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6. Acknowledging the Assets and Contributions of All: Rejecting Deficit Framing

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 20-25 Minutes

In the MLMs, we have been sharing information with you about how the inequalities in our society linked to race, ethnicity, gender, and other identity categories affect people’s experiences and opportunities. The media regularly highlights these issues -- as do advocacy organizations working toward solutions. So why does it often feel like we are not making progress or even that problems are getting worse? Part of the challenge is that the way issues of inequality are raised can make a huge difference in whether people feel inspired to work toward change (whether it is our own group or not) or as though nothing will ever get better. Consider the paragraphs below:

High school students in Newark, New Jersey learned about law and astronomy, painted murals, and worked on urban farms as part of a wide array of summer programs.  These programs - some hosted by the local government and others by the private sector - had waiting lists of several hundred students who had hoped to participate.     

Several hundred teens in Newark, New Jersey were denied an opportunity for summer programs.  Neither local government nor the private sector provided enough spots for teens to participate in summer programs in law, astronomy, mural painting or urban farming.  

The information in the preceding two short paragraphs is the same -- both discuss the need for more opportunities for young people in summer groups in Newark, New Jersey.  But each is likely to elicit a very different take away from readers.  The first tells a story of students learning, painting, and working on farms -- in programs so popular that more spots were needed.  The second tells a story of teens denied opportunities and of government and the private sector failing them.  

Research by Tyrone Howard and others suggests that the second story is unlikely to lead to more support for summer programs for teens -- but also may actually trigger negative stereotypes about these young people linked to race and poverty.  Why? The second paragraph focuses on the failure of government -- a dominant narrative that is easily accessed in people’s brains -- and of teens with nowhere to go -- also a common negative narrative..

Why would such simple differences matter?  Because how we frame stories has enormous power to determine how our brains process information.  We invite you to view this video by Trabian Shorters entitled Who Do We Think We Are talking about asset framing (language that recognizes areas of success and potential across lines of difference), as opposed to deficit framing (a lens that focuses on stigmatized groups as “broken”).   In this MLM, we argue that to address inequalities in our society meaningfully, we have to avoid viewing particular groups as “problems” and instead, recognize the strengths and potential of all groups and ensure that we all have opportunities to realize our goals as we define them.

  1. How does deficit thinking inform how we’re often taught to think of how people reach success or even what is considered success (think about narratives about college and careers)?
  2. What latent messages are young people receiving about the communities that they belong to/the identities that they hold? 
  3. What are some examples of deficit thinking that have shown up in your life?

The key to understanding how asset framing works is to recognize that narratives are as Trabian Shorters argues “the key to how we frame our lives.”  According to research in neuroscience, we know that our brains are designed to learn from narratives and that through narratives, we make sense of the world, other people, and ourselves.  

This means that when the narratives constantly recounted about particular groups such as Black and Latinx young people are persistently negative, these narratives stick -- both for outsiders and young people themselves.

The alternative is not to pretend that inequalities don’t exist or that there aren’t challenges to address, rather, it is to identify the counter-narratives that are true to people’s experience as well.  This can mean inviting young people to describe themselves and how they view their own assets.  What in their home, school and their neighborhoods has been important and valuable.  Efforts such as the Counter Narratives Project invited young people to share what they believe contributing to their success -- not limited to “traditional notions of ‘high-achieving,’ meaning grades and test scores, but on what the real difference makers were in their schools, homes and communities.” 

In thinking about what it means to engage in asset based framing, the following chart can be helpful to start to unpack the difference.

"Comparison Between Asset and Deficit Based Approaches"


Whether popular culture portrays our groups primarily through asset frames or deficit frames -- not surprisingly -- matters.  People in the dominant group are shown in popular culture as heroes, villains, intellectuals, athletes, deeply distressed, serenely happy -- in other words in the full range of being people.  So if you are a member of the dominant group, you see people who look like you all the time.  By contrast, popular culture has tended to under-represent, marginalize, and caricature members of nondominant racial and ethnic groups, using caricatures and stereotypes rather than fully developed, unique characters.  For a vivid example of this tendency (that also shows how wrong the stereotypes are!), we refer you to this short video, African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes.  These stereotypes have the potential to affect both interpersonal interactions and political decisions.  

It may seem unlikely that popular culture can really have such direct effects, but a study conducted by the National Hispanic Media Coalition (bolstered by a range of other studies) shows the risks. 

As the chart shows, the deficit frames used in narratives are closely reflected in attitudes.  If you are in the dominant racial group, think about how it feels to be part of a group so regularly seen as a criminal -- and how it would have felt as a young person.

We are now in an era in which the range of options for what we watch is incredibly robust and so we can make affirmative choices that give us an opportunity to see both our own groups and other groups shown in complex ways.  The goal is not to watch only positive or sympathetic portrayals of various groups, but instead to seek opportunities to see different groups portrayed through a lens of assets and potential rather than fixed deficits.


How have you seen your own group framed -- generally through an asset or deficit frame?  How do you think this has affected how you view yourself?  

When you are thinking about describing groups other than your own, think about whether you generally use an asset or a deficit frame?  If you have been using a deficit frame, what do you need to learn about other groups to be able to genuinely use an asset frame?

If you haven’t had the experience of being framed through a deficit lens, please take time to reflect on how it may feel to see yourself portrayed through this lens. In thinking about this as a lived reality for many, how might you support someone across lines of identity difference for whom this is salient?


Understanding the difference between deficit and asset framing is crucial to prevent against describing groups as “problems” to be fixed.  Even if you are part of a group, it can be a default instinct to focus on “deficits” rather than seeing group and individuals through strengths, recognizing the structural obstacles that people have had to overcome.  

Often people who are in the position of “helping” or “supporting,” are particularly vulnerable to deficit framing even with the best of intentions.  As a mentor, it will be crucially important that you communicate that you see your mentee’s assets -- and your mentee’s own views about how they want to develop going forward. 

Almost done, click here to finish MLM #6!