Introduction by David Horowitz
Introduction: This text is the edited version of a speech John Bryant made on September 2, 2001 to the Restoration Weekend, an annual gathering of conservatives, which was held this year in Colorado Springs, at the Broadmoor Resort. I first met John Bryant in 1996 at a summit I organized at the Vista Del Mar Family and Child Services facility in Los Angeles. The purpose of the summit was to bring together a dozen non-profit organizations working in the inner city and Republican representatives J.C. Watts, James Rogan, Frank Riggs, and Senator Rick Santorum, who were members of the American Community Renewal Alliance.
Inspired by what I heard at this meeting, I created an organization -- Hollywood Concerned -- to mobilize resources and talents from the entertainment community to provide what John Bryant calls a “hand up” to people and communities who have been left behind.
In the years since its creation, Hollywood Concerned has been able to provide help to organizations like School On Wheels, which provides tutors for homeless children and is supported by actors Jaclyn Smith and Tony Danza, and City Hearts, which provides acting and dance classes to youth caught up in the fringes of the criminal justice system and is benefacted by actress Jane Seymour. Hollywood Concerned has also produced a film that features talented children of the streets, and actors Drew Barrymore and James Olmos. Its proceeds provide arts scholarships for homeless youth.
But the project that is closest to my own aspirations is the one I became involved in five years ago with John Bryant. It is called Operation HOPE. What immediately attracted me to John was a remark he made the day that I met him. “There’s a difference,” he said, “between being poor and being broke. Being broke means you don’t have any money in your pocket. Being poor is a state of mind.”
Although I knew that John traveled widely in liberal and Democratic circles, this was a bedrock conservative vision of the poverty problem. It caused me -- across all our differences -- to listen to everything else that John Bryant had to say about working towards solutions to the problems that confronted us. I hope you will listen too.
John is trying to do more than fix the problems of the inner city. He is trying to make America whole. I believe that our partnership – what some might think of as an improbable partnership – has in it the seeds of a coalition that could reshape the future of conservatism, of the Republican party, and – if they are ready for it – of the Democratic party and liberalism too. It is a coalition whose purpose can be summed up as realizing the promise of the President to leave no child – and no person - behind.
John Bryant: Before getting into my story, I want to properly introduce David Horowitz. By reputation, David is not someone I ever thought I’d be hanging out with. I had read a lot of his op-eds, saw a few of his news clips, occasionally called David at three in the morning to curse him out about something he said at two in the morning on Fox or something that I thought was winning battles and losing wars. But once I met David, and began to understand the person, and understand the character and the heart, I embraced him as a friend -- and luckily he embraced me as well. More importantly, he came to my home turf. In other words, he showed up.
David believes that constructive friction is a good thing, and basically I agree with him. Constructive friction –the exercise of our free speech – is a big part of what makes America great. It is what allows us to learn from each other and thus to become a little better -- a little crisper in our thought, a little humbler in our souls, a little wiser about how to get from here to there.
Leave No Community Behind
I will start by telling you not so much who I am but whose I am. I grew up in Compton, in South Central Los Angeles, which is what is called a distressed community. What you need to know about me is that although I lived in a slum, I wasn’t a slum dweller, and although I’m very proud to be black, I’m not black for a living.
When I was born, most people might have guessed that I would grow up to be a Democrat, given my background and my environment. By twenty-three years of age, however, I had become a successful entrepreneur, and most people would have said that I was on my way to becoming a Republican. My story, in other words, is an American story: From humble beginnings, I became a success through commitment and hard work.
My life experience has taught me that there’s a difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke is an economic condition. Being poor is a disabling frame of mind. It is a depressed condition of the spirit. I was on a panel once with a conservative pundit who said to me, “John, I don’t understand about you people -- about, your people. I don’t understand why they don’t do more for themselves. I grew up poor, my family was poor, and we did okay.”
When he finished, I said, “Sir, I understand the fact that you had days when you didn’t have a meal. I understand that there were times when you were hungry and maybe even a week or two when all you had was bread and water. But with all due respect, you were never poor.
