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A Conversation with Trabian Shorters

On August 11, The Columbus Foundation welcomed Trabian Shorters, a New York Times bestselling author and international thought leader on an award-winning cognitive framework called “Asset-Framing®” for a special Celebration of Philanthropy event with nonprofit leaders.

While at The Columbus Foundation, Matt Martin, Director, Community Research, had a chance to sit down with Trabian and learn more about his work, and how Asset-Framing is empowering organizations, businesses, and individuals to re-frame the way they think and talk about people.


Click to view the transcript.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

MATT MARTIN: Trabian Shorters, thank you so much for joining us for the 2022 Celebration of Philanthropy. I'm Matt Martin, Director of Community Research for The Columbus Foundation. I'm delighted to have a chance to speak with you today about your work.

TRABIAN SHORTERS: Yeah, I'm excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: For those who might not yet know about your approach, can you give a brief overview of “Asset-Framing” and put your work in the broader context of American history and socialization?

SHORTERS: Asset-Framing is based on an understanding and cognitive science about how human beings actually make decisions. At the root of it is understanding cognition and decision making. It's utility in the social impact space is it turns out that human beings are far more narrative-driven than we've been giving ourselves credit for being. As long as we use fear triggers, threat triggers, crisis triggers to engage people, we're actually creating negative headwinds against the change that we want to make. Asset-Framing explains why that is the case and also gives people a better way to make social engagement arguments.

MARTIN: Knowing that so much of—in our world, the nonprofit sector—knowing that they work so much within a more deficit construct, how, from your perspective, can the philanthropic community be more supportive and understanding of that Asset Framework while also not losing sight of the systemic barriers and challenges?

SHORTERS: Actually, I think that’s why Asset-Framing is so popular—when you realize that anybody in the social impact sector gets into this work because we actually want to make a better society. We care about people. We want things to be better. We want people's dreams to be realized. That's what motivates us to get involved. And then instantly, as you get involved and you're asked, “Well, how do you engage the public? How do you raise money?” You go from this high aspiration, this high value, this creative enterprise to, “Let's talk about everything that's broken, everything that’s backward, everything that’s negative.” People lose sight of the higher aspiration.

So, Asset-Framing, if we were to shorthand it, it's about answering for yourself the question: Do you do this work because you want to solve problems? Or do you do this work because you want to fulfill people's aspirations for themselves in life? When I ask people that question of, “Do you exist to solve problems, or do you exist to fulfill aspirations?” When I say the “do you exist to solve problems” part, people say, “Yes, I exist to solve problems.” And then I get to the second half of the sentence: “Or do you exist to fulfill aspirations?” they’re like, “Oh yeah, that's actually—I exist to do that second one,” and we have to solve problems along the way.

Asset-Framing is actually a truer way, a more consistent way of talking about why we do it. We don't do it just to solve problems. We're not in the—when you really stop and think about it—we are not in the business of solving problems. Our job is to make a higher functioning society. How do we fulfill people's greatest aspirations? How do we make the best nation that we can be? That's what we really exist to do. If you keep that stuff centered, you can engage people from a more aspirational lens, a more inspirational lens, and actually a more accurate lens.

MARTIN: One way I've also heard you navigate that tension is by talking about fixers and builders, and framing them both as positive actors. We really need both. Can you share a little bit about ways you think that fixers and builders can optimize their collaboration?

SHORTERS: Sure. So, this concept of fixing and building, again, comes from fieldwork as well as research. The idea is this: Most people in philanthropy are told that you exist to fix stuff. Fix broken systems, fix communities, fix schools—it's all about fixing stuff. That's what everyone is told that they do. And if you are a fixer, then you have to start the conversation with what is broken. You have to figure out what the problem is. That's why our grant applications say, “What's the problem statement?” Everything is oriented to be problem-focused, problem-oriented, problem-centered.

