Trabian Shorters, best-selling author, social entrepreneur, and leading authority on diversity and inclusion, has been working for years to help foundations and nonprofits change the stories they tell about the communities they support. Many philanthropic organizations start with the challenge or the problem first – “tales of deficit and despair,” as Shorters describes. But this sort of approach stigmatizes communities, contributes to further stereotyping, and can often make change seem impossible.
Instead, Shorters recommends that social change organizations take an approach he calls asset framing. Asset framing acknowledges aspirations and contributions first, before addressing challenges. This tells a more authentic story about an individual. Asset framing is about word choice and being careful not to define people by their challenge.
Two of us were fortunate to attend a presentation that Shorters delivered during the Communications Network conference in the fall of 2019. His words have resonated with us since, and we think the asset-framing approach and the stories Shorters tells are important lessons for our current moment.
Putting asset framing into practice, if you were referring to a student or a group of students, you should...
- Avoid using adjectives like at-risk, low-income, high-crime, high-poverty, and disadvantaged.
- Instead, focus on the individual’s positives, mentioning aspirations and contributions first.
- Consider whether you would want someone to refer to you personally as the label in question.
Shorters gives the following example: "‘A Black student striving to overcome a threatening environment and graduate’ is a more accurate description than the ‘at-risk youth’ label ever implies.” An example of a mission statement that would focus on asset framing rather than deficit framing would be, “Our program helps students facing extremely challenging conditions to graduate so they can fulfill their dreams for themselves and society.” In Shorters’ words, this statement “[tells] another side of the story that, by the way, still identifies a problem, just doesn’t label the student as the problem.”
Here are some facts about the Black community Shorters shared with us. These may be different from statistics you are accustomed to hearing:
- Black males are more likely than any other group to enlist in the military.
- Black-owned businesses are being created at two times the national rate.
- Black households give 25% more of their annual income to charity than White households.
Additionally, Black high school students have high aspirations to attend graduate school, second only to Asian students.
Focusing on aspirations and achievements instead of shortcomings does a few things. It highlights the best attributes of a person. It exemplifies their humanity as opposed to their liability. And in the case of the Black community, it brings to light exceptional accomplishments made in spite of monumental challenges faced over generations, including discrimination in the hiring process and inequitable access to quality education and healthcare.
How can asset framing affect students and their families?
Using asset framing when communicating with students and families can go a long way to establish goodwill and strengthen relationships. It can make them feel more welcome and less like a problem or a challenge to be dealt with. Students are not their background or their environment. Referring to them or their families in ways that center the challenges of their background or environment can discount their personal strengths and stymie academic motivation. Shorters goes into more detail about this in his aptly titled article, “You Can’t Lift People Up by Putting Them Down.”
Here are a few ways you can put asset framing into practice in your school environment:
- Identify your students’ and school’s assets. What qualities do your students possess that make them thrive, regardless of the circumstances? How about your colleagues and school leadership? Use these to frame the stories you tell yourself and others.
- What are your students’ aspirations? Rather than focusing on what they don’t have, focus on where they want to go, the qualities that will help get them there, and the ways others can support them on the path.
- Be mindful of the names of programs and initiatives. When creating a new campus or district program or initiative, don’t fall into a deficit-framing pattern. What are your aspirations for the program? What do you want to achieve? Start there when developing a name. A successful example of this in higher education is the shift from using the term “remedial education” to using “developmental education.”
- Avoid job titles that focus on deficits. Your students probably don’t feel that great about meeting with someone dubbed an “at-risk counselor.” Consider a different designation, or even a generic job title. Maybe “counselor” will do.
Have you used asset framing in your work? Share your experience with other Texas educators in our Facebook group.