Your ancestors were European immigrants who came by boat and plane from places like Greece or Italy, Britain or Turkey, or wherever it was -- who left the comforts of a homeland to come to a strange new world. Therefore, you had something that poor people -- my poor people -- don’t have. Call it chutzpah. But what it really is, is confidence and faith in oneself.
Your immigrant parents had a dream. They were crazy enough to make their way to America without a dime in their pockets. They were crazy enough to say, “I am going to make myself a success in this country.” You are the heir to that bold, self-confident lineage. You are descended from dreamers. So it’s true that you might have been broke. But you were never poor.”
Poor is a depressed condition of the human spirit. I believe Deepak Chopra’s insight that, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” If the spirit is broken, the life will break too.
I grew up in South Central, Los Angeles, to a mother and a father -- Juanita Smith and Johnnie Will Smith -- who never finished high school. Nonetheless, they were two of the smartest people I ever met. My mother has worked the same job for thirty-four years. She does not have a self-esteem problem. Nor do I. Every day, my mother told me s
he loved me. She showed her love, it’s true, in some pretty strange ways. She used to dress me in little Lord Fauntleroy suits -- three-piece purple velour and velvet suits with ruffled shirts, accented with a big, big, big bow tie. She would dress me in those suits and send me to school in Compton, in the heart of the inner city.
It would have been different if I had some paper in my pocket (as we say where I come from) -- some money to my name. It would be different if the suits were Giorgio Armani or Calvin Klein. But when you opened the lapel of the suits, they said inside, “Designed by Juanita.” My momma’s name. It was my momma who made these ugly suits and sent me on my way to school in Compton. Every day of my little life, I got my rear end whipped. I hated my mother for this. I love her today. If she weren’t my mother, I’d marry her. But back then I hated her. I couldn’t understand what she was doing.
What she was doing, was forcing me to become an individual. I didn’t have the benefit of being the overweight kid, or the kid who was too smart or the kid with the three-inch glasses or the kid with the body odor. I looked perfectly normal, and was. My mother didn’t want me to be normal; she didn’t want me to fit in snugly and conform. Because she knew – as many have forgotten -- that it is not groups and group thinkers who succeed. Individuals do.
There are three types of people in this world: buzzards, eagles and turkeys. Buzzards fly just high enough to find things that are weaker to prey on, to elevate themselves. Turkeys have wings and can’t even fly. Then there are eagles. Eagles don’t fly in packs. They even raise their young differently. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an eagle’s nest, but it has little sharp twigs in it. You know what the message is. It’s a Republican message. If you’re old enough and big enough, when you start pushing up against the side of that nest, you better get your self up and out. There are no eagles that are forty years old and living with their mommas.
My father is seventy-six years old. He has a little Parkinson’s these days, but he will tell you, “Don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve had a good life.” Johnnie Will Smith has owned his own construction business for fifty years, and met a payroll every week. When I was ten years old, I followed in my father’s footsteps and started my first business, a neighborhood candy house in Compton.
I launched my business career by going down to the corner liquor store and telling the proprietor that he was selling the wrong kind of candy, and that my friends had to go out of their way to buy candy from his store. This made them late for school and caused them to get pink slips from their teachers. I offered to help him solve these problems and make more money. He said, “Go away, little boy, I have a college degree.” There’s a little message in this story, by the way, for all my smart Republican friends. Go away little boy, I have a college degree I know what I’m doing.
I said to him, “But I’m ten years old, and I buy candy. I know what I’m talking about. You’re selling the wrong kind of candy. The only reason that people buy your candy is that there’s no other place to go. There’s no competition.”
He said, “Go away, little boy.”
I said, “Can you hire me as a box boy, I need a job.” He said, “Ok.”
I said, “Can you show me how you buy wholesale and sell retail? I’m just curious.”
Six months later I borrowed forty dollars from my mother and opened the neighborhood candy house in my den. My candy house was on the way to school. It had the right candy and you didn’t get a pink slip when you stopped by to get it. I made three hundred dollars a week, and put the liquor store out of the candy business.