We observed when I was Vice President of the Knight Foundation that in addition to that sort of fixed focus in the face of crises, there's also people who operate from a more builder orientation, meaning they don't show up to fix what's broken. They show up to build whatever the next thing is. They show up to build better opportunities, build better futures, build better economies. Their orientation is not about the problem. Their orientation is about the aspiration. What is it that they want people to have? What is it they want people to own? What is it that they want people to achieve?

When I'm talking in rooms with different philanthropic leaders, I sometimes ask them, “Are you more focused on fixing or are you more focused on building?” Fixers and builders are both positive actors. The big difference between the two is the fixer is reacting to a problem and the builder is proactive for the better future that they want. And honestly, you need them both. Both are constructive. Both are good. In fact, it's probably misleading to think of them as identities. The more modes—you know, you can be in fixed-mode or you can be in build-mode. But we do tend to have our defaults, right? We default more fix or more build.

We look at the sociological trends, and what we've encountered is we've reached a point where we can't fix things fast enough. When you think about the various problems and challenges and the complexity that we're facing, having a reactive orientation is not serving us. You’ve got to get ahead of the curve. You've got to start to think about what is it that you want to build. Even if you have a fixer orientation, you still have to think about what is it you want to build because we can't fix it at the rate that things are breaking down.

MARTIN: Here in Franklin County, as of a few years ago, the majority of children in our community are kids of color. You've emphasized the fact that we're living in the last majority white generation in America. Obviously, we've seen how that reality can be leveraged in a divisive way. But can you share why you view it as a source of hope and possibilities for the future of our nation and our communities?

SHORTERS: Sure. Yeah. So, America has a lot of unique qualities, one of which is this is a nation of tremendous religious diversity, tremendous racial diversity, tremendous ethnic diversity, and even when you look at national heritages, just amazing diversity. In many regions in the world, the very types of splits that we have, the diversity we have in this country, is why groups are fighting each other. There are places where, you know, folks of competing religious sects actually are fighting in the streets. There are places where people of different racial sects, different national backgrounds, they are fighting in the streets.

Historically, that's not been the norm in the United States. In the United States, this idea of the melting pot or the mixing pot or the mixing bowl, all these metaphors about how you can have the many different types and they're here together, able to coexist. No one pretends that we've done that perfectly well or even justly, but we haven't done it to the point of—or, what is atypical in this country is civil unrest. Civil unrest happens episodically, but it's not a thing that we just live with the way some societies have to live with it.

I raise that to say we actually underappreciate how well we handle diversity. We can certainly do it better, we can certainly do it better. But as a nation, we have some experience with it, and some comfort with it. And so, what's happening is now that we are in the last generation of white majority in the country, we're approaching the point where now it's not enough just to tolerate difference. We have to be able to really embrace it. And the reason why you have to be able to embrace it in the next phase is because, unlike the Civil Rights Era or the Women's Rights Movement where you were dealing with marginalized minorities, quote-unquote, and trying to give them a voice and a seat at the table, that's what was happening 50 years ago. That's not what's happening now. What's happening now is people of color, women, folks who have different gender identities, sexual orientations—this is becoming your emerging mainstream. They're not marginalized groups. They are the mainstream and increasingly will be as we go forward.

And so, learning how to recognize those differences, genuinely value them, not just tolerate them, ends up being the only way that we'll be able to govern effectively. There certainly was a time when you could lead as an isolated, wealthy, usually white, college-educated individual and expect that you had the command of—because everyone else in your circles is going to be pretty similar. Increasingly, that's just not going to be the case. If you are a person who is uncomfortable with more than two genders, learn how to get comfortable because it's not going away. If you're a person who's uncomfortable with folks speaking multiple languages, learn how to speak another language because it's not going away.

That kind of change, I think, is concerning and disruptive to a lot of people. But the good news is the United States is better equipped to work in multinational markets and multiethnic regions than almost any other country on Earth, because we have those ethnicities here. We have the connections going back generations. And so, once we actually learn to appreciate our pluralism, our ability to access markets, our abilities to adapt faster, our abilities to learn quicker, all that stuff expands as opposed to what we have now.

MARTIN: You kind of spoke to this idea, but if you're thinking like a builder, how would you describe the ideal pluralism in this country?

