Yd2h95952_2By John Hope Bryant

On the occasion of National Financial Literacy Month

Let me start by saying financial literacy is working, but I absolutely understand why some very smart people may think it is not. Let me explain. Recently the U.S. Treasury Department held a conference on financial education in Washington, D.C. where several who gave testimony questioned whether their efforts, and those of others involved in this work, were effective in transforming the lives and the understanding of money by young people. Well, if the focus is on curriculum and websites, those concerns are entirely and utterly valid. No child, particularly a child living in a low-wealth community and grappling with other issues, has ever learned a thing from curriculum alone, and last time I checked, the ‘hood (meaning the inner-city and low-wealth community for those in need of translation, smile) didn’t have many T-1 lines and high speed Internet connections capable of handling the content we are pushing their way. Furthermore, given a choice between Black Entertainment Television online, MTV online, or XYZ bank or government agency online, respectfully, which one do you think they are going to pick?

At the end of the day…

No one wants a car loan, especially if they are young and on their way up; they want a fancy car to impress their friends.

No one wants a mortgage loan; they want to become a homeowner and to build wealth.

And no one really wants financial literacy education either. They want to know how to get the bill collectors to stop calling, or how to get the folks who can help to make them rich to start calling.

And that is why I admire so much what my friends at Jump$tart Coalition have attempted to do over the years; not just advocating financial literacy education, per se, which is vitally important, but connecting what a kid learns, or doesn’t learn in the classroom or at home about financial literacy, with real choices and challenges in their lives.

Let me be clear; I am not at all saying that the more than 900 financial literacy curricula created by industry and government in circulation today (including the Banking on Our Future curriculum by Operation HOPE I might add) are of little value. In fact, they are invaluable tools for those who teach financial literacy, and there are clear stand outs in this space including Citigroup, Wells Fargo, ING and the FDIC’s MoneySmart Program. This said, respectfully, do we really need over 900 different, stand-alone financial literacy curriculum versions? I mean, how many ways are there to teach a child about checking, savings, credit, investment and the history of markets? 90% of t! he content of all of these curricula are near identical in substance, and are all meeting basic academic standards nationally.

At the end of the day, people teach people, and even more importantly, people inspire changed behavior, and this is what financial literacy, is all about.

What I am saying has been better said by one Sidney Poitier in his book, THE MEASURE OF A MAN, when he said, “we aren’t just what’s directed by our genes, and we certainly aren’t just what we’re taught. It’s what we ‘experience’ during those early years – a smile here, a jarring sound there – that creates the pathways and connections of the brain.” He went on to say, “we put our kids through 15 years of quick-cut advertising, passive television watching, and sadistic video games, and we expect to see emerge a new generation of calm, compassionate, and engaged human beings?”

What I am trying to say is actually better said by some of the kids we teach, and other lives we have touched.

Young people like Arianna, a then 12-year-old from Maywood, California, a Spanish speaking community in South East Los Angeles, that had no banking presence before Operation HOPE built a HOPE Center there at the recommendation of U.S. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard.  Well, we also introduced Banking on Our Future into some of the local schools and Arianna was one of our first students. Quiet at first, Arianne began to blossom and speak up by the third session. By the time the program ended, Arianna found herself asking our HOPE Corps volunteer to “come home with her.” An odd request which only made sense much later. Speaking through Arianna, with her parents, we learned that as the child of Mexican immigrants, yo! ung Arianna was the sole English speaker in the household and as such, the de facto “head of household.” Arianne paid all the household bills, at 12 years of age. She would head home on Thursdays, remove the cash from the cookie jar and head off to the check cashing store to buy money orde
rs to pay a range of household bills. Arianna actually told us at one point in her young life she thought that Bank of America was the BANK OF AMERICA, and that a check casher was where you did your banking. Well, Arianna learned quickly, and with the permission of her parents, we were able to open first a savings account, and then a checking account in her name. From this account she sat down with her teacher every Thursday thereafter and paid all of the household bills. We later found out that having an English speaking child as de facto head of household is very common in Latino and Hispanic families.  Arianna is now in college.

Or there is the amazing Derek from Detroit, Michigan, who after completing a financial literacy course was teased by other kids in school about his “choices.” I interceded, offering Derek and his two antagonizing friends $70 each, with the test case being Nike Corporation. What happened next speaks for itself. Derek decided to purchase one share of Nike stock, while his two friends immediately opted for a pair of Nike shoes – Air Jordan shoes to be specific (for which they needed an additional $30 each, I might add). The friends began teasing young Derek once again about his “choices.” Saying “hey man, you need to get these sho! es. EVERYONE has got these shoes.” As I began to step in to defend young Derek’s honor he stopped me, saying “no, it’s okay. I WANT them to buy those shoes (are you smiling yet). Because when they do, they are making me money.” Now, Derek may be broke again tomorrow, but young Derek will never again be poor. Derek is rich beyond measure, because he has learned to see himself, and the choices available to him in his life, differently. 

