By John Hope Bryant, founder, chairmand and CEO, Operation HOPE
It’s not only possible to change the world, it's practical.
It costs Operation HOPE a mere $45.00 investment to empower a child with the critical tools they will need to compete in America, or anywhere else for that matter; teaching them the basics of checking, savings, credit, investment, history of money and banking, and a course in dignity, too. It costs even less than $45.00 per child in places like Africa and Latin America.
Here at Operation HOPE we accomplish this life-changing work with youth through our award-winning financial literacy program Banking on Our Future, now on-the-ground and operational in 30 U.S. urban cities and South Africa, with 6,000 volunteers in more than 800 inner-city schools.
Banking on Our Future is today America’s only national inner-city delivery platform for financial literacy empowerment. And thanks to our corporate and public sector partners and sponsors, what we do is free to schools and to the children we serve. A HOPE Corps volunteer from our global partner Citi, out of our Banking on Our Future, Baltimore program office called what we do simply teaching “the language of money.”
Imagine living in Japan and not knowing a word of Japanese. Wouldn’t do very well, would you? The same is the case when, to quote HOPE global spokesman Ambassador Andrew Young, you are “living in a capitalist society with no true access to capital or the levers of capitalism. This is truly just a sophisticated form of slavery.” However you describe it, one thing is sure -- without knowledge and self-esteem you cannot easily succeed in the hard-ball, rough and tumble, nothing is certain environment called American democracy; a democracy, make no mistake about it, rooted in capitalism, ownership and free enterprise.
With knowledge but lacking self-esteem (and ethics), individuals quickly find themselves “too smart for their own good,” rationalizing bad behavior. Winning battles, but losing the wars of life. As I have often said, to rationalize is to tell “rational lies.” And on the other hand, to have self-esteem but to lack useful knowledge is to succeed at dreaming but to fail at the practical living part. There is 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.” It’s what we don’t know that we don’t know that’s killing us.
There is not a welfare mother in her right mind in this country that doesn’t want her child to grow up intelligent, hard working and tax paying, if for no other reason than to feel proud of them. But you cannot give what you do not have. In a blind town a one-eyed man is king. If you don’t know better, you cannot do better.
No rational person wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to be dumb, stupid, ignorant and poor.” For most people, it’s simply what they don’t know that they don’t know that’s killing them.
It costs Operation HOPE $45.00 per child in the U.S. and something less than that in South Africa (we should have a study confirming the South African numbers approximately one-year to 18 months following our launch of the program office) to teach low-wealth children four complete modules of financial literacy (the basics of checking, savings, credit, investment, the history of money and banking along with a course in dignity). In South Africa we also provide a course in entrepreneurship because there are simply not enough jobs to go around, so we have to teach our youth there to become entrepreneurs and self-employment projects; teaching them to do for themselves, and in some cases to even create the “what I do” part for themselves, too. This is empowerment and financial literacy, and the “silver rights” movement in action.
Banking on Our Future is now operational in 30 U.S. cities and South Africa, too, including sessions within our national HOPE (Banking) Center Network, and components of what HOPE Coalition America, our emergency disaster economic assistance division, does as it works with adults and families in the Gulf states and other places, now represents the largest and most powerful financial literacy delivery platform for low-wealth youth in inner-cities across America. Delivery system focused, because we are not obsessed with financial literacy curriculum. We use multiple qualified curriculum, supplied by HOPE or our partners, because a curriculum alone has never taught a child anything; people teach children, and additionally, people serve as powerful role models and mentors in the classroom. Thus, our focus on and obsession with “delivery” and “dignity”.
I genuinely believe that a big part of the success and relevancy of Banking on Our Future over the years has been the involvement of the volunteer, heroes and she-roes we call HOPE Corps members. These individuals not only teach financial literacy basics, but they serve as powerful role models and mentors in communities sorely missing both.
I have witnessed time and time again the child, observing one of our HOPE Corps volunteers, who says to themselves, evidenced by the reflective expression on their face 30 minutes into the first session --- “hey, I can be him (or her).” And as a natural continuation of this thought process, they continue “…and I don’t have to be an athlete or an entertainer alone to be a successful person from the inner-city. I can be a banker, or accountant, or credit union professional, or insurance industry professional, or CPA, or a teacher, or anything I choose to be.” And this is what we mean by eradicating poverty as we know it in our lifetime.
“There is a difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke is a temporary economic condition, but being poor is a disabling frame of mind and a depressed condition of the spirit and we must decide we will never be poor again.”
And we are not going to stop with educating a child in financial literacy, or even providing him or her with a role model they can grow up to be like. We are not going to stop with a course in dignity or, in South Africa, a course in entrepreneurship. System-wide, starting in the 4th quarter of 2007, Operation HOPE through Banking on Our Future, is going to start integrating international assessments in all of our coursework, a certificate of completion for every child, an opportunity to start a $25.00 HOPE Starter Savings Account, with $12.50 donat ed by HOPE and our partners and $12.50 put up by the child or their parent or guardian. In other words, we believe that financial literacy needs to lead somewhere; lead to changed behavior.
