“Representation Matters”

On Nadege Souvenir’s first day of law school, she had no idea what to expect.

Nadege Souvenir
Nadege Souvenir (Nadege Souvenir)

“Very quickly I realized that a lot of my classmates, their dads were lawyers or their neighbors were lawyers, and they kind of knew all these insider tricks about law school and what to do next,” she said. “Not having anyone to model behavior after or not having a resource to go to, I was immediately at a disadvantage.”

Souvenir is personally changing the racial narrative by being a role model for young African-Americans. She serves as the vice chair of the Minnesota Opera’s board of directors and is the associate vice president of community impact for the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations.

The Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations is Minnesota’s largest community foundation, and it partners with more than 2,000 nonprofits and charity groups. The organization’s mission is to dismantle perceptions around the hierarchy of human value by supporting efforts and organizations of equity and racial healing. For example, the foundation awarded a grant to a cohort of community partners for the Truth and Transformation: Changing Racial Narratives in Media project to address the critical need to shift media narratives.

Nadege Souvenir
Nadege Souvenir presenting at the launch of East Metro Pulse, the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundations’ community vitality survey and report, on March 2, 2017. (Nadege Souvenir)

“Narrative change and racial healing are critical components of creating racial equity,” said Dr. Eric Jolly, president and CEO of the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundations.

To advance equity, you need a strong community, Souvenir said. She and her team communicate with nonprofit organizations during the grantmaking process to align the nonprofits’ and the foundation’s goals and needs. In her view, nonprofit organizations are essential to transforming the community.

“The community is in the best position to articulate its priorities, so we want to support the community when they identify what they need,” Souvenir said.

She shared a compelling story to illustrate the impact of positive representation, or the lack of it: A young African-American opera singer once thanked her for being on the Minnesota Opera board. Her presence as one of the few people of color on the board made the singer feel at home, Souvenir said.

“That helps them know that there are people, there is a space for them,” she said. “This is not a foreign space.”

Nadege Souvenir
Nadege Souvenir serves as a panelist for the Diversity & Audiences panel at the World Opera Forum, an international opera conference. (Nadege Souvenir)

Souvenir is referring to positive representation, which is vital to show all possibilities to people of all identities. However, misrepresentation in the media can contribute to societal constructs and obstruct positive representation.

Traditional media outlets can often report only one narrative, and sometimes neglect to tell stories about minorities or portray them in a positive light. Being misrepresented creates a false narrative about a person’s place in society. Some communities don’t have the opportunity to speak out or defend themselves, which is why having positive representation is vital. Positive representation in the media is important especially so youth can become more than what the negative narratives or stereotypes claim.

The Truth and Transformation project invited Minnesota media members to examine their own cultural blind spots and focus on positive representation of underrepresented voices. ThreeSixty Journalism is a partner in this project and charged with sharing youth perspectives. By giving youth an opportunity to report on the project and participate in it, the racial narrative begins to change, bit by bit.

Efforts like the Truth and Transformation project aim to make positive representation the norm.

“Representation matters,” Souvenir said. “It’s easier to imagine yourself doing a thing, running an organization, being the head of a university, being the president of the United States, when you can see somebody that you have commonality with.”