commitment to equity, I’m going to challenge everyone in this room to consider how we are accidentally but fundamentally undermining our commitment to equity…
By the way, this conscious mind, this intentional mind, this is where your sense of attention comes from, the idea of paying attention. It turns out that you have a very limited amount of attention. I’m going to invite you to play a game when this talk is over and you’re out in the hallway. If you’re really trying to understand how truly limited our conscious mind is, I want you to walk a little bit faster than you normally do, chew a gum, and then try to do simple math problems, simple ones—addition, subtraction, doesn’t matter—easy math problems in your head. Just trying to do those three things at once will overload your conscious mind. You will have to stop one of them.
I just want you to understand how much our intuitive mind matters in our mental processes. Then comes our intentional mind, our conscious mind, the one that we’re aware of. It is primed by the intuitive mind. It acts on the suggestions that are given to it, particularly if you’re under stress. It is prone … according to Kahneman, it is fundamentally prone to disregard facts that don’t fit the narrative. This is very important, obviously, when we consider the work that we do.
To demonstrate how the intuitive mind works, because I think all of this is easier if you actually get to feel it, I’ve put these three words up here. I’m going to tell you that they have no association; these are random words, but as you see, I’ve left out a vowel in each one. You had to guess which vowel was left out of the first word. You probably would say? [Slides display CHCKEN, TOMTO, SOP]
Excellent. If you had to guess which vowel was left out of the second word, you’d probably say?
Excellent. If you had to guess which vowel was left out of the third word, you’d probably say?
Audience: U. A.
Some U, some A, depends on what you were doing this morning, actually, or whether or not you are hungry. The point of that is I heard most people said U, which is fine, but the point is all of our brains filled in that gap. We’ve been exposed to these words before. We didn’t need all the letters to understand which word was trying to be spelled out. According to Kahneman, one of the interesting things is if you were given another set of words and I asked you to tell me which letter is missing from the first word, you’d say? [Slides display DRTY, CLEN, SOP]
Very good. If I asked you which letter was missing from the second word, you’d say?
Very good. If I asked you which letter was missing from the third word, you’d probably say?
Exactly. Now, according to Kahneman, the interesting thing about this is even though I just threw away at the beginning of this illustration that these words are not really related—these are just random words. They might appear to be related, but they’re not related. When you see chicken, tomato, and S-O-U-P, most people will fill in soup. But when you see the same S-O-U-P with another set of words ahead of it, most people fill in a different letter. You fill in soap in that second example.
What I’m illustrating to you is that our subconscious minds are so fast, and they’re so consistent at recognizing patterns, that they fill in these blanks for us on all kinds of things all the time. It happens, again, before conscious thoughts so we never even have to be aware of it. I’m trying to help you see the distinction maybe between your mind and you. Your self-aware you is one person. Your mind is constantly doing this work in the background to make you able to function better. I think that’s important to understand.
By the way, what I’ve also Illustrated to you is why and how dog whistles work. Your mind is highly associative, so you don’t need to say all the letters; you don’t need to say all the words. If I were to say to you that there’s some ethnic groups that are stereotyped to be really good with money and finance, and there are some ethnic groups that are stereotyped to be better at math, and there are some ethnic groups that are stereotyped to be hard workers, particularly in the field or in your hotel room, if I threw out those things, I never have to name the ethnic groups, but you probably all pictured a similar subset.
The significance of this is your mind is constantly doing this, and you literally have no control over what it is primed by. These mental narratives are always being formed, and they combine our values and beliefs into simple frames that we reference instantly anytime we’re making decisions, and we reference it before our conscious thought. For this reason, narrative actually ends up mattering more than facts because narrative determines which facts you will credit and which facts you will ignore. Remember, Kahneman’s breakthrough was that we’re prone to disregard facts that don’t fit our narrative. Narrative ends up mattering more than life. Narrative ends up mattering more than subjective reality because, again, narratives helps us to understand whatever it is that we’re experiencing.
…narrative actually ends up mattering more than facts because narrative determines which facts you will credit and which facts you will ignore.
To help make this a little bit more plain, there’s an example here that … actually, I won’t elaborate too much on … except, anyone here remember the small-schools movement? Anyone? OK. Gates and others invested several billion. Gates put $1.7 billion of its own into the small-schools movement. Pew, Annenberg, US Department of Education put other money into it, dozens of organizations. Oh, and by the way, for those of you who are not familiar, this was a movement based on data research, several sets of research, that showed that a disproportionately high number of high-performing students come from small schools. Based on that, the idea was more small schools, better-performing students, and lots of money and effort went into reinforcing that discovery.
There were dozens of organizations that made causal explanations for why that might be the case. It all made intuitive sense. The data backed it. We had plenty of evidence. Problem is they were all wrong. There was a simple cognitive illusion that took place that made them make this mistake. The reason why that matters so much to us is, of course … any of you that have ever dealt with Gates, I mean worked with Gates, understands that they’re a very data-driven, evidence-based shop. They’re very detailed and diligent.
How could a shop that is that focused on data and being data-driven make a multibillion-dollar error? By the way, the error was that a disproportionately high number of low-performing students also come from small schools. No inherent advantage to small schools. By the way, similar arguments, the type of argument that was used for the small-schools movement, is often used for things like charter schools or Teach for America or any number of causes that we care about. The point of all this, of course, is if they can spend all that money and not realize the error until much later, what are our blind spots? What are the places where we are laying down the wrong track, going down the wrong path, and won’t be able to realize it unless we understand a couple of new things?
