Image: Amy Martin

Four years ago, Trabian Shorters came to Charlie Brown with a problem. Shorters worked for the Knight Foundation, the huge charitable arm of the Knight-Ridder newspaper empire. Brown, 37, runs the Portland-based Context Partners, a boutique and highly specialized design firm. 

The Knight Foundation—which focuses on media and the arts, but also “engaged communities” in general—operates in 26 cities where its founders owned newspapers. The list runs heavy on old industrial East Coast and Rust Belt burgs, many with substantial African American populations, and Shorters felt the foundation was struggling with one key demographic. “The foundation gives away something like $110 million a year,” Shorters says. “But one obstacle we encountered was that we were not reaching African American men. And black men can seem disengaged by a lot of traditional indicators. How do we reach them?”

Here, it is important to note that Context Partners, Brown’s company, designs organizations and systems, not objects. The firm calls its pract-ice “community-centered design.” Its own backstory is as Portland-groovy as that term would suggest. When Brown launched the company in 

2010, he asked prospective employees where they wanted to live: they chose Portland. Since then, Context, which employs about 30 people, has worked for Microsoft and Ecotrust, and helped the National Academy for State Health Policy reorganize to deal with Obamacare. 

Brown sent a pair of staffers to Detroit and Philadelphia, two of the Knight Foundation’s biggest markets.

“We chose two cities with black majorities that are, in very different ways, dealing with postindustrial decline,” Brown says. “They’re trying to understand their modern roles. In Detroit, that’s blatant, but Philly has many of the same issues.”

This investigation—which involved lots of casual hanging out, frank interviews, and ultimately the collection of thousands of video testimonials—produced two conclusions. First, black men were anything but disengaged. In both cities, they run small businesses, nonprofits, altruistic projects, and every other kind of positive community activity. Second, no one really recognized that. 

“There’s this whole hidden identity,” Brown says. “It’s not ‘volunteerism.’ It’s deep. There are ingrained, vital traditions of mentoring, of helping people and the whole community, but also a tradition of not talking about it.”

Shorters’s comment: “I’ve been black my whole life, and I was surprised.” 

The Knight Foundation had considered starting an award. 

“No one wanted a prize,” Brown says. “When we asked guys what they wanted, they’d say, ‘I want to be part of a bigger community.’”

So Context and Knight created an entirely new organization: BMe (Black Male Engagement), which became independent in 2013, albeit with $3.6 million in backing from Knight. In some ways, that organization looks like any other. It has a leader: Shorters left his Knight Foundation job to take charge. It runs programs: for instance, grants of about $10,000 to individual men who make notable contributions to their cities.

On that front, Shorters points out that BMe keeps a very open mind. “We don’t care if you’re for-profit, nonprofit, or not even incorporated,” he 

says. “We don’t care if you were incarcerated once upon a time. We judge people on what they’re doing today.” Indeed, BMe is unusually free-form by design. Anyone can sign up online for a membership that connects them to BMe community events and web content. The 12,000 or so members nominate the grant recipients—100 last year, 44 more in June. 

Above all, though, BMe exists to help people meet each other. The idea is for members to make connections, exchange numbers, set up their own e-mail lists, and improvise. “Almost as soon as we launched,” Brown recalls, “we saw people slapping the BMe logo on events and projects we’d never heard of. Did they ask anyone? No. That’s when we knew we were headed in the right direction.”

Brown firmly believes that such minimal and even somewhat messy structures will thrive in the future. “This is the way the world is going,” he says. “Look at Airbnb. They don’t have a product. They’re a broker of relationships. That’s what we created for BMe. It’s not saying, ‘This is what’s right, you go do this.’ It’s saying, ‘You’ve got something great going on already, so let us connect you to other people.’”

In this particular instance, Brown contends that focusing on structure (or maybe lack of structure) allowed him and Shorters to sidestep some potentially fraught issues. “It’s not about what’s broken,” Brown says. “Everyone was saying, ‘We need to fix Detroit.’ But go talk to the people there, and they’re like, ‘Fix what? I’m trying to build something new.’”  

For his part, Shorters credits Context Partners with bringing to bear a philosophy that encourages and facilitates good works of all kinds. (BMe’s grant recipients, for example, include HIV-awareness activists, nonprofit publishers, and the founder of a grocery store in an underserved Baltimore neighborhood.) “A lot of assumptions are made,” Shorters says, “by the media, even by civil rights groups and so-called progressives. One is that black men only want to work on ‘black’ issues. In reality, these guys want to be assets for their whole communities. It’s much broader and more exciting.”  

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