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How We Talk About Racial Equity in Adolescence Matters

January 27, 2022
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One of the guiding principles of our communications at the UCLA Center for the Developing Adolescent is that the way we talk about adolescence matters. When we communicate in ways that illuminate the opportunities for positive learning and development, we’re better able to convince policymakers and the public at large that the adolescent years are worthy of support and investment.

We learned how to cut through misinformation and negative stereotypes about adolescence from our friends at FrameWorks Institute, a research organization dedicated to improving communications around important social issues. FrameWorks helped us frame what we know about developmental science to create the Core Science of Adolescence–the research-based narrative of how we grow and learn in the years between childhood and adulthood.

Last month, FrameWorks added to their strategies for talking about adolescence with a guide for talking about racial equity during this developmental window. It turns out one of the biggest ways communicators miss the mark when talking about racial equity in adolescence is in not defining what “equity” even means.

“They use the word ‘equity’ and ‘equitable solutions’ as if they just make sense to people,” said Marisa Gerstein Pineau, Director of Research Application at FrameWorks. FrameWorks’ research showed that when you ask people what comes to mind when they hear the word “equity,” they overwhelmingly think about the value of a house. And many are also unclear on why you’re not just using the word “equality.”

“You are not doing yourself any favors when you use that word and don’t immediately give people what they need to understand it,” said Marisa.

Another recurring issue? “Describing but not explaining why there are these inequities and inequalities,” said Marisa. “We’ll describe differences in graduation rates or some other disparity and think that it’s obvious to people.” Without an explanation about the causes behind the disparities–pointing out poverty rates without highlighting the history of employment and housing discrimination behind them, for example–people often assume personal failings are to blame.

“When you’re framing, you’re making choices about how you’re presenting information that affect how people understand something,” Marisa said. “It’s not talking down to people. It’s helping them think in different ways about a topic they do already have knowledge about. We all have knowledge about adolescents because we were them or we have them, but there’s other ways of thinking about them that good framing will push us toward.”

You can find links to all of FrameWorks’ strategies for talking about adolescence on our Communicating the Science page, or visit their website directly to find their Reframing Adolescence and Adolescent Development toolkit and read their new report, Framing Racial Equity in Adolescence–Messaging Strategies for Social Change.

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