SHORTERS: Well, there are a few things. One, pluralism is a term I'm not sure everyone's familiar with. The way I understand pluralism, it's recognizing that more than one idea can be right at a time. Right? You can be absolutely steadfast in whatever your belief is. Someone can have a diametrically opposing belief, and you can both be correct. That's pluralism. If you believe that only one idea can be right at the time, that's more absolutism. Absolutism leads to extremism. Extremism leads to polarity. So that's the challenge with absolutism. Pluralism requires us to recognize degree, not just polarity, if that makes sense. If you can understand there's a spectrum to ideas and wherever you are on the spectrum, you are correct from your vantage point—but someone from a different vantage point is also correct—if you can accept that premise, then you can be plural in your perspectives about your pluralism.

So, with that definition, I actually think the ideal pluralism is also called democracy. That's what democracy is: I disagree with you. We share our perspectives. We vote our interest. And I respect your choice. Because of democracy, pluralism, I think a high-functioning democracy actually requires you to have some pluralism skills. Otherwise, you and I disagree. You vote your opinion, I lose. But now I'm like, “Nope, I'm still absolutely right and you're still absolutely wrong.” And there's never any resolution. There's never any progress. Until we get stronger in our ability to practice plural perspectives, I actually think the likelihood of great friction will increase. I think the likelihood of division will increase. And it's not because anybody is crazy. It's not because the other side, whoever the other side is, is absolutely fundamentally wrong. It's because we haven't practiced the leadership skill of being able to fundamentally disagree, but also value the other opinion. And that's pluralism.

MARTIN: I want to talk about the BMe Community and to get there, I want to share a little bit about some of the similar work—at least inspired by some similar values—here at The Columbus Foundation. In the last couple of years, we've undertaken a human-centered design approach to solving for different community challenges and barriers. We've done this in partnership with the Stanford and some trained designers, but we've also employed and collaborated with nonprofits and members of the community of co-designed and co-created prototypes to pilot.

Can you share a little bit about how the BMe Community goes about finding the builders and the people who have the trust of their community on the ground? What defining characteristics do you look for? How have you empowered them to be part of designing and implementing better solutions?

SHORTERS: I really love that question. Thanks. So, BMe Community is a community. When people ask what this organization is, I sometimes call it an association so that people can wrap their heads around an association. But that’s not accurate. It's a community and we're very intentional about being a community. The four characteristics that we look for in all of our fellows, in our leadership communities, in our staff, in our board, in our funders, there are four things that we always look for. Number one, authenticity. Number two, high competence. Number three, being build-oriented, and I'll get to that. And then number four, being loving.

It matters that you actually come from a place of love, that you care about people personally, as a person. So, using those four characteristics as our rudder, when we look to do the work locally or in any particular community, we look for the authentic, build-oriented, confident, loving folks who have also earned the trust of their peers. That's the fifth element. And in doing that—and I love that you all use human-centered design, we've done the same thing. We do this thing called community-centered design, which is human-centered design for communities. When it comes to identifying who are the folks who have earned the trust of their peers, their coworkers, and their communities, you just ask. You go on the ground.

So, for instance, sometimes we do these selection committees and on the committee we're required to have someone who's lived in—at least three people who’ve lived in the community for 20 years, and they don't have to have any particular status, but they have to be the ones who have been, like they've seen the changes. In being the ones who've seen the changes, then they know who shows up and who doesn't show up. When you're just thinking about, “How do we build a local coalition? How do we build real collaboration?” Probably the single biggest, non-negotiable, irrefutable element that has to be there is that you have people in the room whom other people trust because they show up. There is no substitute for the proximate leader.

MARTIN: So, you’re a tech entrepreneur.


MARTIN: As a tech entrepreneur, you've probably heard about Intel's plans to build multiple new chip fabs here in central Ohio over the next several years. With, of course, the CHIPS Act investing up to $100 billion in the region over the next decade, we're talking about this a lot here in central Ohio. It's been tough to wrap our heads around the scale of an investment like that. But it's been the topic of conversation since the announcement and, of course, there are all kinds of opinions and projections about the impact.