All right. Again, to help you understand this in a way that is less thinking and more intuitive, I’m going to illustrate by doing a pop quiz. If narrative ends up mattering, I’m going to ask you about narratives that you’ve been exposed to. I always remind people this is not a question about what you believe; it is a question about what you’ve heard, what narratives have you been exposed to. OK. What I’m going to ask you to do is, if you would, if you would please stand up if you’ve heard statistics that say that black poverty in America is high … if you ever heard that narrative. Yeah.
Again, this is not a question about what you believe. This is a question about what you’ve heard. Have we been exposed to these narratives that could prime some of our thinking? Raise your hand if you’ve heard statistics that show that black and Hispanic dropout rates in some of our cities is very high. Yeah. These are all very common narratives. Part of the reason why I’m having you stand and do this is so that … it’s a visual … and you put your hands down. Thank you, students. It’s a visual representation of things that we’re all familiar with for the most part. Then lastly, I’d ask if you would clap twice if you’ve heard statistics that say that black unemployment rates are higher than the national average. Excellent. You may be seated.
So far we’re buzzing. You’re doing really well. For those of us who are familiar with the poverty rates, could you also stand back up if you feel like you’re equally familiar with the rates of black wealth or black millionaires, if you feel like you’ve been equally exposed to that data. Yeah. Not many of us have. OK. Thank you. There’s one brother in the back … you could ask him. For those of us who are familiar with … have been exposed to narratives about the dropout rates, raise your hand if you feel equally familiar with the rates … data around the number of black and Hispanic kids who are actually in college and have their degrees, if you feel like you could quote that stuff. OK, some educators here, but most of us aren’t as familiar with that narrative. Then lastly, for those of us who are familiar with unemployment rates, clap twice if you feel like you’re equally familiar with the data statistics on how many black-owned businesses there are. OK. Not great, but not bad. We got a few.
I did this narrative exposure quiz so that I could ask the question, who do you think we are? When you look at the narrative and the data around black failure, we’re all pretty versed in that. But when it comes to data around success and achievement, we have much less exposure to that data. Our brains are much less likely to be primed and aware of that information when we’re trying to make decisions about any number of issues. By the way, we focus on black folks as examples, but you can see how this could apply to any number of issues.
I remember when candidate Trump was on the campaign trail and he made this quote: “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, etcetera.” That’s why I chose that dataset to use as my example. I just chose the things that Trump was lambasted as a racist for … saying these kinds of things. The truth of the matter is, and this is what our sector has to deal with, whether you’re liberal or conservative, we both promote primarily negative narratives about the black community. That means we both prime primarily negative thoughts about the black community. We might have different reasons, but in terms of how our mental processes work, it matters little.
If you’re African American like me, what we hear is you’re really just disagreeing on what to do about us, but your perception of us is not significantly different. Of course, we believe that we should probably have fundamentally different views of people than those we say we oppose. The rest of this talk is about how to do that. All right. At this point, I like to remind people I am absolutely on your side. This is not a gotcha presentation. I’m trying to help us understand how we are stuck in some old modalities and how … if we really want to have the equity and the community that we want, there’s just a little shift that has to happen.
Again, they help us appreciate this in a more felt way. I’m going to ask you to do a very simple exercise. In this exercise, you’re going to turn to someone sitting next to you. By the way, I do this in the workshop, and we’ve done this in several countries many times. For some reason, the more educated you are, the harder it is to do this once the first time. It is an extraordinarily simple ask. Do not overthink it. I’m going to give you very clear instructions. Just do the simple thing that I’m asking you to do. All we need you to do is get in pairs. You’re going to turn to your neighbor in pairs. A pair is two. See, this is another thing. It is not three sometimes, OK.
What I’m going to ask you to do to understand the power of narrative is to turn to your neighbor and look at them, but listen to me, OK? If I can see your eyes, you’re not following the instructions. Turn to your neighbor, very good.
Now, what I’d like you to do is try to notice everything you can about what is wrong with this person looking back at you. OK. All right, very good. OK, excellent. Excellent job. No, stop. Please, no, never tell them. I’m just … face back forward. Face back forward. This way. This way. Don’t talk. OK.
Like I said, I’ve done this many times; without fail, there’s always laughter. It’s always pretty much for the same reason. Does anyone want to say why you laughed when ask to do that?
Audience: It’s awkward
Yeah, it’s awkward, right. This doesn’t mean … on a gut level, we know it’s wrong to look at somebody and the first thing you do is try to figure out what’s wrong with them. Here, we know that, right?
When it comes to the communities that we say we care the most about, what is the first thing we do except to define them by some challenge, some setback, some failure, the thing that is the least aggrandizing, the least rewarding about their experience?
The very first thing we do is define them by their challenge. Without a doubt, everyone in this room has some sort of challenge. We don’t walk around defined by it because to define someone by their challenge is the definition of stigmatizing them. To define a person by their challenge is stigmatizing them. Our field primes us to stigmatize people. It turns out there are serious significant consequences to a stigma narrative in terms of your subconscious priming.
To define a person by their challenge is stigmatizing them. Our field primes us to stigmatize people. It turns out there are serious significant consequences to a stigma narrative in terms of your subconscious priming.
To illustrate this, I’m going to help you understand that it is literally impossible for us to be exposed to a stigmatized or a negative narrative but then make decisions as though we were not, to just ignore that priming as if it did not exist, which I know many of us want to do. Particularly if you’re more liberal-oriented, the idea that you somehow might be carrying a negative bias towards folks you haven’t even met is deeply discomforting.
What I’m trying to help you understand is you literally have no control over this. It’s a matter of which narrative you’ve been exposed to, most frequently.
To illustrate this, I’m going to put an image up on the screen, and what I’m going to ask you to do is look at the image, but ignore the instructions associated with it—the same way that you’re exposed to a narrative, and the only way that you could be that mutant person who can be primed by a narrative and then choose to ignore all the priming, I’m trying to make it clear. This is not a conscious choice.
