The Opposite of Deficit-Based Language Isn’t Asset-Based Language. It’s Truth-Telling.

Person in sweatshirt with positive message, asset based
Photo credit: Christian Mayrhofer, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

How do you describe the people you work for and with, or the neighborhoods you work in? Do you use primarily “deficit-based” language like “distressed,” “at-risk,” “vulnerable,” “blighted,” “high crime,” “concentrated poverty”? If so, you’re in good company—terms like this are ubiquitous throughout the field (including in Shelterforce).

It was more than 20 years ago that John Kretzman and John McKnight introduced the idea of asset-based community development, which encouraged community developers to try to counteract these kinds of narratives by identifying the strengths of the places they are working—social networks, history, small businesses, the talents of the people living there—as the starting place for shaping programs. The idea, and tools it spawned, like asset mapping, have definitely become an important approach throughout the field. But deficit-based language, especially in communications and calls to action, remains.

This can be a problem for multiple reasons, as panelists discussed in some detail in the conversation, “Asset-Based Language: How to Avoid the Rescue Syndrome in Our Communications” at the 2019 Opportunity Finance Network conference in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 21. Emphasizing only negative statistics and disparities tends to “other” the people and places involved—it defines them by their worst characteristics, which no one wants to do, as moderator Katie Coleman from IFF pointed out humorously by asking everyone in the room to introduce themselves to their neighbors using their worst trait.

Deficit-based language also risks reinforcing some of the same negative stereotypes and perceptions that the organizations using the language are actually fighting against, said Mackenzie Price from Frameworks Institute. It can communicate the idea that these are inherent characteristics and not the result of circumstances. It can also contribute to a dynamic where people and places are treated less as partners in a given program or campaign and more like objects of charity. “We end up seeing ourselves as helpers, not partners,” said Jennifer Oldham of The Healing Trust.

These are all very solid arguments, and very legitimate critiques of a nonprofit culture that really does struggle with operating from a position of solidarity rather than charity. Taking the time to lift and celebrate the communities, histories, networks, institutions, creativity, spirit, and strengths of neighborhoods that have long been screwed over and deserve solidarity and reparation is an extremely worthwhile endeavor.

Take for example, the way CityLab’s Brentin Mock describes poet Hanif Abdurraqib’s approach in the New York Times feature “American Road Trip”:

“Abdurraqib introduces and frames each city he visited by how the black people among them are living, in terms of both beauty and struggle. The problems and disparities are present in Abdurraqib’s narrative—gentrification, economic deprivation, disaster, poor protection of queer and trans black folks. But they are carefully couched in tales that speak more to how black people are engaging with and enjoying each other, despite those problems.”

Going Beyond Asset-Based Language

Nonetheless, I was a little skeptical of the framing of this session going in. I wasn’t sure if “asset-based” language was the answer to these problems. Some of the classic examples I’ve seen both didn’t solve the narrative problems and introduced their own. For example, flipping the phrase “at-risk youth” to the phrase “youth eager to learn” in a mission statement is so vague, it’s in danger of being meaningless. Yes, the youth an after-school program works with are absolutely eager to learn and should be honored as such, but so are lots of other kids. Programs that aren’t precise about who they are trying to reach tend to miss their mark in serving the populations who have more obstacles to access.

Perhaps even more importantly, though, using exclusively positive language can have similar kinds of problems with feeding into the “bootstraps” narrative as deficit-based language does—if everything is so great, what’s the problem? Why are we putting resources there? If we don’t name the harm that has been done and assign responsibility, are we really undoing the perception that populations and neighborhoods in trouble brought it on themselves?

General relentless positivity culture has been called out as unhealthy and unhelpful to social justice work, and for good reason.

I was extremely heartened, therefore, to find that the panelists were actually advocating for something much more subtle and powerful than merely using only positive language. They did want us to not lead with negatives when introducing a group of people or a place, and to include those asset-framed stories, which I’m completely on board with, but they weren’t suggesting we pretend there aren’t problems. Their presentation also included a lot of useful communications suggestions about making problems feel solvable and leading with shared values, such as everyone likes to help people achieve their potential. (For more of this sort of thing, see Frameworks Institute.)

