Advance the Assets by Decreasing the Deficits

Asset framing defines people by their assets. You’ve got to say, what is it we’re investing in?
We’re not investing in poverty.
Who invests in poverty?
You’re investing in people’s aspirations;
you’re investing in people’s will
to make a better future
for their children or their community
— those are things that are investable.

Trabian Shorters

I see this in philanthropy and in the public sector. I see this in business and nonprofits. We are all trying to solve problems, and the negative lens dominates. We see the negative and then we’re going to fix it. If we have visions of something more positive, we get criticized for blue sky ideals. We have to be problem solvers. We have to be fixers. We adopt a mindset that characterizes things in the most negative light –so that when we fix it–the bigger difference we can make. We always seem to be incented for short term wins over longer term successes. 

So when we’re talking about society’s ills or a crisis, we are talking about minimizing damage. Putting big, improved band aids on the issue. And as the adage goes, “When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.” And we just like pounding away at solutions.

I have been a fixer and problem solver. I am guilty of this negative bias to raise money, to attract investors and to set the criteria to grant money out. This negative narrative that unwittingly and inextricably stereotypes people and populations. 

My mindset, my awareness, and increasingly my actions have been influenced by many positive influences that make me conscious of the holistic possibilities. To disabuse me of the negative forces that try to make me forget about the uniqueness and preciousness of every human. And the universality of our needs and interests. 

Positive psychology: Traditional psychology focuses more on the causes and symptoms of mental illnesses, stress and anxiety. Positive psychology pursues what positive experiences, traits and institutions help people flourish. This is an asset based and driven discipline. Less about reducing pain, which is important, more about what makes people thrive and provides pleasure to life. I enjoy the shift these thinkers, classes and books have given me. 

Holistic medicine: I have found Western medicine as very reactive, treating disease and other ailments as they arise. Eastern medicine provides more preventative care that works to make sure all body systems such as the immune, nervous and digestion systems are functioning well. There is a real focus on your energy, where it is strong and where it is depleted. When whole-body systems are not working properly or in disharmony, can explain the underlying cause of diseases. My new blending of these medical perspectives have me more attuned to my systems and the role my mind has in my health. 

Seeing the parts in the whole. Not being distracted by symptoms to understand the system. Looking for the positive forces that are pushing people up and towards their potential and aspirations. 

I see this more clearly in the people I meet and the organizations I encounter. 

I now add the work of Trabian Shorters. His advocacy and tools to evaluate and build asset framing narratives that guide action are so compelling and needed. Especially in the field of philanthropy.

The words we use, are deeply negative and that negativity which builds a narrative of negativity cements our views of how we see people and communities. Call it bias. Call it racism. Call it ignorance. But we tend to use negative narratives  to feed the way we view the world. When we talk about “vulnerable”, “at risk populations”, “poor”, “marginalized communities” “mentally ill”. These are not positive thoughts. Right?

Each time we use these labels a negative pixel of an image gets installed in our brains. The face of “poverty”, “at risk” and “vulnerable” gets burned into our neural pathways. And then we see that population defined by deficits. They are poor, criminal and needy. We assign a blame to the community. The attempt to rescue people in need can denigrate an entire group. 

This is not about political correctness. This is about seeing both sides. The symptoms and the inherent potential. Why we are investing. Not just to reduce the suffering to but to enable the potential we know exists. To reduce the deficits and to build the assets. And to understand the aspirations of every population and every person. 

We want people to have housing, go to college, get jobs, and fully contribute to the community because we all benefit. We all benefit when more of us realize our aspirations and become our best selves. We know that within every human being there is an infinite set of possibilities. That have been stunted, prevented, arrested and debilitated by the systems and beliefs and institutions of our society.

We must humanize these labels, these words we use to limit the understanding of others. They are people. People who have obstacles that impede their pursuit of their aspirations. After all, we all want the same things. We all have the same overlapping dreams. Our hope for the future, for our kids and their kids—it is all so aligned. This is the asset. The asset is the ability to realize a dream– our dream. Investing in this universal human potential. Enabling everyone to have that chance. 

We have to continue to invest in mental health, poverty reduction, housing and healthcare, education, mentoring programs, the arts etc where the needs are greatest. Not to just to reduce suffering, or to “mainstream” people. Not just to satisfy basic human needs. But to enable the unexpressed potential of an individual and a community to be released. Yes, to increase the workforce, consumers, voters, and leaders. But to unleash new human energy into our world that will enable all of us to thrive and flourish.

An asset based narrative can change minds, change policies, change culture and change the way we think about and treat each other. 

Thanks for reading. John

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