Trabian Shorters

Ashoka Fellow
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United States
Fellow Since 2015
This description of Trabian Shorters's work was prepared when Trabian Shorters was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .

Introduction

Trabian founded BMe to update the narrative about black men in the United States, and to reveal them as catalysts for community building and national social change. BMe connects authentic black male leaders with key influencers across industries and sectors who share their belief in valuing all members of the human family. BMe invites people of all races and genders to become “Community-Builders” as well by sharing BMe’s uplifting content and participating in events and campaigns that create educated children, safer communities, healthier people and economic opportunities – led by black men.

The New Idea

Through BMe, Trabian seeks to reawaken empathy and build community across race and gender groups by presenting black men as the community-builders that they are. As Trabian puts it, black men are perhaps the only ethnic group that have no pro-social stereotype, and this perception has a range of perverse effects on how we view and engage with them. The negative story of the ‘black male threat’ dominates – even among well-intentioned efforts to benefit the black community – despite countless positive contributions black men are making in their communities and beyond each day. Black men serve their country in uniform, support causes, and have been increasing their entrepreneurship at higher rates than all other men but patriotic, generous and enterprising is not how we think of them. The recent high-profile shootings of unarmed black men by authorities are perhaps the most poignant reminder of the urgent need to change course, but their aftermath is also an opportunity because periods of instability are often the ripest for large-scale change.
The idea comes down to three parts: sharing the asset-based narrative about black men’s roles in America as builders, supporting the central characters in that narrative (BMe Leaders) and connecting them within a powerful influencer network (BMe Champions), and doing so in constant partnership with media to amplify the message. What is new and different is both the narrative itself and the entrepreneurial strategy he has designed to give that narrative legs. Other efforts in the field of ‘black male achievement’ are still rooted in the crisis/threat narrative with language of ‘vicious cycles’ and missions to help young black men ‘follow the rules’ and ‘stay on track’. Such language actually reinforces the bias against black males and the perspective that black males need to be neutralized rather than maximized. In contrast the mission statement of BMe is to build caring and prosperous communities inspired by black men. Within this statement is not just a more positive framing but one that acknowledges black men as peers with the same values and goals as the rest of us, and who we can work with and learn from in service of those goals.
BMe then works to connect people who affirm its values, work on a range of issues and affirm the positive role of black men in society. Trabian likens the connecting to building what Martin Luther King Jr referred to as “The Beloved Community” wherein all people are challenged and engaged to be their better selves. At the cornerstone are BMe Leaders (black men changemakers who BMe highlights and supports) and BMe Champions (influencers of all races and genders within philanthropy, business, media, academia, and more) who care about the same range of causes and are given opportunities to build relationships and support one another. The personal relationships formed become a foundation for institutional change. This network becomes an engine for new kinds of experiences wherein black men and boys are active catalysts for an America that values all of its people.

The Problem

The predominant narrative of the black man in America is fed by a negative implicit bias and a self-reinforcing social prophesy of the black male threat. Indeed, except for the occasional celebrity, on the whole, black male Americans are either absent from our thoughts, associated with social problems or perceived as threats. This negative bias primes us to see examples of the negative story, and seeing evidence of the negative story justifies the negative bias. The error in this loop is that the positive traits of the group are consistently ignored, become invisible, and thus the group continues to be defined by its inadequacies and failings.
The narrative matters because people make judgments based on perceptions more than on facts. So perceptions, framing, and narrative have profound effects on people’s behaviors, priorities and decisions. One illustrative data point that underscores the necessity to change course and update narrative is that in 2012 alone, authorities self-reported shooting 140 unarmed black Americans. In over 40% of the shootings, the authority reported that they never even thought the victim had a weapon, but shot because ‘they felt threatened.’ This widespread fear of the ‘unidentified black male’ blunts our empathy to fellow citizens during a period that many are now referring to as the New Jim Crow. Black males who are subjected to mass incarceration are subject to legal housing and employment discrimination and voter disenfranchisement for the rest of their lives.
The narrative persists in part because of the media’s endless appetite for the crisis framework, which feeds divisive conversations and negativity. But the narrative is also maintained by many who work on black male advancement through a lens of fixing the problems of black males, rather than black males building community with others around shared values. Finally, the problem persists because the positive stories too often go unsupported and unnoticed. This is not always because those in positions of power and influence are prejudiced or exclusionary. Often because of the nature of social networks, there are insufficient avenues to build trust and solidarity across racial lines. Building those avenues can be a powerful catalyst for new collaboration, new stories, and ultimately a new national narrative.

