Last week at Facing Race, a national conference convened by the Applied Research Center, racial justice leaders spoke about the challenges and opportunities they face as they work to improve the lives of communities of color.
Many of these leaders stressed the importance of finding a way to talk about race that does not alienate white audiences, as inclusive conversation is critical to bring about positive change for communities of color. The challenge is figuring out how to broaden the conversation.
At Fenton, we’ve done a lot of thinking about this over the past couple of years. We’ve been particularly focused on young men of color—including African American, Latino, Asian and Native American—who often find themselves at the shortest end of the opportunity stick in America.
On behalf of clients like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its Forward Promise initiative, Campaign for Black Male Achievement and The California Endowment, we have crafted effective messages and frames to change the conversation about young men of color – from headlines that focus exclusively about how these young men are failing and falling through the cracks to a conversation about how young men of color can be assets to their communities.
To continue to reframe this conversation, we need to solve the empathy deficit. We want the wider public to understand that when significant numbers of young men of color don’t graduate or find a good job, these diminished outcomes impose a cost to all of our communities, not just the young men themselves. We need to shift the perception that young men of color belong to “them” and not “us.”
The conversations coming out of Facing Race will inform new messaging research that builds on our existing work. What we already know is that storytelling has the power to help close the empathy deficit.
Stories remind us that we all belong to families. We’ve all seen parents struggle to raise their teenage boys, no matter what their race. We know that all young people require some things on the road to growing up, including caring adults, safe places to play, good teachers, a good school and the opportunity to get a job.
And we’ve seen storytelling work. We helped young people share their powerful stories at a series of hearings convened by the California Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color between 2011 and 2012.
Joshua Ham from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles spoke candidly about the difficult school climate created by harsh discipline policies that result in California suspending more students than it graduates. He encouraged state policymakers to pass a series of bills that would promote a return to common sense school discipline. Joshua’s story was picked up by broadcast media and contributed to statewide momentum that led California Governor Jerry Brown to sign a majority of the bills this past September.
Stories remind us that our boys and young men, regardless of race, are somebody’s children. Ultimately, this can and should push us collectively as a society to invest in our young people so they can grow up with hope, and more importantly, real opportunity.