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  • Jill Johnson

A Shift in Language: From Victimization and Exploitation to Amplify and Empower

In Summer 2020, I attended the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ ACTcon where Jana Shortal was the keynote speaker talking about storytelling. One of my key take-aways from that, and which still lives on a post-it note on my monitor today, was the statement that “we use stories to amplify, not exploit.” Grantwriting (and fundraising in general) has traditionally adopted a donor-centric practice where writing responds to the point-of-view of the funder and presents marginalized communities as people needing their help, an approach that is perhaps harmful to the greater cause.

Now, the grantwriting field is beginning to respond to the principles of community-centric fundraising, recognizing how exploitative the donor-centric model is, but has quite a way to go. Over the past few years, I have heard peers talk passionately about the great injustices of society and the challenges of making systemic change. However, when I review their grant language, I still find many examples of exploitation of those we serve. There are many adjustments we can make as grantwriters to move away from victimizing communities that are traditionally viewed as marginalized and move away from the damaging practice that perpetuates the donor-centric model.


As part of a recent project, I engaged with a writer to draft a case statement for an organization, and while this is not a grant, it provides tangible examples of where we see exploitative language in our work as storytellers. We wanted three stories to serve as feature pieces in the case statement. For one of these stories, the (external contract) writer, a white male in his mid-60s, interviewed a program participant, a Karen refugee male in his early-20s. The initial draft provides discernable examples of exploitative language. The names of the participant and the school have been changed to protect their identities.


Just ask Paul…

…Paul is a Karen refugee from Burma/Myanmar. His early years were unimaginable, living in constant fear, having to run and hide, simply trying to stay alive in the midst of a civil war. His family fled to Thailand when he was 13 where he spent 6 difficult years in a refugee camp before finally coming to Minnesota in 2011.

Paul now faced a whole new set of challenges. He not only had to understand a new culture and lifestyle, he also had to learn how to read, write and speak English.

He desperately wanted to get a high school diploma and go to college, but was told he was too old to attend a regular high school. Paul learned about ABC School from a friend. It changed his life.

At ABC School, Paul not only learned English, he enrolled in ABC’s YouthBuild AmeriCorps career pathway program for IT, where he learned about computer technology, hardware, software and even how to breakdown a computer to recycle and refurbish the parts.

He graduated from ABC in 2 years and enrolled in community college where he earned his Associate of Applied Science degree in accounting!

Paul is now employed by ABC School as a Youth & Employment Data Specialist and helps Karen students with translation and enrollment in the YouthBuild AmeriCorps program.

In this story, I notice three categories of exploitation and victimization: over-exaggerated use of adjectives and adverbs, a patronizing tone, and over-emphasis of the organization’s role in Paul’s success. Let’s dive in!


First, the use of over-exaggerated adjectives and adverbs, i.e., ‘unimaginable’ in the first paragraph and ‘desperately’ in the third. Here, the writer puts words into the story that the interviewee may not have chosen for themselves. These words are intended to invoke emotion of the reader, emotions that the interviewee may not have felt but serve an exploitative purpose for the writer. The first step in addressing this issue is to remove the word in question; in this example let’s remove ‘desperately’.

He wanted to get a high school diploma and go to college, but was told he was too old to attend a regular high school.

This might feel a little bland, but it does work by simply removing the over-exaggeration. A way to now amplify the story is for the writer to work a bit harder to draw out more from the participant. This could result in:

His years in the refugee camp provided some access to school, but Paul was eager to learn more. He wanted to finishhis high school diploma and go to college so he could work in accounting. As he explored options in Minnesota, he learned he was too old to attend a traditional high school.

This change removes the attempt at emotion through pity and shows Paul as an ambitious human capable of advancing after his early life of persecution, violence, and war.

In carrying this thought forward, the second use of exploitation is a patronizing tone. For definition, patronizing statements are “apparently kind or helpful but betraying a feeling of superiority; condescending.” Here are two excerpts where condescension plays a big role:

He not only had to understand a new culture and lifestyle, he also had to learn how to read, write and speak English.

AND

He graduated from ABC in 2 years and enrolled in community college where he earned his Associate of Applied Science degree in accounting!

My internal responses are filled with sarcasm and do not need to be put in writing. However, the overarching feeling invoked is patronizing towards Paul’s abilities to learn and persevere. (The exclamation point is over the top.) What I would rather see is:

After graduating from ABC School, Paul was accepted into college where he earned his Associate of Applied Science degree in accounting.

This still represents what Paul has achieved while removing the patronizing tone.

And thirdly we see the over-emphasis of the organization’s role in Paul’s success. I feel this most in the last paragraph.

Paul is now employed by ABC School as a Youth & Employment Data Specialist and helps Karen students with translation and enrolling them in the YouthBuild AmeriCorps program.

The organization is painted as the one entity who helped him achieve a goal and that the organization is central in his life. In reality, the organizations’ work is one small part of individuals’ lives. Family, friends, culture, and the larger community all play a role in everyone’s lives as we move along on our journey.

There are many possibilities to avoid this over-simplification of describing how the organization helped Paul achieve his goals. My preferred method is to shift the language to summarize the participant’s life now:

Paul has returned to ABC School, now as an employee, where he plays a key role in connecting young adults from the Karen refugee community to education and college and career readiness. He enjoys traveling and hiking throughout the United States during his free time and looks forward to a career in accounting.

This tells a stronger story and conveys where else Paul might have joy in his life. ABC School helped him along the way, but he is not reduced to simply a product of an organization.

These are only three examples of where exploitation and victimization show up in grant language. I am by no means an expert on this topic and enjoy learning from others. Please share your thoughts as I seek to improve my skills in hope of advancing justice for everyone.

*Paul’s story was edited using these practices by ABC School, a program of Change Inc., staff prior to distribution.


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