The Strategy

Through BMe, Trabian hopes to precipitate a societal mindset shift, starting with a simple ‘asset-framing’ that acknowledges black men for their contributions and expertise on social issues of all kinds, beyond those of the black community. Rather than trying to convince or convert people to this narrative, Trabian implements a strategy of connecting those who already have similar interests and values and who are in positions of influence where they can tip the scales of perception more rapidly. The real power lies in the 1-2% ‘trend setters’ who can then use their institutions and networks to start a cascade. BMe is a platform that convenes these leaders, provides them with meaningful experiences that build empathy and collaboration around shared interests and values, and supports them in amplifying a new set of stories for the public.
Over the last two years, BMe has experimented with its model in four U.S. cities, and Trabian has landed on a 5-step strategic sequence that he replicates wherever BMe goes. The sequence goes as follows:
1. Start with a better story. Wherever BMe operates, they don’t vilify any groups in the story of that city’s future. They state right up front that black males are assets, they care about issues such as youth development, economic opportunity, public safety and more, and that anyone who also cares about those same issues is welcomed to join the BMe Community and work on them together. In 2015 BMe released a best-selling book “REACH: 40 Black Men Speak on Living Leading & Succeeding” in partnership with Simon & Shuster, Participant Media and with support from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and JP Morgan Chase. The 40 intimate micro-biographies by John Legend, Al Sharpton, Talib Kweli, Alfred Liggins and more help all readers to learn how to achieve their own goals from the perspective of community-builders who are black men.
2. Find the influencers who agree. Before BMe launches in a city, they meet with well-connected and influential people of all races and genders (philanthropists, investors, mayors, real estate developers, etc.) to find champions who agree with their messages and values . These are the “Community Champions”. Champions then play a specific role in growing the network, agreeing to share BMe content and bridge BMe and its BMe Leaders to opportunities and new relationships.
3. Recognize the hero of the story. To show that black males are assets, BMe finds and funds 10 men per year per city who come from all walks of life but all share the qualities of being deeply and personally committed to the well-being of others, being authentic, open and brotherly. These are the “BMe Leaders” who lead by example to make communities more caring and prosperous.
4. Tell the new true story of the community over and over. Once BMe has a group of deeply committed men, and Community Champions of all races and genders, they hire a team of writers and content-producers who produce stories about local issues and opportunities for blogs and local press. Topics are timely and topical, and stories always include positive images and examples of black males. Champions agree to share these stories within their influential networks too.
5. Bring people together to work on their shared interests. After running weeks of content on something that is timely and topical, BMe hosts at least one event on the same topic, for example education, or technology for social change. They do so in partnership with Champions and BMe Leaders and invite the public to participate. This raises awareness, creates new connections between people, and of course features black male leaders as changemakers on issues that affect us all. The event usually includes a call to action to the broader public.
Much of the magic of the BMe strategy lies within the connections Trabian facilitates among BMe Leaders and BMe Champions. It is through these links that both groups of influencers become visible to one another, and can begin to support one another as peers. This can take many forms. Last year, BMe Champions provided invitation-only access to everything from private circles to high-level conferences such as SXSW and initiatives and meetings by The White House. Champions include the CEOs major foundations and companies, as well as leaders in government. Again, Champions are not asked change their beliefs – what BMe does is asks them to declare them, and provides them with ways to put those beliefs into practice. BMe makes both easier by providing media channels and stories, and also facilitating shared experiences and collaboration.
All along the way, stories are being generated. Trabian’s media strategy relies primarily on media priming and word of mouth. Media priming happens when BMe identifies journalists and storytellers to highlight the causes BMe Leaders work on and feature black men in constructive roles. BMe focuses on online, emerging and personal media primarily because this is now where the majority of Americans get their information, and because this new media is least resistant to fuller narratives. Meanwhile, Champions commit to being ambassadors of the asset narrative through their actions and through the content they create and share. Because they are leaders that other leaders look to, this primes their peers to follow suit.
Trabian and his team recently began their national REACH Tour wherein he and black men featured in the new book “REACH: 40 Black Men Speak on Living, Leading & Succeeding” hold public discussions about issues touched on in the book and experienced in the cities where the tour takes place. Major leaders in finance, marketing, advocacy, entertainment, education and law have participated in these thought-provoking and revealing public discussions between black men. BMe uses the events to highlight opportunities, identify shared community interests, raise new champions and gauge interest in opening new BMe offices and services to new cities.
Finally, BMe recruits all people to sign-on to the four part values statement that defines a BMe “community-builder.” Once done, they are provided with weekly stories, events, and networking opportunities that feature black males in roles as assets, and importantly, they are asked to share these stories and opportunities with others. The act of sharing is a simple way of reinforcing their community-builder identity. Over the next decade BMe plans to recruit millions of Americans into its network, primed by the 1-2 percent of Leaders and Champions.
BMe’s first 100 Leaders serve approximately 200,000 people per year, it has just over 12,000 community-builders in its database and its content reaches close to 10 million people.

The Person

Trabian has been working towards this idea for his whole adult life. He was born in a factory town that went defunct just before the onset of the war on drugs and the crack epidemic that followed it. He saw his childhood friends become either victim or predator but just as importantly, he experienced society turning its back on him and them.
In the fifth grade Trabian’s teachers discovered he had a genius-level IQ and by the 10th grade he earned a scholarship to Cranbrook, a private boarding high school several miles from his home. The juxtaposition of being raised poor then living with the rich was enlightening. He realized that stereotypes about the wealthy were usually just stereotypes, and that people are just people whom you can’t really know until you know them.
Trabian feels as if he escaped the ghetto holocaust of the 80s and early 90s, and is in fact in the minority of black men on his block who is still alive and out of prison. He became obsessed with the study of the black freedom movement in the U.S. and wanted to learn how to adjust the current culture so that his community could become truly free too.
Trabian has spent the majority of his adult life learning about networks and network theory. He was a mostly self-taught software programmer (aka hacker), one of the original framers of the AmeriCorp national service program, then founder of a D.C. technology network call TechWorks for Good, then co-head of Ashoka U.S. and then Vice President of Knight Foundation’s Community Program. While at Knight he decided to merge his interest and understanding of networks in a way that would be supportive of black people’s aspirations for freedom.
Trabian is guided by MLK’s insight that freedom must be gained for all people if it is to be gained for any. BMe is founded with the belief that black men can, do and must lead in building more caring and prosperous communities for all.