People ask me, how could you, at ten years of age, have the chutzpah to want to start your own business? How could you wrap your mind around that thought? My only response is: it never dawned on me that I couldn’t. Because my father had done it before me. I had the immigrant work ethic. I had my father’s sense of Yes I can. I had my mother behind me with her supreme self-confidence and love. Do you know how empowering it is for a child to hear every day that his mother loves him? Freud once said, “a child secure in its mother’s love is a world conqueror for life,” or words to that effect.
In my teenage years, I was an actor, though not a very good one. I mostly played myself, and didn’t do that very well. Pretty rapidly, I went from living in a beach house in Malibu to living in my Montero Jeep behind an old Italian restaurant at La Tijera and Manchester, on the way to the airport. I believed too much of my own press and went from making thousands of dollars a week to being homeless. There was still five hundred dollars a month coming in, from residual payments in acting, and this presented me with a choice: Do you rent an apartment that doesn’t make any money, or do you rent an office, that might generate some revenue? I rented the office.
Everybody laughed at me back then, because I was an arrogant, ignorant young person who thought I knew everything. They were happy that I had fallen on my face. But you know what? God doesn’t make dirt. If you’re going to fall, fall forward. I did, and I redefined success as going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
I found a job at a private banking firm, which made real estate loans. I didn’t know anything about banking. I failed the real estate test three times (and those of you in real estate know how difficult that is). The bank wanted me to do lending in poor neighborhoods. They were a mainstream firm. They were not racist and they were not bad people. They wanted a high interest rate on their money, because these loans could be risky. We called them perfect eyesight loans; twenty points, twenty percent interest and after getting the loan you went blind. These bankers weren’t mad at black people. They weren’t trying to hurt black people. They just wanted a business rate of return for their money.
Once I figured out what they were doing, I said, you know, I can’t morally do this work. But I tell you what. “Make me a partner in your firm [as they laughed] and I’ll show you how to make the same money in an environment where the borrowers pay you back. The environment was Hollywood, where people had a lot of assets but no cash flow. It took me a year to talk them into it. They made me a partner in a new division with no assets. In a couple of years, I went from making zero dollars for the firm to making twenty-four million dollars annually.
In the fourth year, the parent company went bankrupt and I did a management buyout and bought my division. At twenty-three years of age, I had become one of the youngest people in America to do a management buyout of a company. Once again, the world was mine. It was 1991. In June of that year, President Bush honored me at the White House. I believed I had it all figured out.
At this point, I had almost convinced myself that discrimination didn’t exist, and everyone had equal opportunity. But a wiser Jewish friend of mine said, “Not everybody is a John Bryant.” He said, “I’m not giving you a compliment, but not everybody had a loving mother and a loving father to raise them, and who to give them the tools they gave yo u. You can’t blame poverty on the poor.”
A year later, Rodney King was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles. Until the day of that incident, I would have bet all I owned that there would not be a problem in South Central when the trial verdict came in. We had a President, a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, laws, and a videotape of officers beating Rodney King’s rear end. Rodney King was no model citizen. Put him in jail. But don’t beat him. Whether it was going to be a white jury in Simi Valley or a black one in South Central or a Latino one in East L.A., I knew the officers were going down -- because this was America. The verdict came back Not Guilty. And I cried.
I had to confront this reality. Sometimes you don’t have justice, you have “just us.” Sometimes you don’t have history, you have his story, and sometimes to rationalize is to tell rational lies. What I realized was that I couldn’t blame Governor Wilson. I couldn’t blame the late Mayor Bradley or Police Chief Gates. I had to look at myself. What was I doing? I had moved up and out of my own community in South Central L.A. and relocated in Malibu. And I blamed poverty on the poor. There’s an old Southern saying, “No matter how much I love you, my son or my daughter, if I don’t have wisdom, I can only give you my own ignorance.” The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Threading the Needle
If I don’t know better, I can’t do better. If I don’t have shoelaces, I cannot bootstrap myself. There’s not a welfare mother in this country, in her right mind, who doesn’t want her child to grow up to be responsible, successful, taxpaying, contributing, and a role model that she can feel proud of. But you can’t give what you don’t have.