To illustrate that, I’m going to put an image up on the screen, and if you can look at the screen, the image, and then choose to ignore the instructions, then you are that person who could somehow consciously decide not to be affected by your priming. Again, the instruction is, look at the image, but ignore the instructions. Do not follow the instructions. All right. Here’s the image.
OK, yeah. Now, some of you say, “Wait a minute, that was a got me.” No, it wasn’t. If you didn’t speak this language, you could have done it. The issue that I’m trying to point out is the part of your mind, your intuitive mind, the same part that stores language, the same part that stores habits, the same part that does this priming, once you learn a language or narrative, once you’ve been consistently exposed to it, it is literally impossible for you to see it without that part of your mind instantly reading it. Once you’ve learned a narrative, it’s impossible for you to be exposed to it without the priming also taking place in your subconscious mind. That’s what they mean by implicit bias.
You literally had no choice in that matter. When the word was popped up, your brain read it, and you didn’t get a chance to say, “I’m not going to read that word.” We’re all constantly loading these narratives as I said it before.
Here’s the solution. Literally, the only way that we can get to a place where we are actually defining and work with each other based on our strengths, etcetera, is to reinforce narratives about those things. We have to have those available to us too. If you only know one half of the story, then that’s all your brain can work from. If you have a fuller narrative of each of us, then we can have a fuller society.
Literally, the only way that we can get to a place where we are actually defining and work with each other based on our strengths, etcetera, is to reinforce narratives about those things.
The other challenge and damage of a stigma narrative is this: It turns out that we are hardwired for survival. You’ve probably heard this many different ways. Stigma narratives in our subconscious mind are inherently threatening. Anything stigmatized, we are subconsciously primed to want to avoid, control, or eliminate. I call it avoid, control, kill.
Again, to help you internalize this in a different way, I’m going to say the same thing over. Anything that is stigmatized, we are hardwired to want to avoid. It does not matter if we are physically stronger than this creature. It does not matter if we are more intelligent than this creature. It does not matter that we are more powerful than this creature. We don’t want to be around this creature.
By the way, I love putting this particular slide up because the longer it’s up, the more people get uncomfortable in their seats. By the way, it’s not even in the room. It’s just a picture. This is what I’m trying to help you understand from a subconscious level—anything stigmatized we want to avoid. If we can’t avoid the thing, then we have to control it. Yeah. I should have warned you. I love to play with people, but I hope you’re seeing my point.
These are deeply stigmatized creatures. It does not matter that we have more power. It does not matter that they don’t even pose a real threat. On a subconscious level, you want to avoid this. You want to avoid looking at it actually, but the point here is that we’re literally hardwired to either avoid, control, or kill.
When you think about some of our different social programs, oftentimes, when it comes to some sort of challenge that’s been stigmatized, the response is to avoid it as long as we can. Then, when you can’t avoid it, you figure out how to control it. You can either avoid, control, or then you have to figure out how to really eliminate it in some severe way.
That’s why I like to use these images and also point out, of course, rats and roaches are stigmatized, but so, too, are our young black men or boys. Oftentimes, black boys are called men for some reason, and the men are inherently threatening. In any time they’re chopped down, the officer will say that they fear for their life even if there was no particular reason to fear for your life. There’s something that goes on on a very visceral level.
For those of us who are the good guys, it becomes very important that we never frame people as though they are somehow the rodents or pests of society because on the subconscious level, your brain would want to avoid, control, or eliminate that.
For those of us who are the good guys, it becomes very important that we never frame people as though they are somehow the rodents or pests of society because on the subconscious level, your brain would want to avoid, control, or eliminate that.
I’m going to raise, through a few examples, why this causes problems for us in our real work. A very simple one is when you look at these two sets of images, and I ask you the question, Which image is more common, and which image is better known? it probably causes a moment of cognitive dissonance for you as you try to sort through the difference between more common and better known.
The reason for that is because in our space, this image on your left is much better known. We see this image much more often than we see the image on the right, but images of black folks succeeding in business and school and the military, that’s actually far more common. That happens far more often than poverty or crime or any of these other things. It is much more the norm, but since we’re exposed to a different narrative so much, it feels like the stuff in black is more the norm.
What this means is when I was in philanthropy, I found myself asking the question, Why are black kids always the face of these poverty reports when two-thirds of America’s poor children are not black?
I found a statistically valid reason for that, which is proportionality. People say there’s a higher rate. Since there’s a crisis-level rate, then we can make certain folks the face of the challenge. I said, OK, well if it’s a matter of there being higher rates of black kids in poverty, then why then aren’t black men the face of patriotism since they serve in the military at the highest rates, and they have, pretty much, since the day that’s been collected?
According to the CDC, black fathers spend the most time, whether they’re married or not, actively engaged with their children, two indicators that these are very dutiful people, but one idea of the struggle fits our narrative. The other idea of the achievement and contribution does not fit our narrative. We are prone to disregard facts that don’t fit our narrative. What this means is stigma narratives prime us to apply our own rules unevenly. We’re only using it when it fits our preconceived perceptions.
We are prone to disregard facts that don’t fit our narrative.
The other thing is … stigma narratives … when you invest in those stories, they prime us to not even be able to ask some systems-implicating questions. If the data shows that black men are actually dutiful in terms of their service, in terms of their commitments to their family … if they’re so dutiful, then why are their children the most impoverished? What’s the missing element at work here? It turns out there are many, but if you have a narrative that says we’re just absent and a problem and a threat, you never investigate the system question. It also primes us to ignore data to build upon. Here are the answers to the pop quiz that I gave you.
