There is increasing awareness in the nonprofit community that the stories we share often exacerbate inequity and contribute to negative perceptions of Black, Brown, disabled, and low-income people. If we’re not careful, in our zest to heal, the stories we tell may harm the causes we care about.
No doubt, you’ve seen this nonprofit narrative before: an at-risk youth, despite all the odds, succeeds because of the organization’s intervention.
Most nonprofits have stories like that, and I know that at Mission Minded we’ve been guilty of writing stories that way ourselves.
The problem is it trains our minds to believe in relationships of dependence instead of interdependence. It can reinforce White saviorism. And if we care about equity, we have to tell different stories.
In his keynote address at Communications Network’s 2019 annual conference Trabian Shorters explained it this way:
“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.” … 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.”
What this means is that if your organization just released a statement affirming that Black Lives Matter, in order to be an advocate, you have to change the stories you’re telling. You need to tell stories that begin with the aspiration of the individual, rather than the hurdles they face because doing so primes our brains to feel a shared sense of aspiration rather than pity. It changes the power dynamic.
In the stories you tell, the individual, rather than your organization, must be the hero. As Shorters explains:
“A black student striving to overcome a threatening environment and graduate” is a more accurate description than the ‘at-risk youth’ label ever implies.In the first framing, we acknowledge that the youth is a student and the student’s hopes for herself are threatened by the system in which she lives.That’s reality, and in that reality, we are primed to fix the system rather than stigmatize the aspiring student.”
It’s time to tell different stories. Here are four great resources to learn how to do so:
- “You Can’t Lift People Up by Putting Them Down: How to Talk about Tough Issues of Race, Poverty, and More” by Trabian Shorters, Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 26, 2019
- How to Tell Compelling Stories While Avoiding Savior Complex and Exploitation, by Abesha Shiferaw, Rainier Valley Corps’ Changemaker’s Blog, April 4, 2018
- Telling a New Story: A Collaborative Checklist for Social Justice Leaders Using Narrative Strategies for Change, The Opportunity Agenda
- Talking About Racial Equity in Education, The Frameworks Institute
Do you have another favorite resource? Share it in the comments below.
Should You Publish a Statement of Solidarity, Support, and Action?
Read Mission Minded’s Black Lives Matter solidarity statement