So I decided to do something. I didn’t know what. I took some bankers, actually some chief executive officers of banks, on a bus tour through South Central Los Angeles. I did this to show them the opportunities they were missing. It was the beginning of a project that I would call Operation HOPE.
A reporter on the tour from the Los Angeles Times wrote to marvel “how abnormal it was to go through so much trouble to show someone something so totally normal.” But for twenty years, these same bankers had driven right past South Central on their way to their offices, without ever bothering to take a look.
I knew from my own experience as a banker that you tend not to lend where you’ve never been. Watching the riots on television, most of them might as well have been watching Beirut burning. Because they had no connection to South Central Los Angeles.
The problem in the 21st Century is not love or hate. It’s indifference. When I’m speaking to my community these days, I say “People don’t care enough to hate you anymore. People have their own problems.” I tell black folks all the time, “Nobody’s coming to your pity parties, so stop sending out invitations.” I say, “Racism is like rain, it’s either falling someplace or it’s gathering. So you might as well get out an umbrella in a color you like and start strolling through it, because it’s not going to change. You must.”
Out of these reflections came my philosophy of a hand up and not a handout. Out of this came my philosophy of involvement, of taking those bankers and putting them on that bus because they’re probably not going to lend where they’ve never been.
On that bus tour that began Operation HOPE, the riders found something pretty incredible. The buses toured South Central L.A., a city that was burning. But what they saw were commercial thoroughfares. We took a left down a residential street, and it looked like Ozzie and Harriet Ville. If you didn’t know where you were, you wouldn’t know where you were. If you closed your eyes and opened your eyes, you might think you were in the suburbs. There were three thousand structures damaged in the riots of 1992, and a billion dollars in property damaged. Eight thousand people were arrested. There were fifty deaths. It was the worst riot in U.S. history. Guess how many of the structures burned were homes where people lived? Zero. As my pastor, Dr. Cecil “Chip” Murray of First A.M.E. Church says, “you don’t burn that which is your own.”
In 1992, thirty-five percent of the residents of South Central, Los Angeles, owned their own homes. Sixty-five percent rented their homes for the same cost as a mortgage payment. Are you following me? Sixty-five percent rented it for the cost of a mortgage payment. Guess what the voter turnout rate is in South Central Los Angeles? Thirty-eight percent – or almost exactly the percent that own their own homes. I don’t care about tax policy unless I’ve got a job. I don’t care about a bond issue for infrastructure repairs -- I may not even know what the heck you’re talking about -- unless I own a home or a business. The best policeman you can have is a homeowner, and as the late Ronald H. Brown once said, “the best family value you can have is a job.”
This is another pillar of the project I call Operation HOPE. It is the concept of enlightened self-interest. The work that Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing in 1968 was the work of the poor people’s campaign, taking poor whites and poor blacks and poor Latinos and poor Asians and moving them up the economic ladder, because he realized you couldn’t pass a law to force someone who doesn’t want to respect you, to respect you. You couldn’t legislate goodness. He understood that the only path to social justice in America, the largest capitalist country in the world, is through economic parity, through ownership by the people themselves.
So what we said to ourselves was that if we created a homeowner that was also good for the bank because they got a mortgage. If we created a homeowner, that was good for the government, because they got a taxpayer. If we created a homeowner, that was good for the community, because the community then had another policeman on the street. My mother used to say to ruffians in the neighborhood, you better get off my porch. Underline my. You could always tell the home on the block that was rented, because it had lawn up to your chin. So I presented this concept of enlightened self-interest on the bus tour, and eighty percent of those chief executive officers went back to their offices and said to their staffs, “I just left South Central Los Angeles. Why aren’t we lending over there?”