Out of the different data points, one of my favorites is this one around black billionaires: If there’s 380,000 households that qualify in this number, and you add up and you do the math on all the black entertainers and all the black athletes, both still in the leagues and retired, there’s no way you get to more than 5 [thousand] or 6,000 black folks who became millionaires through singing and playing sport. The other 97% of black folks who get to that level do so a different way, and our children might want to know that they have those options.
The other thing that I believe us not having a full narrative causes us to do is causes us to misrepresent ourselves. We are in many shops that run around saying that they are data-driven. We want to be data-driven, data-driven, data-driven, but do you even consider the parts of the data that aren’t negative? Is it more accurate to say that you’re negative data-driven because you’re looking at only problem data? Do you even track the data of your population’s assets—the way that they contribute, the way that they’re succeeding? Is that even a variable in the formula, in the narrative that you’re teaching to the rest of the world about the populations that you really care about?
Here’s, by the way, a data-driven, evidence-based profile of black folks in this country. They are the men most likely to enlist and serve the country in uniform. They are the fastest-growing block of entrepreneurs. Black women are the fastest-growing block of entrepreneurs. They created 800 new businesses this morning, according to the data. Black households tend to give 25% higher levels of their income to charity across all economic strata. Then, as I mentioned before, black men tend to be the most actively engaged in their children’s life. This is data.
By the way, the source of this data is the US Army, the Department of Commerce, the Culture of Giving report and the CDC. My co-founder would say, “I did not go to imblackimblackimblack.com to come up with, to jury-rig, some sort of false data narrative.” This is available information. We can build this profile, but we are not inclined to that narrative. Our narrative tells something entirely different, and it does not tell a whole picture at all.
The other challenge with stigma narratives … and this habit that our field has gotten into is this one, and this is not just limited to our field, but I like to use this example: Many of us are concerned about institutional bias, but there’s also algorithmic bias. Examples of algorithmic bias … I use Google just because it’s a platform that so many folks use. When you type into Google the term “unprofessional hair,” and I hope they fix this, but this is a couple years back, these are the images that most searches will reveal. Google search for “unprofessional hair” pulls this up.
Many of us are concerned about institutional bias, but there’s also algorithmic bias.
Equally, if you did a Google image search on the word “boss,” you get these kind of images. What I’m trying to point out to you is I’m a coder. I used to be a coder. Coders are not intentionally trying to run some white supremacy agenda or write some anti-black [agenda]. That’s not what’s going on, but because our biases are going unchecked, our biases show up in the data, in the search engines.
One of my favorite examples actually is this last one because if you were to type this phrase into Google translate, “She is a doctor; he is a nurse,” and translate it to Finish, Turkish, or half a dozen other languages … and by the way, not all languages, but … there’s a subset of languages that when you do this translation—take the exact phrase and translate it back—Google will correct your gender attribution error. Well, you obviously made a mistake. What it will show you is what you meant to say is “He is a doctor; she is a nurse.” Again, this is not conscious bias. This is what they mean when they say unconscious bias.
Finally, the challenge with being so 100% dependent on a deficit-frame narrative of the different challenges and causes that we care about and population that we care about is that you actually fundamentally undermine the fight for equity. I don’t know if folks here are familiar with Jonathan Haidt. He’s also a research psychologist and sociologist. He wrote this book called The Righteous Mind. I don’t know if anyone is familiar with The Righteous Mind. Anyone? OK.
…the challenge with being so 100% dependent on a deficit-frame narrative of the different challenges and causes that we care about and population that we care about is that you actually fundamentally undermine the fight for equity.
One of the main lines in this book was recognizing that liberals and conservatives draw upon a subset of sacred values, much of which overlap, but when they draw upon these values, they take different meanings from the same expressions, ideas, and words.
For instance, the concept of equity, which so many of us seem to care about, if you have a more liberal persuasion, then your mind heavily associates equity with ideas of inclusion. If you’re more conservative leaning, your mind heavily associates ideas of equity with the concept of fairness. What I want to try to reinforce to those of us in this room is which of these is the bad value, inclusion or fairness?
Neither is a bad value, but the reason why fairness ends up becoming an issue if you’re conservative is because when all you hear about a people is that they are a burden on society, they are costs in their own society, and they make no contributions—all you hear about is the deficit and challenges they represent—it feels fundamentally unfair to give them the exact same opportunities as those of us who are working our ass off to make a future for ourselves.
This one-sided framing of our populations creates this false impression that only the middle-class white person is earning their keep. That’s never been the case. In fact, what is usually much more true is whatever population we’re dealing with is also working hard, also wants the opportunity to earn their right, not to be given anything for free—by the way, had earned it in the past but had their hard-earned value denied them, taken from them, stolen from them for generations. That’s a more accurate depiction of what’s going on. It turns out that when we hide people’s aspirations and contributions, we are fundamentally undermining the case for equity from a psychological standpoint.
It turns out that when we hide people’s aspirations and contributions, we are fundamentally undermining the case for equity from a psychological standpoint.
Let me move to this thing called asset-framing. The transition is for us to understand that in this era that we’re in, this fast-growing, 21st-century, quick-changing era that we’re in, we are not going to be able to have a philanthropy that delivers on those promises, that delivers equity, if we’re still operating from that 18th-century or 17th-century mindset.
I’ll read the moral of the story. The moral of the story so far is that your brain automatically floods with associations. If all you can quote are negatives about anybody, anything, then that’s all your brain has to draw on, and it literally won’t hold on to the positive associations. You only see half of your potential solutions. In order to see a bigger picture, you need better frames.
Let me explain asset-framing. In order to first understand asset-framing, it helps to understand framing. Marketers, advertisers … and by the way, I told you we worked at Ogilvy & Mather at the beginning of this stuff. Their interest is not in some great social justice. They may just have deep data on how all you people think, but one of the things that’s interesting … to understand framing, what this picture is meant to depict is, if you’re in America, it turns out that Americans prefer lunch meats that are 90% fat-free. We don’t like lunch meat that’s 10% fat. You’ll never see it packed because they never advertise 10% fat on the package.