However, one particularly part of the approach that the panelists were presenting stood out and seemed to largely resolve the tension I was feeling. And that was their principle “Focus on systems.”

The way to avoid the problem of having the struggles of individual people or places represent something inherent and immutable is to explicitly point out the systems at work—past and present—that cause them. If you’re talking about a problem, use language that reflects that systematic disparities and communitywide problems in fact have systemic causes, that harm has been done, and that these are not self-caused problems, and explicitly describe those systems whenever possible.

“Talk about what the factors are going into the issue,” said Price. “How did we get here? Stats alone don’t tell people why you are sharing that statistic. Don’t forget why you are telling the story.”

She added that when leading with values, we should emphasize values that uphold collective responsibility for solving collective problems. In Frameworks’ work with Enterprise on affordable housing communications, for example, these values included regional interdependence and fairness across places.

“When we focus on the individual,” agreed Ilsa Flanagan of Social Change Strategies, “it’s easy for people to say ‘Why can’t everyone do that?’ Success stories can promote the fallacy of rugged individualism.” Even if you are telling a success story, Flanagan said, take time to spell out the many supports that were required to overcome system-caused obstacles and challenges, and talk about why not everyone can access them.

In fact, when I brought up the question of naming the harm done, Oldham agreed we should, and said that the antidote to blaming the victim was in fact “telling the whole truth.” “Be more specific,” she said. “Yes, it’s more words. Give yourself that space.”

I think this is an extremely important point. It won’t always be easy—we default to commonly understood shorthand for a reason, and I can’t say that I know exactly how to elegantly and succinctly change that in everyday writing. But it’s a goal worth tackling.

Let’s not define people and places by their deficits. But let’s also commit to telling the truth about how those deficits got there.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a valuable article which calls attention to several aspects of the difficulties of how we talk about the people we live with, work with, and work to help. This is a problem which uses up a good deal of the time and energy of our activities, and masks the real issues we are trying to deal with.
    If there has been an auto accident and someone is hurt and bleeding, we have no difficulty announcing by whatever means “There is someone here hurt and bleeding – get help!” If the situation were not described accurately, the needed help might well not come. And the injured person is not going to have a problem with being called “Injured and bleeding”.
    But if the problem is “Poor People” or “Homeless People” we first try desperately to talk around the situation, so no one feels badly or put down, we cannot describe the problem so everyone understands it and total forces can be marshalled to deal with it. In my area, we have a whole City writing off the existence of poor people in the city, although over 25% of the population live below poverty. But no one will talk about it.
    We gotta do better, and be willing to be descriptive. With heart, with feeling, but with accuracy, so everyone knows what we are dealing with. The problem – the societal problem – is so much greater than most people are called upon to recognize, and/or will allow themselves to recognize.

  2. Great piece. However, don’t confuse Asset-Framing with “using positive language” because it isn’t that. We specifically teach that spin, using positive language, relabeling, and focusing on things like “resiliency” aren’t Asset-Framing. Those other techniques are ways of avoiding, whitewashing and patronizing.

    Asset-framing is specifically defining people by their aspirations and contributions before noting their challenges so that it is much easier to see the truth, that their condition is by design not by deficits of character. Asset-Framing is actually necessary for truth-telling.

    For instance: In your city you likely have 25% of the population striving to provide for their families despite living in areas that have been red-lined, gerrymandered, occupied and stigmatized. [You see, define them by their aspiration or contribution before noting their challenge] Simply calling them “Poor people” doesn’t tell that truth, but it does stigmatize them which makes people inherently want to avoid them and the problem without recognizing that – as Rashad Robinson of Color of Change teaches in our BMe Vanguard Fellowship – “their condition is not unfortunate, it’s unjust.”

    When we ignore people’s aspirations and contributions we actually make it easier for the public to dismiss them and the problem as being self-inflicted.

    At a cursory glance, I understand why it can be confused with “using positive language” but it’s not that.

    Asset-Framing makes it harder for system leaders to scapegoat those to whom they are being unjust. When you do it, you neither ignore the problem nor allow your people to be named the problem. You instead tell the truth of the unjustifiable systemic barriers to people’s worthwhile aspirations and contributions. It works.

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