That’s when things began to change. I tell black folks all the time, “You gotta learn to do things differently.” The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different outcome. I tell white folks, “You need to learn to look at things differently.” I also tell them, “What you see depends on where you sit.” That bus tour of South Central changed those bankers’ perspectives of the people there and the opportunities they offered.
In 1992 we had a dream. It was to be America’s first non-profit social investment banker. People said, “Non-profit social investment banker? That sounds like an oxymoron.” I said, “Our vision is to change the world.” People laughed.
Today Operation Hope has an annual budget of four million dollars. We have five offices in Greater Los Angeles. We have offices in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. We opened our Chicago office with the help and financial support of Oprah Winfrey. We have seventy-five bank partners and fifty corporate partners with more than 2.6 trillion dollars in assets between them. Our board includes the chairman of Proctor & Gamble, the president of Newsweek, the president of Fortune Magazine, the Dean of UCLA’s Anderson School of Business, and about twenty-five bank chief executive officers. We’ve lent seventy-five million dollars to individuals and small businesses in South Central Los Angeles, created four hundred homeowners, and close to one hundred small business owners.
We make loans to blacks and browns for home ownership who are making thirty-five thousand dollars a year or less. Every loan but six is paid as agreed. Based on our last survey, our loan statistics are better than most of our bank partners’. According to the Greenlining Institute, we made more loans in South Central Los Angeles in 1998 and 1999 than the top eight banks in California combined. This is about new markets. It’s not about a handout. It’s about a hand up.
A Vision for the Future
America is the only country in the world where every ethnic group is within its borders. The two most ethnically diverse states in America are California and New York. Guess what? They are also the two most economically prosperous. California and New York. You cannot do business with people you don’t reflect, respect, or understand.
That is the reality behind our concept of empowering people, of moving people from check cashing customers to banking customers, from renters to homeowners, from small business dreamers to small business owners, from minimum wage workers to living wage workers with new economy job skills.
Former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp and I are partnering a program we call the Inner City Partnership for New Economy Jobs. We have brought the University of California, Los Angeles into the inner city of Los Angeles. Our “cyber café,” which was opened by Vice President Al Gore, is a computer bank that links South Central to UCLA. It is an economic literacy program that educates young people in South Central Los Angeles so they can get a hand up and find a job.
We’ve got three banking centers in South Central L.A., where there are no banks otherwise. Our banking centers are not non-profit handouts. They are for-profit subsidiaries of our non-profit operation. Wells Fargo has invested two million dollars. Washington Mutual has invested close to two million dollars. Hawthorne Savings has invested two million dollars. We used part of this money to build Inner City Cyber Cafés, and to bring in UCLA Extension, which issues degrees in basic information technology.
When you finish the eight-point program, you get a certificate from UCLA Extension, you go through corporate orientation training and a corporate internship for forty hours; you go through credit counseling and case management and technical assistance. If you go through all that training, and fulfill your commitment, we’ll guarantee you a job at a living wage, moving you from six dollars an hour to sixteen dollars an hour. Would it surprise you that that every class, without any advertising at all, is over-subscribed?
Since 1992, we have had two hundred and twenty-three thousand borrowers, customers and clients of Operation HOPE in South Central L.A. that we serve at an average cost of forty dollars and thirty-three cents per person. I don’t know what it costs for you to acquire a new voter in the Republican Party, but it’s probably a heck of a lot more expensive than that.
We’ve taught seventy-four thousand youths the basics of a checking account and a savings account, and the importance of credit, and investment in their lives, with almost a thousand volunteer banker-teachers in three hundred schools across this country. We do this, because “it’s what they don’t know that they don’t know that’s killing them.” We’ve done this at an average cost of twenty dollars per child.
Since I have mentioned some political figures, let me make myself very clear. I don’t see the solution to poverty as a political issue. People have asked me, John, why do you hang around Democrats so much? My response, I don’t hang around Democrats. They show up. You cannot raise your children by email. You cannot sit in Washington, D.C., point your finger at South Central L.A., and say, “You’re not living your life right.” People are offended by that. You would be offended by that. The Democrats I do business with don’t all have great ideas. Frankly, neither do you. But, to their credit, they show up.