The point of that, of course, is both are true. Which one you lead with matters in terms of which decisions people make. We’re not asking you to make things up. Your brain will recognize when you’re not being truthful.
Let’s talk about our two definitions. The deficit-framing, which is what our field tends to do, is defining people by their problems, ignoring their contributions, and then remediating them to be less of a burden on society. That’s a deficit frame.
The deficit-framing, which is what our field tends to do, is defining people by their problems, ignoring their contributions, and then remediating them to be less of a burden on society.
Asset-framing, by contrast, is defining people by their aspirations before noting their challenges. This definition is very specific. You’re going to define folks by what they aspire to do. You’re going to define folks by how they contribute. Then, you’re going to note their problems and challenges. Then, invest in them for their continued benefit to society.
Asset-framing, by contrast, is defining people by their aspirations before noting their challenges. This definition is very specific. You’re going to define folks by what they aspire to do. You’re going to define folks by how they contribute. Then, you’re going to note their problems and challenges. Then, invest in them for their continued benefit to society.
Asset-framing assumes that before you showed up, people had aspirations. Before you hit the scene, people were trying to contribute and making a difference. If you could recognize that about human beings … all that pathway to dehumanization … it short-circuited right from the beginning.
Asset-framing assumes that before you showed up, people had aspirations.
Rats and roaches do not have aspirations. Human beings do. Merely the act of defining someone by aspiration sets up a cascade of associations in our mind that says that they’re actually worthy of opportunity. That’s the definition of asset-framing.
How many of you have … or, actually, just raise your hand if this is you. How many of you have ever seen a nonprofit whose mission statement is something like this? “Our program helps at-risk youth in high-crime neighborhoods stay on track, graduate, and avoid becoming a negative statistic.” Have you ever seen that … probably has something like that?
I can tell you I’ve done this talk in Berlin and gotten the same response. I’m pointing it out to say, and you all who are grant-makers or worked with grant-makers, you understand that grant-makers give you the words to use. This is the narrative that grantees are being funded to promote and to respond and to give you.
That’s why I say in philanthropy, we have a huge market dilemma. Here’s the shape of the market dilemma we have. It is grant-makers who give us this language that we use for dressing up, for submitting our grant applications. Nonprofits, of course, will use this language because, for most of them, foundation funding is the life’s blood of their organization.
The challenge is that we’re being paid this blood money for telling the story of death and threat that our populations represent to the larger society. If you don’t solve the problem that you name, then you’re at risk of losing your funding, but if you do solve the problem that you name, you’re at risk of losing your funding. If you exist to solve a problem and the problem goes away, why would we fund you?
The challenge is that we’re being paid this blood money for telling the story of death and threat that our populations represent to the larger society.
Deficit-framing … thank you, brother. All right, he’s feeling me. Now, but deficit-framing has a built-in catch-22, which as you think about it, since the war on poverty began, this catch-22 over time has caused us to treat but never cure, which tends to diminish hope and raise cynicism. It gets harder to do the work—people become less hopeful when you’re operating purely from a deficit-frame, and that’s the context that we’re in.
All right. Yeah, we already said that. I’m going to give you a few rules for asset-framing. I’m going to give you three more examples, and then we’re going to open for questions.
When you’re trying to think about how to do asset-framing in your work, the main thing to remember is it is not about wordsmithing. It’s about a different definition. Don’t define people by their problem. Define them by their aspiration. Define them by their contribution. Sometimes when I do the training, the first question I get is, “Well, what’s the word I can use instead of ‘at risk,’ or what’s the word I can use instead of ‘disadvantage’? Just tell me better words to use.”
Don’t define people by their problem. Define them by their aspiration. Define them by their contribution.
Again, your brain is highly associative. You can’t call poor people differently wealthy. Your brain will call bullshit on that. It sees through it right away. The same way that the inner city became … sorry, the ghetto became the inner city, became urban, and your brain did the math the whole way. Spinning it up. Look, I love folks who were trying to figure out how to take the stigma off of things by saying things like “opportunity use,” but your brain does the association game immediately. It knows when you’re spinning. It’s not about spinning. It’s about literally defining them by something other than their challenge. That’s step one. What are their aspirations?
Step two is when you’re doing your data research, actually identify people’s actual contributions. There’s plenty out there. The data is available. We just don’t bother to look. You can tell a different story about how people are actually striving and contributing and trigger an entirely different set of possible responses.
You can tell a different story about how people are actually striving and contributing and trigger an entirely different set of possible responses.
Then, look at what are some of the systemic inputs for their challenge. I’ve observed that in most communities that we have low-income families, we also have a history of redlining. We also have a history of gerrymandering. None of which they had any control over, but it actually is impeding their aspiration for themselves, and we tend to totally ignore the systemic inputs. It’s very hard to make an argument that systems are somehow to blame for what’s going on when all you talk about is how people are screwing up or screwed up.
Then lastly, of course, you talked about how your organization can help them fulfill their aspirations for themselves. If they aspire to go to school, if they … by the way, a great definition of an at-risk youth is a student, in most cases. It’s still accurate; or poor families or any of that thing, what are they aspiring to do? Even if they’re aspiring to get out of poverty, that’s a different definition than just labeling them as impoverished.
I can explain this, but I don’t know if I have to. What this is, is taking that original sort of deficit-frame, typical way of describing a mission and just putting it in an asset-frame. We workshopped this with a number of clients before, so that’s how we got to this.
