Leaders of successful collective impact initiatives have learned that telling the stories of those they serve is a huge part of garnering community support and engaging stakeholders. But is the way veteran-serving organizations talk about their work alienating—or even disempowering—the very people we’re all working to help?
The language we use to talk about veterans is more than just semantics: The way we describe people triggers associations in the subconscious mind and influences the way we feel about the subject in question. For example, if we call someone a “homeless veteran,” our brains tie those words together in a way that forms an automatic association. The more we hear the phrase, the more the association is reinforced. It may seem like a “veteran who is experiencing homelessness” is just a wordier way of stating what’s true. But the phrase “homeless veteran” makes homelessness—and all of its stigmas—a part of the veteran’s identity. A “veteran experiencing homelessness,” on the other hand, describes a human experiencing a problem.
Trabian Shorters, founder and CEO of social impact organization BMe Community, has pioneered “asset-framing,” a storytelling approach based on the work of social scientist Dr. Daniel Kahneman. Through his work with BMe, Shorters and his program’s fellows encourage philanthropists, nonprofits, advocates, and others to define people by their aspirations, and not their problems or challenges.
To understand “asset-framing,” it helps to understand the current paradigm: “deficit-framing.”
Deficit-framing is seen everywhere from mission statements to “success stories.” By defining a person or community by their problems or challenges, we unintentionally do a few things:
To learn more about Asset-Framing, listen to Trabian Shorters explain the power of narrative, storytelling, and asset-framing in this powerful and disarmingly funny podcast.