I know some people who have some pretty lousy parents, but you know what happens, when I start talking about their parents. You know what they say? “Don’t talk about my mother. I can say my mother’s lousy, you can’t!” The same rule applies to people in the inner city who have fallen behind. What people want is respect. They don’t want sympathy, they want empathy.
The Importance of Showing Up
In 1998, I spoke to a gathering of conservatives at David Horowitz’s Restoration Weekend. I spoke about the benefits of compassion and the magic of showing up. Show up in South Central, Los Angeles! Go live in a housing tenement for two weeks. Live as the people of South Central live. If you walk out in two weeks, and your opinions haven’t changed one iota, I’m with you. And guess what? The people in South Central would be with you, too. They would say, “Let’s agree to disagree.”
You can walk out and say, “I have lived as you lived, I’ve walked in your footsteps, but that said, I still have this view,” and people would say, “Fine, I understand, but you have come to my community and have taken the time to understand my life.”
Not one person took me up on that offer in 1998. I had a lot of amen’s; I had a lot of pats on the back; I had a lot of “yeses,” and a lot of, “we’re gonna help you’s,” and “we’re gonna send you some checks.” Not one check. I’m not asking for a check, by the way. We’re doing just fine. We’ve even begun to create an endowment. I’m not asking for a handout. I’m not asking you for anything. What I’m saying is that the rhetoric has to be matched with action. That’s no different from raising your children. You have to show up. Because if you don’t – possession is nine-tenths of the law, and someone else will fill that vacuum. And even if it’s an imperfect person, with an imperfect philosophy, that’s the one who people will gravitate to.
Now I can say I have met Republicans who will show up, too. Jack Kemp is one. David Horowitz is anothe r. Some of you here, at this Restoration Weekend, have already given me your support. But this is only the beginning. We need to do this together. We need to do it in an ongoing, serious, committed way.
Every person I have brought to South Central L.A., irrespective of their political party, who has talked to people with the respect that they deserve, with empathy and understanding, in a responsible way, has been embraced by them.
What I say to you is that America has changed. Of course, you can stand pat and get a larger and larger share of a smaller and smaller marketplace if you want to. But this country has changed. Black folks are only twelve percent of the population, but we are twenty-five percent of every movie ticket sold. We go to the movies, we go twice, and we rent the video. Magic Johnson and Sony didn’t build theaters in South Central L.A. just because they love Black folks. They didn’t do it out of charity for Black folks. You may give a thousand dollars to the NAACP because you love Black folks. But you don’t invest ten million dollars in South Central L.A. because you love Black folks. You do it because it makes good economic sense. The Magic Johnson Theater is among the top ten revenue producers of the entire Sony chain.
Inner city communities are new market communities. As you create new markets, you create stakeholders in this country, and you create voters. Who are those voters going to stand up and vote for, if not for those people who were there with them? Your parents are imperfect. My parents are imperfect. Surely those suits my mother made for me were imperfect. But I love my parents. I will defend my parents till the hills come home. If leaders, imperfect as they are, have been with these people from day one, from sunup to sundown, that’s who they’re going to vote for when they go to the polls.
A Vision For The Future
The mark of the twentieth century, was racism. The mark of the twenty-first century will be poverty. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and it’s harder to be middle class. You look at any place in this world where there’s anarchy – and what you have there is a country divided between the very rich and the very poor. You have a country where there’s no way for the very poor to become very rich, so they take it. Any society is at its greatest risk from those individuals who have no stake in it. If I don’t like me, I can’t like you. If I don’t respect me, I’m not going to respect you. If I don’t love me, I’m not going to love you, and -- here’s a big one -- if I don’t have a purpose in my life, I’m going to make your life a living hell.
As we embark on a new century, and people move from the working class, through the stakeholder class, to the middle class, their path is not really about making more money, but making better decisions with the money they make. If President Bush follows through on the urban agenda that he has in place right now, it has the potential to be the best urban agenda in thirty years. The war on poverty failed. The proof of that is the gated community. “People said, can’t solve it, can’t deal with it, I’m giving up, I’m taking care of myself.” Love and hate are not the problem. Indifference is.
