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‘Living is a ministry’ — a conversation with Trabian Shorters

The CEO of BMe Community talks about how the stories we tell each other create the world we live in

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Trabian Shorters is the CEO of BMe Community, an award-winning network of innovators, leaders and champions who invest in aspiring communities.

Trabian Shorters is the CEO of BMe Community, an award-winning network of innovators, leaders and champions who invest in aspiring communities.

Trabian Shorters

Editor’s note: This Q&A has been adapted from the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” Patel is a Deseret contributor.

How do people thrive? My friend Trabian Shorters believes we begin by viewing ourselves as contributors, full of assets and aspirations. Shorters is the CEO of BMe Community, an award-winning network of innovators, leaders and champions who invest in aspiring communities. He is also one of the leading advocates of a view called “asset framing” in the diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, movement. 

We spoke recently about how we can use language to lift people up, and why he sees his work as a ministry.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Eboo Patel: You often say, “You cannot lift people up by putting them down.” It’s one of my favorite lines and I quote you all the time. Unpack it for us.

Trabian Shorters: Actually, where that got popularized, it’s the headline to an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. I really should credit Stacy Palmer who edited that piece and runs the Chronicle, but the concept (is) human beings are much more narrative-driven than we give ourselves credit to be. Whichever way you introduce somebody or some place or something frames the way that your brain categorizes them. You literally can’t lift someone up by putting them down. 

If you introduce someone by either threat or challenge or problem or whatever, your brain categorizes them as potentially harmful … like a spider or rat, or something that could pose a danger to you. 

EP: Can you give some examples of language we use for human beings that we think is helpful, but which our brain categorizes as harmful or potentially harmful? 

TS: Oh, there’s a ton of them. Really common terms like homeless, disadvantaged, underserved, at risk, high poverty, bottom of the pyramid. Basically, any of the bottom, unders, exes, all those defined in contrast with the deficit-oriented ways of engaging people. Your brain basically does two things immediately when it encounters anything, really — it reads for familiar, and it reads for potential threat. If something is familiar, you treat it like it’s basically safe, and if something is not familiar, then it’s treated as potentially harmful. All those terms, essentially, literally dehumanize. 

EB: This is the language that is increasingly standard in the world of positive social change — I’m thinking marginalized, oppressed. 

TS: There you go. 

EB: If you go to college and you are interested in social change, you will learn that language as the standard language, the language that our brains categorize as threat language. 

TS: Yes. Probably the better way to understand it is, obviously people use this language because (they’re) trying to draw attention to the problems that they think need to be fixed. The motivations are all good, and that’s what I’m saying. We underappreciate the power of narrative, and we underappreciate that the ways that we introduce something, the ways that we tell that story, triggers so many of our responses that we believe that the way to draw attention to problems is to dramatize the center of the problem. 

In centering the problem, yes, you draw attention to it, because we are hardwired to respond to threats, but right now, the way these associations work is when you use that language over and over and over again, you make compound associations with any group, (so) that every time you say the name of that group, all those associations come with it.

If the only associations that get heavily repeated are negative ones, then this group becomes something or someone that you are literally physiologically hardwired to want to either avoid, control or kill. 

You have your threat response. That’s the problem. We’re trying to do good things because we don’t understand the power of mental narrative. We do it by stigmatizing the people at the center of the question, such that even if you win the resource you’re trying to attract, and you can think of any groups, you fill in the blank. You dramatize whatever it is around whatever group it is, and you win your campaign against their marginalization, against their oppression, whatever, you win. Just recognize you’ve won by writing them into the public narrative as a problem. That’s the way they will always be referenced when the name comes up. 

EP: There’s a science behind this, and you use the language of science: framework, mental narrative, brain chemistry. Explain the science behind this. 

TS: I started doing this work when I was at the Knight Foundation. I started this company, BMe Community, and it was based on research into culture change. What we came to realize is narrative change is called to change meaning. Literally, the stories we tell each other create the world that we see, literally. Studying the work of Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Tversky and others, we came to appreciate what I said to you before. They were far more narrative-driven than we realize. The main sciences that we employ or invoke are: cognitive science, social science and something I call cultural psychology. 

The main tenet is this belief that human beings are rational decision-makers is a cognitive illusion. We are not. There are too many variables to track to be rational decision-makers. Anytime you give a human being a complex question, we instantly do this thing called substitution. You ask someone “Who’s the right person to be president of the United States?” How are they supposed to know what goes into the job of being president? There are too many things to consider.

Instead, you instantly subconsciously substitute the question you can answer: Who do I like the most?  “Oh, OK. I like this one. I like that.” Now we’ve got our answer. That inductive process happens instantly, and then what we tend to do is we find the facts to fit our inductive conclusion. That’s why you can see people who encounter a situation have two entirely different responses to it, is because one person is operating from one narrative, the other person is operating from a different narrative, and they will lean on the facts that sit with their intuition has told them to see. That’s why when you’re priming people’s intuition with negative association, you’re going to lose before you begin. You cannot build equity by denigrating those at the center of the equity conversation. 

EP: Do you see what you’re doing as a ministry? 

TS: Oh, totally. To be fair, living is a ministry. It’s all ministry, really. Again, because if you believe that the spirit world is the real world … how you manifest is your ministry, and ministry itself is just caring, feeding of spirits, right? 

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” The full episode of this podcast is available on Interfaith America, Spotify and Apple. New episodes are released every Tuesday.