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Could asset framing transform us?

By Kathryn Sharpe

What if the language that we use as we try to advance equity and inclusion is actually denigrating the very people and communities with whom we are seeking to work? How does the story that we tell about young people affect the ways that we engage with them? Asset framing is a cognitive framework that addresses these questions and which I have recently found to be deeply impactful for me as both a youth work professional and as an individual.

Asset-based language was first developed in the educational sector, and Search Institute pioneered a focus on developmental assets in youth development. But recently, asset framing has been championed by Trabian Shorters, the founder and CEO of the BMe Community and a thought leader in bringing this concept to the world of business and philanthropy. He states that it is “defining people by their aspirations and contributions, before you get to their challenges.”

He explains that no one goes around thinking of themselves as vulnerable, high poverty, underserved; this is not how people envision themselves facing the world. But these are precisely the kinds of words I know that I, my organization, and many other well-intentioned folks have used when trying to describe the work we seek to do, especially when trying to convince funders to support it. The problem is that this deficit-framing language, and the perceptions behind it, frame people as objects in their lives, not the protagonists, and sometimes imply that they are part of the problem. When faced with deficit language, our brains will automatically associate the problems a community is facing with the traits of the people in the community, rather than recognizing the systemic disparities that are often the causes of the challenges. A deficit approach perpetuates a narrative of the need for charity or external saviors to fix their problems.  

In contrast, when you start with someone’s aspirations, your brain immediately associates them with worthiness. It is then easier to see that the person is not the problem, but the problem is the situations or systems that block those aspirations. This narrative relates to a community as empowered to lead change with their strengths and it amplifies their voices. Rather than seeing them as recipients of charity, it honors the work of the community to lead change and address issues.  

Shorters identifies three elements in the asset framing process: 

  1. What do you think about them? It is not just a question of language, but first of your internal thoughts. “Is your first thought about them one that affirms the spirit of the person in front of you?”
  2. Are you introducing people by their aspiration or contribution? “How you introduce a subject frames the subject.”
  3. What is obstructing their aspirations and contributions? “…[T]he reason why it’s so important to include the challenges is because if you just try to focus on the positives, then you’re going to ignore or diminish or negate the legitimate, systemic obstacles that people have.”

One key to asset framing is understanding that we are not only talking about words. Transforming the narrative actually transforms the way that our brain perceives people and situations, and therefore fundamentally shifts how we relate to them.

For people interested in advancing equity in youth development, there are endless practical applications for this approach as we work with young people, their families, and community partners. One tangible place to start is in how we think and talk about them. For example, rather than seeking funding for a program “to help youth at risk of dropping out”, instead “support resilient students to achieve their dream of graduation”. And even more importantly, we need to examine our inner attitudes and beliefs to make sure that we are approaching the youth and communities we engage with all the dignity and honor they deserve, and partnering with them to uplift their strengths and respectfully address the challenges they face.  

What language are you or your organization using to describe your participants, and what (and whose) values do they reflect? Where do you see opportunities to transform the narrative you tell about the youth and families you work with to a more empowering perspective? In what ways can you ensure that success and impact are defined by the affected community members, rather than by organizational goals or outcomes?

-- Kathryn Sharpe, Extension educator

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  1. Great food for thought! I often think about asset framing particularly as it relates to people first language. I think in a lot of ways the thought process is similar, that by defining a person, or community, by what they can do you see the person in a more positive light. However, it makes me wonder if asset framing is then also prone to some of the critiques of person first language. Does assets framing remove or distance people from the societal events that have shaped their world view? The video addresses the idea that these labels aren't how people consider themselves, but I might push back on that slightly. I know a lot of college students in particular who would identify themselves as low-income or broke.

    I also wonder if asset framing in someway furthers the idea of what good and bad values are to have. Reframing the narrative to shift towards aspirations of graduation, doesn't change the mental image that dropping out is bad. I think this really ties into your first point, what do you think about the person and is that affirming to who they are .

    Critiques aside, I think asset framing can be really useful! I think your final question is key, how do we center the community and those affected by the program. Asset framing to me is really helpful in this because the positive narrative removes the savior mindset. Our program isn't going to rescue anyone, but it is going to be a tool someone can use to achieve their goal. I think asset framing can also help bring the community into the narrative because it poses the question of how can I help. There aren't preconceived ideas about why people are dropping out, because the goal is to help students graduate. So the first question isn't about how to fix something, but instead directly asking the community what do you need.

  2. Thank you so much for your incredibly thoughtful response, Mikayla! This topic new and of great interest to me, and one of the things I most appreciate is other people helping me to push back on it, examine the possible limitations, and helping me deepen my own approach to it. Indeed, your points are so astute. In particular, I appreciate the comparison with person first language, and your question, "Does assets framing remove or distance people from the societal events that have shaped their world view?" You are so right that some people by their own choosing want to center an aspect of their identity that may be considered marginalized because they want the world to relate to them in context. For many people, it also can be a way of reclaiming and transforming a negative narrative about a word or identity into a source of empowerment. It occurs to me that when people do this, they may actually be doing their own internal asset framing, in a sense. I think that also ties into your point about assigning judgments to values--people may re-claim their own decision to establish their own priorities. Both of these shifts are addressed if we truly, humbly listen to people as they identify themselves, as they name their own aspirations (not ours for them), and as they describe the challenges they face. Thank you so much for helping me deepen my thinking on this!

  3. Thanks for the post, Kathryn. I agree, our natural tendency as human beings may be to categorize others based on their circumstances. The language that we use matters--it not only reflects our inner thoughts, but it also influences how other view us and the people we're talking about. I've seen this in action--for instance, making a habit of talking about the 4-H program as 4-H youth development has begun to transform how people view the program and what it's about. We can do the same when we're talking about people. It has the effect of transforming our own inner views as well.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jess. You capture very well one of the things that most interests me about asset framing--we can use it as a cognitive discipline to train our minds with new pathways, and those in turn can truly transform how and what we see in the world. Our brains look for the things we tell it (including through language) are important. Your example of adding "youth development" when talking about 4-H even unconsciously prompts people to look for the youth development happening, not just the competition at county fair, for example. But most important is your last line--"It has the effect of transforming our own inner views as well." Yes, yes and yes. Where else have you seen examples where this occurred?

  4. I so appreciate the idea of asset framing. You are very right in how we, as youth development professionals, and most other people don't really think about the impacts of how we refer to people individually or collectively. Instead, we push our labels and beliefs about them onto them often negatively, even when well intentioned. Part of this conversation is also about intent vs. impact and how these don't always align between the person sending and the person receiving a message.

    In my passion work around disabilities, I prefer to refer to it as working with "youth of all abilities" vs. youth with disabilities, special needs or any other term. I'm pretty sure that people on work teams with me probably get tired of me sharing this view. :) As a parent of these young people, I realize that I may have a different view of language related to how we frame ourselves and others. Using asset framing language is a great way to focus on and hopefully, be able to better utilize peoples' strengths vs. looking at their deficits.

    Thank you, Kathryn for bringing attention to this valuable topic and helping us all think more about how we frame people and the impacts that it can have!

  5. Darcy, thank you for sharing this wonderful insight! I truly appreciate it, especially given how much thinking you have done about both at work and in life. You have shaped how all of us see accessibility, and I really love (and will adopt) the language of working with youth/people of all abilities. And you are spot-on about the question of intent vs. impact--I don't think any of us set out in youth work saying, "I am going to try to denigrate this young person." But that can indeed be our impact. We have to attend very closely to how people understand and describe themselves, and to centering the wholeness of their personhood. Thanks again for this rich insight.


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