When he was at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Trabian Shorters wanted to find ways to get black men more involved in the civic life of their neighborhoods. So he surveyed 2,000 black men in two cities — Detroit and Philadelphia — to see how they were spending their time.
The results were eye-opening.
All of them were already involved with their communities — as mentors, coaches, chaperons and chauffeurs, in churches and schools, as employers giving opportunities to ex-offenders, who in turn were helping to steer youths away from prison.
“We had started out with the same negative perception as anyone else, that there is a problem with black men that needed fixing,” Shorters said. “But then we find all of these unsung heroes. We have all of these black men not getting credit for being part of the solution while, at the same time, the black man is being viewed by society as a poster child for the problem. That was stupid.”
So Shorters decided to create a new kind of funding network — called the BMe Community (for Black Male Engagement) — that supports the unsung hero, the black man who labors without pay or public recognition for the common good.
The BMe Community, which Shorters spun off from the Knight Foundation in 2013, operates in six cities and has funded the community-building activities of 194 black men so far. He is looking to open an office in the Washington area and talked about his ideas at a BMe Community event recently held at the Newseum in Northwest Washington.
“When we looked at the kinds of things black men were doing, we saw that they are taking the initiative in places and with people where nobody else could have,” Shorters said. “They were thriving in the kind of environments where others could not have survived. We have to understand that it takes a certain genius to be able to do that. We have to value that. It’s a not a job; they don’t do it for money. But imagine how much more they could do if money was no object?”
Such men may not be widely known, but they are well known to those whose lives they touch. Through the BMe Community website, the men can be nominated for grants and awards. Their stories can be told, the information subjected to crowdsourcing and the nominees invited to meet with BMe funders.
Alaina C. Beverly, director of Urban Policy at the University of Chicago who attended the event at the Newseum, said she was impressed.
“By putting the emphasis on black men as assets and not deficits, it changes how you see the black community,” Beverly said. “You realize that talent, creativity and dedication are the norm and that all the pathology you hear about is really the aberration. Changing the perception makes it easier to see how we can improve not just the black community but also society as a whole.”
Funding for the BMe network comes from any person, business or foundation that shares the vision of the community. Nathaniel Crawford, a Realtor with Turnberry International Realty, supports the network that serves the Miami area where he lives.
“There are a lot of people who like to talk about doing things to help the black community but don’t want to put the money where their mouth is,” he said. “I’m not one of them.”
Neither is Shorters.
At age 50, he has an impressive track record as a doer. A gifted student from a not-so-well-to-do neighborhood in Pontiac, Mich, Shorters won a scholarship as a 10th-grader to the private Cranbrook School in the state. He went on to graduate from Michigan State University and moved to the District, where he was part of a group of youth activists who helped write legislation creating AmeriCorps during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
He also founded TechWorks for Good, a nonprofit technology support network in the District. He went on to be the director of Ashoka US, which funds outstanding social entrepreneurs. As vice president for communities at the Knight Foundation, he managed a $300 million grant portfolio and developed a new approach to community engagement and transformation called “asset framing.”
He explained why the framing matters.
“Everybody has challenges, but if you define a person by what challenges them, you stigmatize them,” Shorters said. “Stigmatizing makes you ignore the positive attributes. It makes you see the problems as being worse than they are, and it makes you underestimate your ability to do anything about it. Black people have been stigmatized this way, black men particularly.”
Even among otherwise progressive, forward-thinking whites, black people are viewed in terms of problems, he said.
“I’ll say to them, ‘Okay, you know a lot about what’s wrong with black people but can you tell me anything about the positive side of the narrative,’ ” Shorters said. “And they can’t. Not a single word.”
The BMe Community wants to change the narrative of what is going on in the black community and all the good being done by black men that is worthy of support.
“In our telling of the story, the black man is the subject, not the object,” Shorters said. “We are the doer, not the ones that are being done to.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.