Dwayne Barnes: Turning our assets into change agents in Detroit and beyond

Detroit | Wikimedia Commons

This year, I was selected to become a 2019 Skillman BMe Vanguard Fellow. The Vanguard Fellowship is an elite leadership experience designed and facilitated by leading global authorities on social innovation, media, public policy, narrative, race and culture. 

The fellowship program is sponsored by BMe Community, an award-winning national network of social innovators, leaders and champions who invest in aspiring communities.

I was honored and elated to join this fellowship because of the rich legacy and work of BMe Community. Years ago, I was connected to BMe through the work of my father-in-law, Lewis A. Colson Sr. In 2013, Colson was awarded a BMe Leadership Award and a $10,000 grant to go towards his social enterprise, Project: Betterman Incorporated (PBMI). PBMI was a prostate cancer education, advocacy and awareness organization he created after being diagnosed with the disease himself. 

Working with my father-in-law as the deputy director of PBMI, I was able to engage and learn from the BMe network. I learned the importance of driving an asset frame narrative about Black men. Asset framing is an award-winning approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, which calls for defining people by their aspirations and contributions, not by the negative circumstances they may face.

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Sadly, in 2014, Colson passed away as the result of stage 4 prostate Cancer. That same year, I was motivated to apply for the Vanguard Fellowship but was turned away. I was forced to go back to the drawing board of defining who I was and what would be the scope of my work. After a few years of meaningful work experience and leadership training, I was given the opportunity to become a BMe leader. 

BMe’s Vanguard Fellowship is a six-month intensive training taught by the top leaders in their fields from BMe, The Aspen Global Leadership Network, The OpEd Project, Color of Change, PolicyLink and The Raben Group and is based on the research and insights of Nobel Laureates and global authorities in their fields.

In partnership with the Skillman Foundation, the Detroit Vanguard Fellows are invested in Detroit’s future. Our charge is to change the narrative around the image of the youth, teens and young adults. We are the next generation of leaders, influencers and movers and shakers in the city of Detroit. We are passionate about providing a political, entrepreneurial and educational platform for the next generation of Detroiters to lead, serve and impact their community. 

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Asset framing is a key part of the fellowship’s work. Asset framing shifts narratives away from crisis and deficit and focuses on potential and worth. It helps remove harmful stigmas and negative associations and replace them with positive definitions, and it’s crucial in the pursuit of racial equity. Asset framing is particularly vital for Black men and how we think about ourselves, how we treat our peers and how we work to lift up the next generation.  

Through the fellowship, I’ve been emboldened to use my voice to promote policy changes, conduct research to build platforms that encourage economic empowerment, and pursue the work of building a technology think tank that assesses the creation, consumption and impact of technology in urban communities.  

The culminating event for the 2019 Fellowship was the BMe Next Narrative Conference in Louisville, Ky. Last month, more than 300 BMe fellows, partners and supporters from around the country gathered to connect, celebrate the end of half a year of extensive training and move forward into the future to change communities, the country and our world. I am the #NextNarrative for Detroit and I will use the power of my voice, my network and the community to leave a legacy of action and service in the city of Detroit.

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But I need all the partners in this work that I can get, and this asset-framing mindset has been equally valuable in my community engagement efforts in the Detroit area for the Michigan League for Public Policy — and in the League’s work as a whole. That’s why the League is bringing in Trabian Shorters, the founder of BMe and the leading authority on asset framing in the country, to headline our public policy forum, “Reframe and Reclaim: Addressing Racial Equity through Asset Framing.”

The forum will begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Radisson Hotel in Lansing, and will feature Shorters’ keynote address and several breakout sessions to dive deeper into asset framing. This approach has been invaluable as I work personally and professionally to improve the narratives around Detroit, young black men and public policy, and I hope others will join us on Tuesday to learn more about this important tool.