“Both young people and adults need basic knowledge about how our economy functions as well as the skills to make it work for them. Operation HOPE seeks to give those skills to people who otherwise would be left out and left behind. Founded by John Hope Bryant in May 1992 in the immediate aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, Operation HOPE has set an ambitious objective: to launch a “silver rights” movement in America. The movement’s agenda includes teaching financial literacy to “low-wealth” children; promoting inner-city communities to investors and lenders; empowering adults with skills in money management, credit, mortgage, business lending, and small-business ownership; teaching inner-city residents computer literacy in its Cyber Café; and through its HOPE Centers, converting lower-income check cashers into banking customers, renters into homeowners, minimum-wage workers into living-wage earners, small-business hopefuls into business owners, and the economically uneducated into the financially literate.
Since its inception, Operation HOPE has attracted more than $100 million in grant funds and about $300 million in mortgages and small-business loans. It has formed partnerships with three hundred private companies, more than one hundred government agencies, and more than one thousand NGOS. Operating in more than seven hundred schools and community-based organizations across the United States, HOPE has educated more than 200,000 low-wealth young people in financial literacy. I participated in one of Bryant’s Banking on Our Future financial-literacy classes in Harlem and saw firsthand how eager young people are to learn. It was fascinating to watch John demonstrate, in easily understandable terms, what a check is and how to write one, even on the sleeve of a shirt!
After Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Operation HOPE joined my foundation and ACORN, an NGO of grassroots activists committed to empowering poor people, to assist eligible survivors to claim the earned income tax credit. Together, HOPE and ACORN helped people secure more than $10 million to which they were entitled but for which they had to apply. Operation HOPE also provided free tax counseling and aid with the special problems faced by people who had lost their homes and their jobs. And H&R Block gave free assistance in tax preparation and EITC filing to five thousand HOPE clients.
John Bryant is a forty-one-year-old whirlwind of ideas and action. Lean, intense, focused, and completely positive in the potential of poor people to prosper with “a hand up not a hand out,” Bryant has attracted support from Democrats and Republicans alike. President George W. Bush appointed him to the board for the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, and he has worked with my foundation and hundreds of other partners to advance his goals.
When I asked Bryant why he decided to devote his life to Operation HOPE, he said, “I don’t know if I decided. In 1992 I was twenty-six and financially successful, but I wasn’t happy. When the Los Angeles riots broke out after Rodney King was beaten, I was appalled by the indifference to the plight of people without hope. I wanted to change hearts and minds, to teach poor people to live with hope and to persuade people with money to invest in them, in their children, homes, and business- not out of charity but enlightened self-interest. I started Operation HOPE out of guilt, pain, and a need to heal myself. I keep doing it because the key to happiness is to stop focusing on me and start focusing on we. My family still has everything we need, and I feel lucky that I made my decision at twenty-six instead of waiting until I was seventy.”
A large portion of Operation HOPE’s success is due to citizen volunteers. Bryant calls them HOPE Heroes. They provide financial literacy education to young people, financial counseling to disaster victims, and economic education in credit, investment, and home ownership to adults. If you have the necessary skills, Operation HOPE can use you.”
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton