How positive language could improve public policy for struggling communities

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Could focusing on a person’s or community’s attributions and aspirations instead of their struggles reverse systemic inequity?

Some leaders in policy, media, the nonprofit sector and academia think so. 

Trabian Shorters, Nov. 12, 2019 in Lansing | Allison Donahue

Trabian Shorters, CEO of BMe Community, spoke to a crowd of more than 300 people at a Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) conference in Lansing on Tuesday to talk about how “asset framing” could help improve struggling communities and groups while also uplifting people. 

“Asset framing,” a term coined by Shorters, is “defining people by their aspirations and contributions before noting the challenges, and then investing in them for their continued benefit to society.”

BMe Community is a Miami-based organization that trains and consults with industry leaders in nonprofit, philanthropy, government and media on how to create greater equity in communities. 

According to Shorters, terms like “at-risk, low-income, minorities in high-crime, high-poverty and disadvantaged youth” continue the negative stigmas that policymakers and philanthropic workers are striving to change. 

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“It’s in government, philanthropy and media that the idea of defining people negatively is normal,” Shorters said. “Government, nonprofits and a lot of social impact organizations use negativity, negative framing and crisis narratives to scare people into taking action, and it does work. 

“But the way that it works makes people literally afraid of whichever group is associated with the crisis, whether it’s Black folks, poor folks, whoever is associated with the crisis, doing it that way actually biases the public against them.”

According to Shorters, studies show organizations dependent on grant-funding see an increase in revenue after converting over to asset-framing language in their mission statements.

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Alex Rossman, communications director at MLPP, says asset framing has a relevant place in dealing with data studies that are often focused on negative results. 

“So often, the data and statistics are negative,” Rossman said. “So the tendency is to make that the headline of our press releases or our reports.  But asset framing puts that through a different lens and understanding that you’re kind of being counteractive to what you’re actually wanting to achieve. I think the challenge we have seen is that for lawmakers, in particular, is they have honestly kind of hardened to some of the negative data around Michigan.”

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

When the issue is framed negatively, the problem becomes “too insurmountable” to fix with a policy or change in law, Rossman said. 

Shorters believes this reframing isn’t political correctness, commonly referred to as PC, which is often scoffed at in the current political climate.

“Asset framing is not at all about what you say about people, it is totally about what you think about people,” Shorters said. “I think the challenge with the PC movement was it was all about getting words right. People felt like they couldn’t be honest anymore. So we’re not telling people to fix their language. We’re asking to fix their thought process.”

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues, LGBTQ issues and immigration. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.