Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #3: Avoid Saviorism and Extreme Exceptionalism

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Today, our series on strength-based communication best practices continues with a focus on two things you must avoid if you want to portray the subjects of your communication as real people, not stereotypes: saviorism and extreme exceptionalism.

First, let’s define each of those terms:

  • Saviorism: positioning one group of people as the “hero” in another, “less fortunate” group or individual’s story. White saviorism is the most widely recognized type of saviorism, but it’s certainly not the only one. Able-bodied people can be portrayed as saviors of people living with disabilities, and men can be portrayed as saviors of women, for example. 
  • Extreme exceptionalism: positioning a story about a person who is part of a marginalized group as an extreme example of success not typically recognized by “people like them.” 

Now, let’s take a look at a few examples from real nonprofit communications and discuss why they’re problematic.

Saviorism Example: DEC Africa Famine Appeal

Warning: this video contains sensitive imagery of children experiencing hunger

White saviorism tropes are everywhere in this appeal from the Disaster Emergency Committee’s East Africa campaign. Imagery highlights starving children and their families alongside a detached voiceover from a white spokesperson that reinforces the seriousness of their condition while doing little to describe the context for their challenges or giving them a voice in telling their own story. A few quotes from the spokesperson that stand out as particularly egregious examples of saviorism:

“We can help solve this. A simple step from us here can save lives there.”

“They can’t wait any longer. And they cannot do this alone.”

Extreme Exceptionalism Example: SF Gate Article

This article about Yale alumni Akintunde Ahmad leans into extreme exceptionalism and controversial tropes of the African American experience. 

“When Akintunde Ahmad walked into the library at Oakland Technical High School to talk to Yale University recruiters making their annual East Bay stop in January, some of the other student hopefuls turned and stared.

With dreadlocks draping his shoulders, and his 6-foot-1 frame in the sweatpants and T-shirt he had thrown on after baseball practice, it sure may have seemed like this guy was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 But ‘Tunde, as he is called by friends and family, was right where he was supposed to be.

The 17-year-old Oak Tech senior received an acceptance letter from Yale last week to prove it.”

If your organization is guilty of occasionally (or frequently) perpetuating saviorism or extreme exceptionalism tropes in its communication, ask questions like these: 

  • Are we showing how the person featured in this communication is the hero in their own story? Or are we making our organization the hero?
  • Are we acknowledging that change comes from within individuals and communities? Or are we positioning outside actors as “the solution”?
  • Are we giving people agency to tell their own stories? Or are we speaking for the people we serve?
  • Are we positioning the stories we tell as just a few of the many examples of the good things going on in the communities we work with? Or are we putting them up on a pedestal as extreme examples of exceptional outliers who beat all odds to achieve something great?

When you begin to ask critical questions like these and look at your communications with a more discerning eye, I’m willing to bet that you’ll find opportunities for improvement, no matter how well you think your organization is doing at taking a strength-based approach.

Next up in our series on strength-based communication best practices: emphasize strengths over needs.

Here are all the posts in this series to date:

  1. The Latest Research and Trends in Strength-Based Communication
  2. The Equity Assessment: What Your Organization Needs to Do BEFORE Establishing Its Approach to Strength-Based Communication
  3. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #1: Use Individual Preferences and Be Specific
  4. Strength-Based Communication Best Practice # 2: Use Person-First Language
  5. This post: Strength-Based Communication Best Practice #3: Avoid Saviorism and Extreme Exceptionalism
  6. Strength-Based Messaging Best Practice Number 4: Emphasize Strengths Over Needs


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