“How do we create equitable outcomes for all members of our community? We can start by defining people by their aspirations, not their challenges.” -Trabian Shorter

by Helen Hope Kimbrough

It was a huge day for racial equity in the Queen City as a new $250 million communitywide public-private partnership to advance racial equity in Charlotte was announced. I had the good fortune to be in the audience at Johnson C. Smith University for the announcement. It was a truly inspiring day.

It also got me thinking. Amidst the talk of gaps to be bridged and challenges to overcome, I found myself most engaged when speakers leaned in to the vision “to set the standard as an American city for achieving racial equity, social justice, economic opportunity and upward mobility.” To me, this announcement is about so much more than eliminating the barriers people of color face in Charlotte. It’s about opportunity.

We didn’t know any different.

Reminiscing about my kindergarten days, I lived in a small, rural community where standards were high and excellence was important. No shortcuts – just tons of hard work! My kindergarten teacher, Sarah Cloud, was a strict educator. In our young minds, we thought she was mean. But it was just that she expected the best from us, as did our families and our close-knit community. Ms. Cloud was aware that one day we would graduate from kindergarten and matriculate to elementary school. Her goal was to lay a firm foundation of learning to prepare us effectively for first grade.

It worked! Students from her pre-k and kindergarten program were academically successful and enthusiastic about learning. Ms. Cloud’s reputation was highly regarded then, and even more so following her death some time later. She prepared us exceptionally well and made us believe that we could accomplish anything we put our minds to doing. Ms. Cloud was an aspirational figure to me and a generation of students who are thriving today. She had the mindset of asset framing in our formative years, and we didn’t even know it. What a legacy!

I see this same legacy in one of Next Stage’s current clients, the Alliance Center for Education (AC4E, also formerly known as the Bethlehem Center), which utilizes asset framing to educate students through a variety of programs beginning with its Early Head Start program. It is a differentiator for an organization with such a rich history and prominence that sometimes flies under the local radar.

Founded in 1940 in the Brooklyn Community in Charlotte, AC4E provided needed childcare services and resources for the community when Black women and men of the Methodist faith designed innovative programming to empower, equip and uplift families. The challenges Charlotte faced then are similar to the ones we talk about today – limited job opportunities, crime and neighborhood safety. These challenges did not stop students and families from thriving within their belief, faith and relational networks of a close-knit community. Asset framing was practiced in spite of challenging times and circumstances.

It has been amazing for us to hear the compelling stories of 80 years ago juxtaposed with more contemporary feedback, of how AC4E holds fast to being a trusted source while continuing to invest in students and families. That is only possible when organizations believe into the communities they seek to serve, centering what is possible, just as Ms. Cloud did for me all those years ago.

So what exactly does asset framing mean?

Asset framing is defining people by their aspirations and contributions rather than by their deficits. It is terminology that’s being embraced more frequently, based on our increased awareness of prejudicial language, biased attitudes and negative connotations. As an example, many associate white with being right, good, and safe while black is considered wrong, bad or objectionable. These types of associations have been harmful and divisive not just with race, but also with gender, economic status, religion, identity and education level. Oftentimes, individuals of diverse backgrounds or experiences are grouped unfavorably and are left feeling inferior and subservient, which is why reframing the narrative in a favorable way is essential to equity and inclusion.

In response to the pandemic and a growing awareness of social injustices, the educational, corporate and nonprofit sectors have examined their mission statements, values and guiding principles, strategic communications, and overall operations to address how people of color are being represented and engaged. Refraining from phrases like ‘at-risk,’ ‘distressed,’ and ‘concentrated poverty’ can help frame constituents in a more favorable light, while creating a more authentic and community-grounded approach to marketing programs, initiatives and campaigns through a transformative lens.

As your organization considers how to build an asset-based framework, consider beginning with these simple shifts in thinking:

  • Evaluate the types of photos and images used in marketing efforts. Visuals are powerful and have the ability to share the best or worst of a person, neighborhood or group.
  • Stop seeking a specific story. When you share the story of your impact, keep an open mind about the stories you share. Rather than seeking the saddest or most ‘extreme’ story, consider the experience of your overall constituency – and how they are overcoming their challenges.
  • Reframe your questions. As you interview the people you serve, note the language you use. For example – ‘What was it like for you growing up?’ will gain an entirely different answer than ‘What was it like for you to grow up in poverty?’ The first question will yield a much richer, more complete narrative, driven by the interviewees themselves.
  • Go straight to the source. As nonprofits and companies design impact strategies, it is important to include community conversations and interviews in the process, rather than assumptions based solely on data. While numbers are an important piece of the puzzle, nothing replaces relationships and conversations built at the neighborhood level.

How do we rethink the stories we tell and become more equitable and inclusive? We change the game by acknowledging the aspiration so that it becomes the truer story. We aspire to hope and dream of becoming something better now and in the future. We humanize people, and we collectively do this work together.