We’re moving from race-based and place-based discrimination to class-based discrimination -- discrimination based on education and access and information. This is the danger.
In the new century, the poverty eradication tool will be education. Wealth will be decided by your access to information and education. If you have a more educated populace, they make better decisions. If they make better decisions, they’re going to make more conservative decisions. By its very nature, a liberal decision is an emotional decision. When the riots took place in ’92, most people hit the streets and started tearing up something because they were frustrated. I was angry inside, but I took that anger and I took that emotion and I made it intelligent, I made it a passion and focused it on changing the world through Operation HOPE. Operation HOPE is not male or female, Republican or Democrat. It is both. It is a holistic approach to eradicating poverty and solving the problems we face.
We are at a point where people are receiving a maximum level of pain in their personal lives, and they’re going to start making choices. What I’m telling you is exactly what I tell people in South Central Los Angeles; it’s what I tell people in Harlem; it’s what I tell every ethnic group that comes to hear me: It’s about a hand up and not a handout. People cheer this speech. But it’s not a political speech. It’s a progress speech.
When you walk into one of our banking centers, we don’t blame you for being poor. We don’t say you’re wrong or stupid because you support Jesse Jackson or whomever. We don’t say you’re irrelevant. If you want to turn somebody off, start criticizing them. What people want is to be included. They want to know they’re okay.
So we bring them in, and we say, whatever you didn’t know that you didn’t know and was killing you yesterday, that’s not your fault. Today your life starts over. The sign at our banking centers says, “No Loan Denials.” We approve you, day one -- subject to the resolution of your primary denial factors. We take people and we teach them how to be credit worthy.
I would suggest to Republicans that you do this as well. Put up a sign. No party denials. We bring you in, no matter who you are and no matter where you are. We meet you where you are, and we’ll go the next steps together.
At Operation HOPE we give people credit counseling and case management, because most black people’s credit reports look like a bus accident. Not because we’re bad people, not because we’re stupid; but because we’re experts in civil rights, not capitalism. By the time we’ve figured the system out, we’ve had eighteen credit cards and a bunch of bad marks on our credit logs.
So at Operation HOPE we bring people in and give people credit counseling and case management, and budget counseling. We say to them: “Whether it takes us twenty-four hours or forty-eight months, as long as you’re committed to saving your life, we will meet you where you are.” People stay in this program. If they don’t have a savings account, we open a savings account for them. For every dollar they put up, we grant them a dollar, up to five thousand dollars, to buy a home in an inner city neighborhood. The money is theirs. Where does the money come from? Not a social program, not the government. It comes from banks.
Why does a bank put up $5,000? The bank puts up $5,000 because -- and this is capitalism at its best -- it costs them $3,000 to $5,000 to acquire a new customer through marketing, mailings, and advertisements. But it gets even better. We said to the banks, “Give us the $5,000 and we’ll give you a charitable contribution. You’ll get credit under the Community Reinvestment Act [which was a good piece of bi-partisan legislation]. You’re going to get a new mortgage for $130,000. We will give the borrower a $5,000 grant for a do wn payment on a home. The borrower will come up with $5,000 of their own. The down payment will trigger a mortgage for the bank, and the bank will get a new long-term customer, and the fees from the closing of that mortgage are going to wipe out the $5,000.” It’s a four-for.
In Los Angeles, we’ve made a hundred loans in the dollar-for-dollar matching grant program. With a quarter million dollars we created fifteen million dollars in new homeowners in South Central, Los Angeles. The bank that provided the loans, Hawthorne Savings, is a hero in that community, and profitable too.