We know that it's going to either potentially exacerbate or create new challenges in our region as a result of the growth that's going to come with that. But knowing that the impact of something like this will neither be all good or all bad, how could we be thinking about this?

SHORTERS: I think it's important to be clear. Do not confuse this infusion with transformation. I'm a techie, a technologist, and, you know, technology as a word just means new tools. The thing about new tools and the industries related to technology is there are a bunch of different industries. So, what you just described, even though it has the word Intel on it, what you just described as manufacturing, it’s building stuff. That’s what’s coming here, and that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with manufacturing. Manufacturing is different from software, it’s different from comms, it’s different from fiber optic—these are different industries.

The reason why I bring it up is because of how our economy is evolving, the skills that you need to be gainfully employed and to remain gainfully employed are not static skills anymore. The skills that you need, that kids need to develop, are team skills, recombination skills, problem-solving skills, communications skills. And so, I would actually use this infusion to resource preparing our kids for the emerging economy.

I see this infusion as an opportunity to build—going to the builder-fixer thing—to build the economic strength that you’ll need, independent of the Intel plan. This region will be known for producing workers and leaders who adapt and who can shift on the turn of a dime and still keep your economy strong. When you have that skill set and that infrastructure that’s designed to be able to pivot, designed to be able to adapt, then no matter where the economy goes, you can keep going with it.

MARTIN: The last thing I want to ask you about is, The Columbus Foundation, for a number of years now, has sponsored a regular community conversation, a set of community conversations we call The Big Table. You’ve talked about Asset-Framing as an actual skill. So, knowing that there are going to be conversations happening all over the city on a variety of different topics that are meaningful to this community, what would be your advice on how we could start to practice and build skills around thinking in that Asset-Framing way?

SHORTERS: If I were able to speak to leaders generally, the two things that I would encourage them to bear in mind is there is no going back to normal. That's not a, that's not a thing. We're not getting back to the way it was. The faster we can accept that our demography has changed, our politic has shifted, our economy has shifted, the sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can deal with the present and the future. So that's one.

Second, in trying to deal with the present and the future, you cannot expect to be successful using the same methodologies that got you here. It's irrational to believe that doing it the way that we've done it will yield better results. What's working in our favor is, again, if you have some of the basic skills, the fundamental skills related to pluralism, the ability to see people's value, to relate to people about what is valuable about them, what is their contribution, their worth. If you have that skill and you hone that particular skill, then you will literally see resources where other people do not. You'll have relationships where other people can't build relationships.

So, Asset-Framing as a skill is actually very profitable. It's a very profitable skill. When I give workshops and trainings, I often talk about our leaders who apply Asset-Framing to raise more money, to find new investments, to see new business opportunities. Rather than talking about who deserves what and all that, rather than get into that sort of polemic argument, you totally diffuse the deservedness thing because you always start with what makes people worthy. You always start with what makes them valuable.

The people at the center of the question deserve respect. They deserve rights. They deserve the things that they've worked for. People think of Asset-Framing as being nice—it is not about being nice, I promise you. It is about recognizing the value of the person in front of you so that the two of you can achieve your aspirations together in a way that you wouldn't have even considered otherwise.

MARTIN: Trabian Shorters, thank you so much for your time and for bringing your Asset-Framing perspective and these lessons to Columbus and sharing them with our community.

SHORTERS: Yeah, thanks for having me. It's my pleasure.

About Trabian Shorters

Trabian Shorters is one of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs and the catalyst of a national movement to first define Black people by their aspirations and contributions, then to secure their fundamental freedoms to live, own, vote, and excel.

He is a retired tech entrepreneur, New York Times bestselling author, and former Vice President of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation where he was responsible for $300 million in active grants and endowments in 26 U.S. cities. His nonprofit social impact network, BMe Community, is award-winning for innovation, impact, and storytelling and boasts more than 400 Black leaders plus institutional allies committed to building “equity without stigma.”



Sep 19, 2022