There are a lot of different versions of this, but this is one of my favorites. Instead of saying our program helps at-risk youth in high-crime, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, it is still accurate to say that our program helps students facing extremely challenging conditions to graduate so they can fulfill their dreams for themselves and society. That’s still accurate. We’re not making anything up. Your brain won’t call bullshit. This is not spin. It’s just telling another side of the story that, by the way, still identifies a problem, just doesn’t label the student as the problem.
It’s just telling another side of the story that, by the way, still identifies a problem, just doesn’t label the student as the problem.
The market solution is, it turns out, stating aspirations primes associations of worth. We tend to see the obstacles that our protagonists face as the actual problem instead of the protagonists themselves. It makes you more inclined to address the actual problem instead of fixing the people.
If your program is not successful, then of course, you’re still at risk of losing your funding, but if your program is successful, if you are able to help students facing extremely challenging conditions to overcome them and achieve their dreams for themselves, there’s a funding path for that. There’s not a built-in catch-22 in that. Asset-framing gives you a shot at a viable future, viable solutions.
Asset-framing gives you a shot at a viable future, viable solutions.
By the clock, I have exactly two minutes left. Let me do exactly two minutes’ worth of examples. Dr. Sherece West of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation … after we worked with their shop for a while, they literally changed their mission statement.
Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation was dedicated to helping to end poverty in Arkansas, which seemed like a worthy goal, but after we did some real work around what they really wanted to do, they changed their mission statement to say that they wanted to make an Arkansas where everyone in it can prosper.
It turns out that if you set a goal of ending poverty, then when you get everyone like $100 above the poverty line, you can technically check that box, but that’s usually not what you really want. What you really want is for people to be able to prosper. When you speak to people’s aspirations, you must solve the problem on the way. People are not going to prosper unless you end poverty, but that’s on the way to the actual aspiration, whereas when you only focus on the problem, you might not ever achieve the higher purpose. By the way, you will struggle with engaging people the whole way.
I don’t know if your foundations or organizations have ever had challenges with engagement, but it turns out that when you call people bad names all the time, they don’t want to come to your party. It becomes difficult. You can pay them to do so. They’ll show up then, and when the money runs out, they’ll go back to doing the stuff that matters to them.
Donors choose great organizations. They found that when they asset-frame their project narratives, they actually raise more money than when they deficit-frame. Many of us think that we have to point out some dramatic crisis to raise money. It turns out that that’s not true.
Lastly, this group, OneUnited Bank … we discovered that black-owned banks like this end up being social-impact banks because traditional banks tend not to lend in the communities that we serve at anywhere near the rate that the black-owned banks do. It’s a 35- or 20-to-1 ratio, depending on which shops you’re looking at.
Simply depositing at one of these, by the way … FDIC insured. It’s a bank. There’s no … it’s just a bank. Simply depositing at a bank like this means that they can then lend in the same communities that we say we’re trying to uplift, and there’s absolutely zero risk to us.
By the way, BMe Community did this. We put a million dollars on deposit. OneUnited Bank turns it into $2.5 million in housing loans in low- to moderate-income black communities at zero risk of us fighting asset poverty.
All right, folks, I’m going to bring us to our close. Three important takeaways when you think about asset-framing. Asset-framing is defining people by their aspirations and contributions. You can still name all kinds of problems. You don’t have to avoid problems. You don’t have to whitewash. You don’t have to spin. It’s just important that you never define people by their problem. That’s a stigmatizing practice.
Asset-framing is defining people by their aspirations and contributions. You can still name all kinds of problems. You don’t have to avoid problems. You don’t have to whitewash. You don’t have to spin. It’s just important that you never define people by their problem. That’s a stigmatizing practice.
Asset-framing also makes it much easier to see that there are unfair systems preventing hardworking people from achieving the aspirations that we actually all share. These are some examples of how you can use it, but rather than repeat what’s written on the screen, I’d encourage you … if you really want to take this home, go ahead and take a cellphone snapshot the way you have been doing, and what I’d rather do to get us to close is something that I do anytime I do the workshop. I’m going to actually ask you all to stand, if you will.
Asset-framing also makes it much easier to see that there are unfair systems preventing hardworking people from achieving the aspirations that we actually all share.
The summation of today is we are literally at the start of a new era. The question is do we want to bring old thinking into this new opportunity? We absolutely believe that you should not ignore problems. It’s just vitally important that we stop defining people by their problem. Define people by their aspirations and contributions, and you’re able to realize much more engagement, much more success, higher impact.
We absolutely believe that you should not ignore problems. It’s just vitally important that we stop defining people by their problem. Define people by their aspirations and contributions, and you’re able to realize much more engagement, much more success, higher impact.
To close, what I’m going to ask you to do is turn back to that person that you denigrated a moment ago. We’ll do a little restorative justice right here at the end of the day. I’m going to say five sentences, and I want you to repeat each sentence only if you actually agree, because remember, the intuitive mind will be able to tell if you’re bullshitting. If you don’t agree, just don’t say it, just mm-hmm, just do that, but if you agree with what I’m saying, please speak it to the person across from you as though you mean it. I’m going to give you five sentences. Here’s the first one: I refuse to define you by your challenges.
Audience: I refuse to define you by your challenges.
All people are worthy of respect.
Audience: All people are worthy of respect.
And that even includes you.
Audience: And that even includes you.
OK, two more sentences: Look, it’s important that we be good to each other.
Audience: It’s important that we be good to each other.
Because I love us some us.
Audience: Because I love us some us.
You may embrace your neighbor and have a seat.
Now, obviously, I pored over a lot of information. Typically, this is a three-hour workshop, but I’m happy to respond to any initial questions that I raised, either about cognition, decision-making, framing, real situations that you’re in, or any questions that you have about the importance of this concept that has been laid out.
