Recently, I was reading program descriptions and program plans which included goals. As always, I was impressed with and proud of what afterschool program staff are able to accomplish and what they strive to do. One thing gave me pause. Deficit language reared its ugly head in more than a few of the program descriptions and plans. I realized that as a field we often talk about using a strength-based approach in our program activities and in our relationships with youth and family. Yet, we have had little discussion about how to carry over that approach to the way that we communicate.
Being committed to using strength-based communication is a good start, but you will likely need more. With a bit of poking around, I found a couple of strong resources that could get you started. You might be wondering, what is strength-based communication? It is an approach to communication that focuses on the strengths and assets of individuals and groups (e.g., students, parents, etc.) rather than on their needs and deficits. Strength-based communication can be an extension of the strength-based approach that youth development programs use with their youth and families. It can be used in communications directly with youth and families (e.g., newsletters), in funding proposals, in annual or evaluation reports, in presentations, on social, and other types of media.
A few guidelines that will help your communications become more aligned with the strength-based approach are below. I learned them from perusing A Progressive’s Style Guide and this blog post, How to Create a Guide to Strength-Based Communication for Your Nonprofit.
- Use person first language. For example, use students with disabilities in place of disabled students.
- Use active voice. For example, you can change the sentence, “The student was asked to take a survey” into active voice by naming who asked the student to take the survey. With this change the sentence could read, “The Site Coordinator asked the student to take a survey.”
- Honor self-identification by ensuring that you are referring to individuals or groups in the way that reflects their identity. This is one reason why sharing pronouns is important. If you are unsure how a person self-identifies, it is better to ask than to assume.
- Uphold clarity by using proper nouns as needed. Overly relying on words like “it,” “this,” or “that” to refer to key concepts can confuse people and obfuscate your core message. Too often, these words are used to tip toe around the person, system, or organization that oppresses.
- Normalize challenges and emphasize supporting, rather than saving people. At some point, we all face challenges and will need support to help us navigate them. Too often, we read a story of a challenging situation that shows that a program “saved” someone. The strength-based approach names the challenge and the support while highlighting the strengths that the person used to become successful.
- Respect and invite the voices and experiences of the people you serve. A strength-based approach invites people to share their own stories. It also seeks to include people so that they have influence over how they are portrayed and how their stories are told.
Check out this blog from Prosper Strategies to see a few strong examples of strength-based communication. The Idea Bank developed by Native Education Collaborative offers a more comprehensive example of how to use strength-based communication when talking about specific communities.
Bringing strength-based communication into your organizations will likely be an ongoing process. As you learn more, you will continue to make changes. When you are ready, I encourage you to take a look at How to Create a Guide to Strength-Based Communication for Your Nonprofit. It provides a step-by-step approach to making a tailored guide for everyone in your organization to use strength-based communication.
My breakfast awaits! Scrambled eggs, broccoli, and blueberry yogurt!