How narratives can shape our identity and inspire action.
Trabian Shorters launched the BMe Community in 2013 with 38 black men in Miami who were seen as community builders by their friends, family and neighbors. Five years later, BMe has operations in seven cities and more than 40,000 members and followers in its growing network. So far, their work has touched the lives of some 2 million people in the neighborhoods they serve.
On the day the first group of men gathered in a room together, Trabian wasn’t thinking about the role of narrative in building a movement. He was facing a circle of three dozen men with different experiences, perspectives and beliefs. Evangelical pastors and Muslim ministers stood side-by-side with LGBT advocates. Trabian wasn’t sure how this gathering would go.
He asked the men to tell their stories. As they did, the group began to find common ground. In his own way, each one of them had committed his time and talents to help make his community stronger. They were driven by hopes for a better future and a sense of responsibility to do their part.
“Discovering shared aspirations and values allowed them to overcome their own differences,” Trabian explained. “Most guys recognized that everybody in this circle had made a similar commitment.” The men of this movement are businessmen, coaches, students, ministers, artists and many others who “build caring and prosperous communities.”
Articulating shared aspirations and values helped the group shape an identity that was authentic, meaningful and motivating. This attracted others to the group who “saw themselves” in BMe’s message and helped to drive BMe’s growth, Trabian explained.
“You have to draw out people’s values and put some language on it,” he said. “So it’s, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s me.’ It becomes an identity.” The language BMe put to the group’s values have become a “credo,” Trabian said. “Value all members of the human family, reject narratives that denigrate anyone, recognize black men as assets, and work together.”
Articulating these ideals gave form to the men’s shared hopes and values, which helped to create a clear and compelling identity for the group. These ideas also serve as rules to live by, shaping people’s attitudes and inspiring them to act accordingly.
“People live into their identity,” says Trabian.
Social scientists who study identity and behavior agree. Expressing hopes and values offers people language they can “see themselves in” and adopt as part of their identity, which equips and encourages them to live up to those values. We seem to be motivated to live up to our ideal versions of ourselves—even when no one else is watching.
This dynamic was documented in an influential study on voting led by Christopher Bryan, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago who studies “the role of the self in influencing attitudes and behavior.”
In one experiment, some respondents to a survey conducted the day before and morning of the 2009 state elections in New Jersey were asked how important it was to them to “be a voter.” Others were asked how important it was for them “to vote.”
Those who heard the question phrased the first way—which “framed voting as an expression of self rather than as simply a behavior”—turned out to vote at much higher rates (10.9% higher) than the others.
In other experiments, children who were asked if they wanted to “be a helper” were much more likely to help an adult with several tasks than children asked if they wanted “to help.” A study on recycling in Arizona found the most effective appeal spoke to a collective identity: “Arizona recycles.”
Research like this shows that we’re motivated to take actions that help us live up to our ideal selves. Messages that help us articulate our ideals help shape our self-image and can prompt us to act according to that aspirational identity.
Trabian believes that articulating a narrative based on shared hopes and values drives the growth of the BMe movement, and also holds promise for changing negative narratives about black men in America.
“They don’t just talk about it; they embody it. They live the narrative,” he said. “It’s actually a motivation for them, to be a counter to that narrative and to celebrate what they are already doing.”