Jolene Sharp: I’m Jolene Sharp with the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. As you can imagine, what you’re talking about is pretty much our entire work. We are trying to fundamentally change society’s expectations of what it looks like to be a person with a developmental disability.
The problem we face in our work is that often when we are presenting stories of success and achievement and aspirations for people with disabilities … particularly, we hear this from parents of children with really significant disabilities and really significant challenges … tend to feel that we are no longer representing them, that we are focusing on achievement at the expense of those who really are facing truly exceptional challenges. Can you speak a little bit to how you balance this?
Yeah, and actually thanks for bringing that up because I don’t argue that you should only do one or the other. The issue is we are so heavily in the deficit-frame that we’re missing major opportunities daily. Part of the reason why I share the Gates example is because they have all the resources of anyone, they’re totally data-driven, and they absolutely missed what should have been a glaring opportunity or issue.
Similarly, on these other issues, we are so focused on deficits that we never balance out the story. I don’t argue that you should only use one or the other. What I’m really arguing is that you should have a whole look, but more specifically to your question about what do we do with folks who have developmental disabilities and, particularly, those who have severe developmental disabilities.
I still believe, in most cases, you can speak to even their aspirations. It’s not about exceptionalism. It’s not about telling only success stories. One of the very common responses that we get on asset-framing is, “Oh, OK, we need to use positive language.” No, it is not about you because your brain sees through that stuff.
Before I arrived at the conference, I saw postings of images from the conference, and I saw, wow, there’s a ton of black folks at that conference. Every image that I saw come out of the conference shows like tons and tons of black folks, and then when I got here, I was like, I mean, there are some black folks, but it wasn’t … I thought it was like a black conference with some white folks sprinkled in.
What I’m trying to say is, what becomes really important is that we try to present an accurate story that also represents our higher aspirations. There’s a little bit of balance that you have to do in that, and I’m happy to work with you on the specifics of it if you want to talk longer after this.
Makiyah Moody: I have a question. Hi. I’m Makiyah Moody with La Piana Consulting. I’m wondering if you could talk about how organizations can engage the people that are proximate and actually reflective in the community instead of being like the other who’s creating the narrative and doing the asset-framing? When do you engage the people that you’re actually supporting to help create the narrative?
Yeah, and actually, one of the ironies or interesting things about that is, I actually think, the sooner the better, always, because folks … an example is when Cities United first formed. This was the organization created by a bunch of mayors trying to stop violence in their city. They had all this data that showed that violence happens more often in certain zip codes, certain neighborhoods, and certain people, certain sets of families, repeat the violence.
When they first rolled out, the mayors were saying that, “We know where they are. We know who they are. All we have to do is focus on these places.” If you think about it, that works from a political standpoint, but if you live in any of these neighborhoods, you care more about stopping the violence than anybody hearing about it on the national news.
The mistake that they made in their early offing was they defined the entire zip code in a way, and they did not engage the folks from those zip codes. If they had, then they would have had a totally different framing. To your point, the sooner is always the better because the folks who experience it, they have the greatest motivation. They typically have the best answers for their reality. Our narrative assumes a set of things that their narrative would help debunk.
The downside of it, though, is in many cases, we have learned how to use our victim narrative or our injury narrative as a way of gaining agency. When brother Desmond was on stage yesterday, he really inspired me, and I’m sure he inspired you, but what was interesting about his story was he explained his experience of homelessness and being a crackhead and all that kind of stuff, but what I found really sort of fascinating is if you think about it, that was a story about how someone who is worthy of being a Times 100 … something had happened to someone who has that ability to where they ended up homeless—they ended up suicidal.
The story, the way he told it was, of course, inspirational, but the reality is we have a system that takes people with that level of ability and makes them want to kill themselves. The sooner we involve folks who experience the real challenge, the better. The only thing I would caution us on is … or sometimes we’ve been taught to treat even those of us who are experiencing the different issues … have been taught to treat that as our way of gaining agency.
In my own personal example, I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, a very rough town. At one point, I was at a conference. This was 20 years ago, Points of Light … 25 years ago, 30 years ago, damn.
I was at a Points of Light Conference, and I don’t know if any of you black folks have had this experience, but there are a thousand people at the conference, and then all the black folks got together in one room afterwards to have the same conversations but just amongst ourselves. I remember we were being introduced one to another, and the guy who spoke before me said, “My name is so and so. I’m from a dangerous community. My dad wasn’t in the house. That’s why I committed my life to doing the work that I do.”
I said, “My name is Trabian. I’m from Pontiac, a dangerous community. My dad wasn’t in the house,” etcetera. Next person started writing down the same narrative. A woman who was maybe 20 years our senior named Octavia Wilson, she interrupted the third guy. She said, “Why do you keep saying that? You mean to tell me you never had an uncle or grandfather? Your mom never dated a man who had his head on right? You literally had no positive role models in your community, black male role models in your community?”
When she said that, for me, it was like she turned on a light in the room because my grandfather was a minister, who was dedicated to giving back and had been a great role model. My uncle Charles has served in Vietnam and came home. Was a family man. He was a great role model. My mother even dated a brother named Swoop. When Swoop was done earning his reputation, he was a real solid dude.
I’m just saying that to say, absolutely, we need to hear from and engage both from the community ASAP and immediately. We also need to keep our asset lens on just the same because there’s a billion-dollar industry that we’re all a part of that stigmatizes populations in order to do anything beneficial with them.
Edie Irons: Thanks. My name is Edie Irons. I’m from TransForm. I’m wondering if you have any examples of using asset-framing for the built environment or for things other than people that we’re trying to help or change, and I’ll give you my example work on transportation policy and land use, and we’re trying to … we say you can’t get ahead if you can’t get around.