We believe that no child or adult really wants a financial literacy course. Want to put a child to sleep? Give them a course in financial literacy. They want what financial literacy can bring them; from stopping bill collectors from calling their home at night, to the powerful knowledge of how one gets rich in America – legally.
In other words, its allure is aspirational in nature, no different than the American Dream.
Respectfully, we believe that no one really wants an education on its face. Look at the 30% high school drop out rates nationwide, of all races, and 50% plus drop out rates of Blacks and Latinos nationwide, and you cannot help but draw the conclusion that kids don’t believe that education is “relevant to their futures.” This does not demean education in anyway, because the fact of the matter is that education is the ultimate poverty eradication tool in 2007, period. The easiest way to escape poverty is to get a college education, because college graduates make double what high school graduates make, and let’s not even discuss high school drop-outs. This said, for many youth, particularly in inner-city and low-wealth communities I am most concerned about, kids simply don’t “feel education,” as they would say in the community. I believe that teaching kids the “language of money” changes all of that.
I often tell the story of the young mystical Derek, 12-years-old and African-American from our Banking on Our Future, Detroit program office, who after completing a financial literacy course was teased by other kids in school about his “choices.” I interceded, offering Derek and his two antagonistic 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 shoes. 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. Derek is in charge of Derek.
Or then you have the story of Ariana, 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 and request of U.S. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard. Well, we also introduced Banking on Our Future into some of the local schools, and Ariana was one of our first students. Quiet at first, Ariana began to blossom and speak up by the third session. By the time the program ended, Ariana found herself asking our HOPE Corps volunteer to “come home with her.” An odd request which only made sense much later. Speaking through Ariana, with her parents who only spoke Spanish, we learned that as the child of Mexican immigrants, young Ariana was the sole English speaker in the household, and as such, the de facto “head of household.” Ariana paid all the household bills, at 12 years of age. Ariana would head home on Thursdays, remove the cash from the cookie jar and head off to the check cashing store to buy money orders to pay a range of household bills. Ariana 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, Ariana 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. Ariana is now in college, and she literally helped to bring her family into the 21st century. Dignity.
And while stories like Derek’s and Ariana’s are indeed inspiring, and keep us moving forward, our work can, at turns, also be enormously frustrating. We are building the national financial literacy railroad, so to speak, in these under-served communities, the first-ever infrastructure and systems to operate that railroad, building and placing newly fashioned trains on tracks that did not exist before, along with newly minted passengers in the train cars – individuals, youth and adults, who in most cases never have had this experience before, along with responsible employees and interested others (volunteers), in place to ensure oversight and proper operations, …and doing all of this at the same time. Additionally and finally, we also must measure the effectiveness of all of these “outcomes,” again, all at the same time. No, it is not impossible, but it is no doubt hard to continue building a ship, already set to sea.
We have taken this two-track approach to addressing and solving the problem out of practical necessity, because there is no doubt a financial literacy crisis that exists today in the inner-cities of America. And so, we will have a comprehensive assessment component of our local and national work in place before the end of this year; and meanwhile, we will continue to build and “lay track,” because there is still no comprehensive financial literacy delivery system reaching the masses of our inner-city, low-wealth communities nationwide. As you read this, the majority of our youth in America are financially illiterate, believing that ATM means “All-The-Money.”
And so, we will stay focused on our core mission and mandate along with the practical challenges of trying to do something new, novel and necessary (the Ph.Do part), while at the same time focusing on achieving our goals in the most efficient and effective ways possible (the Ph.D part).
Yes, we are proud of what we have accomplished having already educated more than 230,000 low-wealth, inner-city youth in financial literacy nationwide, and along the way, picking up support from the likes of Ms. Oprah Winfrey and her Angel Network “Use Your Life Award,” which came with a grant for $100,000, allowing us to open our Banking on Our Future, Chicago program office, as well the John Sherman Award for Excellence in Financial Education from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, only the 11th award of its kind issued by our government in the history of the U.S. Treasury Department. This said, the work is far from completed. Not even close. The good news – we are “no ways” tired. Not even close.
In the months and years ahead we are going to need a lot of help to fulfill our mission; to educate 5 million low-wealth children in financial literacy, to recruit 25,000 HOPE Corps volunteer professionals, to sign-up 1,000 of the world’s largest and most prestigious companies and brands, to fund $1 billion in new homeownership and minority small business ownership, and to spark a global “silver rights” movement by 2012. And this is where you come in.
One person can make a difference, and $45.00 can change the world. Be the change you want to see in the world.
In short, help us make a difference in the lives of others.
One person can indeed change the world.
Onward with HOPE
John Hope Bryant