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14 Jan 2021

Narrative Change: An Interview with Trabian Shorters

By Talie Smith

This is the first in a series of four interviews with people I admire about narrative change, which is the idea that when we transform how we tell stories, we can move ourselves and others toward positive action in culture, business, and politics.

Every person, company, organization, and brand develops based on narrative formed early on that guides their path forward. A person’s narrative is influenced by their environment. For a brand or company, the key values and purpose are born out of the founder’s vision or the leaders at the top.

But leaders leave organizations, and new ones take over. Founders grow and change, and their companies pivot with them. Individuals grow out of old beliefs that don’t serve them well. When the world around us or our situation changes dramatically, we are forced to reconsider who we are and ask the question: How has my narrative changed? Or how do I want to change my narrative? These are inflection points that call into question our stories and beliefs and either suggest a change or reaffirm where we are heading.

I co-founded a purpose-driven agency that works with organizations to help them navigate inflection points, craft their core narratives, and then express them through brand, website, and communications. We help our clients see themselves so that others can see them more clearly. A central tenet of our work is articulating a story grounded in truth that also points toward their aspirations.

So, how do we change our narratives? What methods can we use?

To expand my own understanding and appreciation of narrative change, I spoke with four people who help organizations and communities change their narratives.

Trabian Shorters is the founder and CEO of BMe Community. His work centers on building a community of Black leaders, including training them in what he calls “asset-framing.” He shows that how you frame stories about people is linked to their fate in the culture. Instead of speaking about at-risk youth, speak of the brilliance of youth — it makes all the difference. Words have meaning, and Trabian is a communicator determined to tell stories that will create change.   

 Read the full interview below.

Trabian Shorters, Founder + CEO, BMe Community

Me: Can you describe what you do at BMe?

Trabian: My job is to steward our Black leadership community. Our purpose is to usher in an era where leaders pursue racial equity without rooting it in defaming and stigmatizing Black people. My job within that is to be the strategic and operational leader in building this Black leadership community. In many ways, BMe Community is a social network… but maybe it’s more accurate to call it a personal network of Black leaders.

Me:  Can you tell me why you train leaders specifically?

Trabian: We focus on senior executives because they set culture and oftentimes their organizations set temperature for other leaders in their field.

Me:  What is “asset-framing”?

Asset-framing is to define people by their aspirations and contributions. In doing so, we establish a subconscious framework in your mind that the people in question have worth. And because they have worth, you are more inclined to realize their value than what deficit framing causes us to do: to define people by their inherent threat. Deficit framing inclines us to want to minimize or eliminate the threat they represent.

Framing is not about language. It’s not about what you say about people; it’s about what you think about people. So we’re talking about mental narratives, not messaging narratives. We’re talking about the associations you make on a subconscious level.

It becomes very important for the leaders who set culture to have the proper mental frames. The mistake that too many of our executive leaders make is that we seek to eliminate problems rather than help people realize their aspirations.

Me: I’d love to hear an example of how this worked with an organization you’ve worked with. How did you see this actually making a change at the top of leadership?  

Trabian:  Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation’s focus had been specifically on “ending poverty” when they engaged us in their strategic planning process. Their team, under Dr. Sherece West-Scantlebury, has dedicated itself to realizing their mission at higher levels and in deeper ways.

By the end of the engagement, Dr. West credited Asset-Framing with helping them to see that their purpose is not really to end poverty. It is to build prosperity.

To put this in context: if your goal is to end poverty, then if you can get everyone $100 above the poverty line, then technically you can say you’ve “ended poverty”, but does that satisfy your sense of purpose, no.

Conversely, when you focus on an aspiration like prosperity, you have to end poverty on the way to achieving that higher goal of prosperity. But if you only focused on solving poverty, you will never address your higher aspiration of actual prosperity.

This is an example of how you can level-up your impact just by switching from deficit-framing to asset framing.

Me:  What are your biggest challenges in your work?

Trabian: This idea of asset-framed philanthropy and asset-framed leadership is overdue. We’re at a time that absolutely demands this. We want to build narratives more than we want to fix narratives. We absolutely need them. Things are changing fast enough in the world, that if you’re just concerned with fixing things, you’ll never catch up to the rate of change.

Ironically for me, one of the biggest challenges that we see is that foundations and government are the least likely to embrace asset framing. We don’t have that much struggle with corporations. Banks understand they need to treat your customer as though they are valuable. Helping you live up to your aspirations is what they’re about. A lot of companies understand that. But philanthropy? Just the notion that you should help people fulfill their aspirations ends up being a paradigm shift.

That’s why I say that our biggest challenge is inertia; it’s not that people are making evil choices. What is happening is that narratives and narrative frameworks are blinding us to the consequences of our choices.

Me: It can be hard to get folks to face up to difficult reflections in the mirror. The staff, board, leadership, their own personal identity are often tightly wound up with an organization’s identity. In brand work, I have to help folks navigate this. How do you do it?

Trabian: It’s about the story we want to tell. One of the reasons I love narrative-based strategic planning so much is that instead of doing your analysis of your market, and coming up with a product and figure out how to message it, instead you start with the question of what is the story that we want to tell?

Start off by getting your narrative straight, being clear about the moral of the story you’re telling the world, and then you can rudder all of your strategies in a way where your teams are able to remember the what and why. When it’s wrapped in a narrative, our minds are hardwired to follow a story.

I do think the work you’re doing around branding is about storytelling and getting clear about who you are and what story you’re telling.

Me: What keeps you up at night?

Trabian: The U.S. is the wealthiest democracy on the planet and its undergoing an identity crisis. Donald Trump didn’t create the right-wing extreme movement that he rode to victory. That movement is global and includes top leaders in India, Brazil, Great Britain, France and now clearly the US. When the wealthiest democracy on earth and some of the biggest democracies on earth simultaneously begin boldly pledging themselves to a “central-group” nationalism that vilifies their citizens who aren’t in that group and actively breaks democratic covenants then we are on the verge of something super-scary. It won’t simply go away because the US changed presidents. That keeps me up at night.

If we lived out narratives that all human beings are valuable, then I don’t think we could have weakened the interest in democracy to the extent that it has been weakened here and globally.

Me:  Who inspires you?

Trabian:  MLK was absolutely revolutionary. I like to remind people that the Letter from Birmingham Jail was written to King’s allies: the clergy and others who were telling him to call off the marches. Imagine a leader today calling for hundreds of college and high school-aged kids to take to the streets AFTER adult marchers had already been beaten and jailed days before. Media and the public would crucify him as a megalomaniac and worse. But that’s exactly what King did in Birmingham. He was a radical cat who believed in human dignity. We like to refer to Reverend King as “Dr. King,” to divorce him from his divine calling. But everything he did was ministry. And he ministered from the love doctrine of the gospel, which says that God requires us to love one another as God loves us.

When you divorce the sacredness of people from our approaches to justice and equity then you get all these consequences. King’s “Beloved community” concept gets translated into “The Big Tent.” We stop seeing the human family and start seeing only stigmatized caricatures. All policy actions and inactions end up being based on fear and threat rather than love and the power. We ultimately build a culture of disdain and denigration into a word that literally means “love of humanity” – philanthropy.

It’s a big mistake that Asset-Framing prevents.

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