Think about a bus. Buses are stigmatized. People always talk about how they don’t get there. They’re not running frequently enough. They’re underfunded, etcetera. Are there other examples? We’re talking about housing affordability?
Yeah, the line you have to tread is it’s not about kind of spit shining stuff. It’s not about putting a positive spin because, again, your brain will see through positive spin. If you call a bus an enlightened transportation vehicle, your brain is like, you can’t. I’m just saying, you don’t want to spin. You want to look at where there’s opportunity to have a literal different definition.
It’s a little bit harder to do with inanimate objects, but when we were working with Vulcan years ago, this is Paul Allen’s foundation, they were concerned about the environment and particularly about the oceans—the pollution of the oceans and the acidification of the oceans and all this negative stuff about the oceans.
I remember being, again, at that session, and I was thinking, “I don’t know anything about the ocean. I’m not an ocean guy. When I thought about the asset-frame, it was all these people who really … because what Paul was concerned [about] was how do we get more people to care?
The question that was asked that sort of turned the table on this was, “Well, what is it about the ocean that you, whoever you are, actually like?” Folks started sharing stories about the warmth and the depth and the beauty and how much they like to surf or sail or swim or whatever the heck it is. Once you build up that narrative, remind people of what they love about something; then when you say, “Oh, by the way, that’s threatened,” you get even people like me to say, “Oh, we should do something about that.” I didn’t care about the issue before it was framed in a way where I saw the value, not just the threat.
I’m saying it’s a little bit harder with things like built environment, but there may be channels. It’s not always about people; it can be about other issues.
Dr. Bentley: I’m Dr. Bentley from Detroit, Michigan. I have a quick question that somewhat deals and works with data consistently. I have experienced, but you showed in the slide around us … having a lack of data around positive data, particularly around communities of color. I’ve experienced that and also had been in points where I’ve been looking for things that show the aspirations, particularly of young men of color and don’t even have access to that and have been even questioned, like why would you even look for that type of information?
My question to you is for those of us that don’t necessarily have beautiful presentations about the psychology of why it’s important for us to have these types of narratives and have this type of data available to us, are there other ways that you can help to enlighten us on how we increase the value of those types of data and those types of narratives to those that aren’t necessarily concerned about mindset shifts or changing what we’re doing in terms of our approach to our work?
Thank you for that because at the heart of all this was a realization that we are at a point in American history where you really have the biggest cultural handoff, I think, on record, right? When we ever had our two largest generations, one at an age where they’re leaving the mainstream at the exact moment that another is entering the mainstream?
I actually believe that as this transition continues, there’ll be a greater interest in that kind of data from the folks who are inheriting because they feel the need to change the narrative. When the story is told in such a way where you’re always somehow the problem, you want to correct that, but you don’t have 10 years to start to wait for that shift.
The other thing that would encourage … is for those of us in this work, it becomes really important that we start telling those stories, that we share that data. All the data points that I pulled were from pretty public sources—it’s just nobody bothers to dig. If we don’t begin to flip this narrative … I don’t know how many of you studied history, but back in the Jim Crow South, part of what facilitated the implementation of Jim Crow was this narrative about how dangerous it was to have a free Negro, the feral black male narrative. Crazily enough, when Emmett Till was killed in the ’60s, it was the same narrative. Someone said he wolf-whistled this little white woman, and he gets chopped down because of that, because again, a feral black male.
Then, when Nixon came to office, he did the war on drugs. It was this whole idea that the black community is drug-ridden and that the liberals are hippies, and they’re also drug users. My point is, all these things that we sort of look at as moments in history, they were all driven by narrative. They were all driven by a mental narrative, a mental assumption. What hurts me, actually, as a black man at this point in my life is, the exact same narrative that was used to bring about Jim Crow, that was used to kill Emmett Till, that was used to bring on the war on drugs with Nixon and Reagan, that exact same narrative is being used to imprison black men now. It’s the exact same game. We put all this money behind these interventions, when if we just corrected the freaking narrative, if we told the truth about people, then we wouldn’t have to waste money trying to remediate.
Last on that point, but also, I think, equally valuable, as it turns out … Emmett Till never wolf-whistled anybody. It turns out that Nixon’s war on drugs was a political device. They admitted that they invented the concept to vilify the base of the Democratic Party. It turns out that the super-predator myth that led to the mass incarceration movement that liberals supported … we supported zero tolerance back when we were afraid of the super predator, who was a danger to all of society. We bought into that. Then 25 years later, we’re trying to undo the school-to-prison pipeline that we actually invested in creating because we bought into a myth of the feral black male.
What I’m offering to all of you is you might think you’re just doing your job at a grant-making foundation or at some sort of social impact organization, but when you level up and look at this thing from a historical context, we are in a historic time. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to what’s going on nationally, but we’re in a historic time, and you have to think that way because at this time, there’s not a whole lot distinguishing us from those well-meaning philanthropies of the 1860s who had that same sort of “save the feral, downtrodden Negro” narrative running in their mind. There is such a thing as liberal racism. There is such a thing as believing that it is the divine right of white people to civilize the rest of the world.
I don’t believe that folks in this room would want to subscribe to that nonsense. I don’t believe that there’s any conscious effort by anyone here to promote systems of inequality, but the issue is if you are someone who hates me, and you see me crossing the street, and you bear down and run me over with your vehicle because you hate me, that’s bad. But if you’re someone who says you dig me, and you’re tooling along in that same vehicle, and you just don’t notice me crossing the street, and you run me down, my experience of you is no different.
OK, you can say that you didn’t mean to stigmatize. You didn’t mean to set these types of policies in motion, but what we actually need to do is wake up to people’s actual value and start to tell that story so we actually have a chance to come together for the future that we all want.