And yet you could be forgiven for leaving the event feeling slightly conflicted: motivated, on the one hand, by the uplifting speeches and the evidence of widespread interest in spreading financial literacy throughout low-income communities and beyond, and unsure on the other hand that any such effort could be both scalable and effective enough to make much of a difference.
But any skepticism would have to wait until the end of the conference to surface, after the final rush to swap business cards with banking executives and the heads of nonprofits, on the last pass through the convention hall as the FDIC and CFPB booths were shutting down, on the airplane trip home from Atlanta. The summit itself was squarely focused on the positive, with an agenda that ranged from a keynote address by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to a Q-and-A session with rapper-turned-businessman Russell Simmons.
A pre-conference program at Atlanta's famed Ebenezer Baptist Church lent an additional sense of purpose and history to the proceedings. Ebenezer is where Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. preached, and two members of the King family (Martin Luther King Jr.'s only living sibling, Christine King-Farris, and his daughter, Bernice King) appeared over the two days of events, reminding delegates that their fathers saw economic justice, and financial education, as a civil rights matter.
"Dad was all about financial literacy," said King-Farris, who recalled that her father, affectionately known as "Daddy King," encouraged many of his congregants to realize the dream of home ownership.
Operation HOPE describes itself as the "largest national urban delivery system for financial literacy empowerment in the nation." It organized the gathering at Ebenezer to cut the ribbon on its newest Financial Dignity Center, housed within the church's Martin Luther King Sr. Community Resource Complex. In seminars and one-on-one sessions, counselors at Operation HOPE Financial Dignity Centers around the country offer advice on cleaning up bad credit, purchasing a home or obtaining a small-business loan.
The summit (American Banker was a media sponsor) officially kicked off back at the convention hotel, with a timely address by Don Graves, head of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Graves had been with President Obama that day for a heavily publicized meeting with corporate CEOs invited to the White House to discuss the fiscal cliff and its impact on hiring.
The dignity that employment can provide was a key theme that carried into the second day of the summit. Michael Arougheti, the president of Ares Capital, triggered a wave of applause during a panel discussion when he cited a recent observation made by Operation HOPE founder John Hope Bryant: "The new philanthropy is a job."
But it takes more than a job to fully participate in, and benefit from, the financial system. For that, you need to know the vocabulary of money. You need someone to show you, through formal training or just by example, how to responsibly manage your finances. On this, every speaker who addressed the issue agreed wholeheartedly.
"Forty percent of the population wouldn't know what to do if they had a $2,000 emergency," noted SunTrust CEO Bill Rogers, who didn't hesitate to answer in the affirmative when he was asked whether financial literacy should be a required course in high school or college. "I would say actually middle school is the best place to start," Rogers said. "By the time you get to college, you sort of already had to have had it happen."
Steve Bartlett, the outgoing head of the Financial Services Roundtable, said that financial literacy efforts had moved up the trade group's list of legislative priorities in each of the 13 years he was there.
But Barlett's successor, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who made a surprise appearance at the event, seemed to stump Bartlett, Rogers, Arougheti and their co-panelists when he asked from the audience whether there were any new approaches to closing the financial literacy gap.
Hasan AlJabri, CEO of Saudi Arabia's SEDCO Capital, stretched with an answer about socially conscious investing. Alphonso Jackson, the ex-HUD secretary who is now vice chairman for mortgage banking at JPMorgan Chase, talked about financial literacy programs at the Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCA facilities that he helped put on the grounds of public housing projects in Dallas-an interesting approach, but hardly new. It dates to the 1990s, when Jackson ran the Dallas Housing Authority.
As it became clear that Pawlenty's question would be inadequately addressed, Arougheti stepped up and neatly summarized why: "Everyone's aligned behind these issues," he said, "but the effort feels very fragmented."
The observation gave extra weight to the next sessions, in which delegates split up into working groups to discuss a range of topics, like banking the unbanked, rethinking the role of government and philanthropy, and harnessing entrepreneurship. (I helped lead a discussion about small business credit.) The brainstorms mainly seemed to point in one direction: work to improve financial literacy.
In between the working group sessions, delegates gathered to hear Bernanke, who gave a standard Fed chairman's speech about housing and the mortgage market. (While there are "good reasons to be encouraged … we should not be satisfied with the progress we have seen so far," he noted.)
Bernanke finally got interesting toward the end, when he tapped straight into his audience's mission, saying, "Our recovery must be broadly felt to be complete, and families and communities that were already struggling before the crisis must be included in that recovery. As Dr. King is widely quoted to have said, 'We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now.'"
King's long shadow emerged once more near the summit's close, when his daughter Bernice spoke.
"Most people feel my father was assassinated because of the work he was doing [on behalf of] African-Americans, to empower them to be first-class citizens," she said. "But the reality is, my father was killed while planning a poor person's march."
It was the perfect transition to bring what had been a quiet, contemplative speech to a rousing crescendo that invoked her father's oratory and brought the delegates to their feet.
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