You can attract more people with honey than a stick. You can do well and do good. You can do well by doing good. And you don’t have to make people who are adverse to your opinions, your enemies. You can talk without being offensive and listen without being defensive. Criticism is an easy sport. White leaders, Black leaders, Republican leaders, Democratic leaders, irresponsible “mob-rule” leaders, and those just talking, and not leading at all -- most everybody (everyone?) seems to want to play some version of the blame game. But blame is not the answer, which never lies in recrimination and arguing over the past, but in moving forward, in progress, in creating solutions.
I once joked about writing a book called “To Hell With Politics; Give Me An Answer That Works.” Ending poverty and moving individuals up the economic ladder in life are not political issues. Anyone who genuinely wants to contribute to and has something meaningful to offer is welcome to the process, to the big tent of hope. Threading the needle of hope – that’s how I explain what we do.
If you are a Democrat and show up, I say great. That’s beautiful. Let’s work on promoting an agenda of responsibility, self-help, true empowerment and a hand up, in our under-served communities. If you are a Republican and have some decent ideas about bootstrapping individuals into real progress in America, I say great, that’s beautiful too. Show up sometime, in South Central Los Angeles and Harlem where I work, and “walk as the people walk.” Live as the people in these communities live. It is empathy and dignity these people want and need, not sympathy, handouts and finger pointing. To leaders of both parties I say, let’s work to truly help and empower people. Do this, and they will reward you with a lifetime of loyalty, and their votes. A hungry stomach does not ask about your political affiliation. It asks, do you care about me? Will you work with me?
If you are a black or brown community activist, or better still, a transparent conduit for God in the faith business, there is a genuine, unique opportunity to seed hope and grow a new crop of stakeholders in our blighted inner-cities and under-served communities. There is a genuine opportunity to eradicate poverty, but it will be “hands up” based, and not “hands out” based.
The Greek word for poor, as used by Jesus, is poucos, which means non-productivity. To be poor doesn’t mean you don’t have anything; it means you aren’t doing anything. Poverty is cured by hard work. “Lazy hands make a man poor” (Proverbs 10/4). The Bible says, “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit, and scarcity like an armed man.” Proverbs 6/10-11.
Working responsibly with and in our community, you can do good there. If you are a white capitalist in the private sector I say, there are genuine new market opportunities and untapped profit centers in places that people, and the media in general, have told you are slums, barrios and wastelands in America. You can do well there. I am telling both community leaders and capitalists alike, you can indeed “do well by doing good” in our urban, inner city and under-served communities.
If you are a leader in government, whether on the local, regional or federal level, I say, help me create new low to moderate-income homeowners and small business owners. Help me to train entrepreneurs and march them into our economy. Help me to train individuals in new economy job skills. Doing this will benefit the community, benefit the private sector, benefit real people in real places, and will also benefit government. When you create a homeowner, you create a new taxpayer. When you create a new small business owner, you create a new taxpayer. When you create a new economy worker, you create more tax revenue for government and more productivity for America too. You also create an individual who is too busy too hate. Too filled with hope to be filled with self-doubt and self-pity. Too on fire with the possibility of progress, to be occupied with protest. [Note you say earlier that you are not asking them for anything…do you want to here? I would suggest that you need to ask them to join you…rather then help you…they will help by the verture of your extending you hand to partner with them in these efforts.]
When you create a new generation of stakeholders you also begin the invaluable process of seeding hope in a new generation of leaders. Based on what I have witnessed personally, the leaders in waiting are there, ready to be called to the cause of public service.
I say to seasoned and new leaders alike, we need both of you to truly empower and uplift under-served America. As columnist Clarence Page said, “When principled leaders fail to rise, no one should be surprised that imperfect leaders fill that gap. Most successful blacks are too busy doing the things that brought them success to play the blame game. They aren’t singing about overcoming; they’re just overcoming. They should be the example for others, including people of other races, to follow.”
I believe that we stand on the threshold of great change in this country. For the first time we will be a country composed of a majority of minorities. People don’t care whether you’re white, black, red, brown or yellow, so long as you can produce some green. They don’t care whether you’re a Latino leader, they don’t care that you’re a Black leader, or a White leader. And neither do I. As long as you’re willing to join us in our efforts to end poverty and thread the needle of hope.