Last year Ambassador Andrew Young, our global spokesman and my personal hero, and I cut a series of radio spots around financial literacy and silver rights for our friends at Premiere Radio Networks, who last year alone donated more than $2 million in airtime promoting financial literacy nationwide (amazing, I might add). One spot was focused on Derek, Nike and this example of the power of financial literacy in action in people’s lives. Well, just last week Mary Hagerty, our newly promoted global chief of financial literacy, received the following email from a Premiere Radio Networks listener;

Dear Ms. Hagerty

I am an XM radio subscriber. I have heard the public announcement with Mr. Young and Mr. Bryant talking about the 3 boys and the Nike tennis shoes. I heard that ad until I was sick of it. Then one night while I was checking on my online trading account, I decided to take a look at the Nike stocks. After a few days of thinking about it, I purchased a few shares. I watched them for a few weeks and watch the stock price drop. Thinking that I made a poor choice in stocks, I didn’t look at them for a few weeks until one day I looked and saw that the price had gone back up to the original price. Long story short I purchased Nike stocks at about $80.00 per share, Nike stock has within the last month has climbed to over $109.00 per share. ! And I give the credit to your Nike ad. I am putting the stocks on dividend reinvestment and dividing the shares between my two sons 6 and almost 2. One day they should almost have their college paid for.

Thank you

I had to tell someone in your organization about this.

Amazing, true and inspiring, too.

I keep saying that Operation HOPE is a revolutionary movement of common sense. A “silver rights” movement even, where the ultimate goal is nothing short of making capitalism and the free-enterprise system relevant to the poor. To make capitalism and free-enterprise work for the poor, quoting Andrew Young.

A practical movement where financial literacy education has to be coupled with an opportunity for kids to open a real bank account upon completion.

One where abstract theories can be made real in people’s lives; like converting check cashing customers into banking customers, as we did successfully with Nix Check Cashing and Union Bank of California.

Or, like converting renters into homeowners, converting small business dreamers into small business owners and entrepreneurs, and converting minimum wage workers into living wage workers with new job skills, as we do everyday working in partnership with Bank of the West, Cali
fornia National Bank, First American Corporation, H & R Block, E*TRADE Financial, JP Morgan Chase, GE and the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation, in our network of nine HOPE Centers nationwide. 

Or like our work transforming high-minded bankers and executives from credit unions, insurance, financial services and Wall Street firms, into honored classroom teachers working alongside some of our nation’s best and brightest in K-12 education through Banking on Our Future.

We have found in our work at Operation HOPE through our award-winning Banking on Our Future program, which has now reached and taught more than 213,000 low-wealth youth in 25 U.S. cities, and soon in South Africa and Rwanda too, the basics of financial literacy, that “there is a difference between being broke and being poor. That being broke is a temporary economic condition, but being poor is a disabling frame of mind and a depressed condition of your spirit, and you must vow to never, ever be poor again.” 

We have learned that real wealth lies in the head, heart and spirit, and not just in one’s pocket. That having dignity is real wealth, too.

We have learned over the years that individuals should be viewed not so much as low-income but rather low-wealth. That the issue at hand is less about making more money, and more about making better decisions with the money you make.

We have learned over the years that (general) education is the ultimate poverty eradication tool, and that when you know better you tend to do better, and further, there is no more effective communicator of the power and relevancy of education than a role model and mentor in that classroom, talking directly to those kids.

We have learned what every parent already knows; that you cannot raise your children by email, so we cannot reasonably expect to teach historically ignored and under-served low-wealth communities with websites alone, even if they have high speed connections and T1 lines. In other words, curriculum is fine, and conferences are fine, and websites and brochures are fine, and business meetings uptown are fine, but at the end of the day you have to “show up” in people’s lives — if you ever expect to see any real change in their lives.

Personally, I have learned, and passionately believe, that our kids are dropping out of high school in record numbers (30% of all high school students across the board, and 50% of all black and brown kids) partly because they don’t see education as relevant to their future. We can change that. We must, change that. Financial literacy education of the kind experienced by young Derek, and young Arianna could make all the difference in the world.

At bottom, what I am trying to say is PhD’s are good, but PhDo’s are even better. I call that the Get It Done Party.

At Operation HOPE, our part of this work is articulated by way of our 2012 goals; to educate 5 million low-wealth youth in financial literacy, to recruit 25,000 volunteer HOPE Corps professionals, to fund $1 billion in new homeownership and small business ownership, to attract 1,000 of the world’s largest companies as our partners, and to spark a movement of silver rights.  To help us achieve this, log on to www.operationhope.org and sign on as a volunteer, school site, local non-profit partner, government partner or private sector partner in our work.

Let’s get on with getting on with it.

Onward and with HOPE

Please join us on April 23, 2007 for the 15th Anniversary HOPE Bankers Bus Tour to see how financial literacy impacts under-served communities.  Click here to visit www.operationhope.org/bbt/

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