Well, it appears I am not alone. Since the Tuesday, January 25th, 2005, meeting between George W. Bush and 20 Black leaders, I have been approached several times — with essentially the same questions. Questions such as…
What did the President say?
What was actually discussed during the meeting?
What did you say or propose to the President?
And probably the most important question — "what was the President’s response to the meeting, and what was said?"
Well, here is all of it, or at least most of it, first person…
As the meeting opening up, the President outlined a bold agenda for his second term. It included…
His ongoing commitment to the African continent. He went out of his way to note that his Administration has made a larger commitment to Africa than any other. He noted in particular his commitment to help fight the AIDS epidemic, to support the Millennium Challenge Account, and the re-authorization of the African trade bill, AGOA.
The President said that he wanted to see a free and democratic Palestinian State during his Presidency, and further commented that he had just finished a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in this regard, just prior to our meeting.
Note: I found this, as well as a couple additional items from the President in this meeting particularly "interesting." What I mean is that this and other issues discussed were not one might refer to as simply "traditional (black community) issues," with which a group such as ours would reasonably expect to be briefed on by a sitting President. That said, the respect accorded the group, as leaders in the broader context, and not simply as "black leaders," I believe resonated with all present. Did with me.
Of course, he spoke passionately about his faith-based agenda, his focus on an Ownership Society, …even his plans around Social Security Reform.
Finally, in his opening remarks the President said something else that I am not sure everyone else heard, or properly valued at the time, …but I sure did. He told us that this was his first "official" meeting since the inauguration.
A very subtle, yet important point of distinction indeed. In short, he was trying to let us know that we were a priority going into his second term. Good. Now, we must all work to insure that we remain one.
My agenda was straight forward: secure a place at the table for financial literacy education and empowerment with regard to the President’s Ownership Society, and even his plans and proposals around Social Security Reform, should it all come to pass.
Why? Because I firmly believe that for any new empowerment related public policy initiatives to be effective, having impact on low-wealth communities — and particularly anything centered around converting check cashing customers into banking customers, converting renters into homeowners, converting small business dreamers into small business owners and so on — they will have to address the hard fact that America is substantially financially illiterate (the number one cause for divorce in America is money!). And when mainstream America has a headache, minority America has pneumonia, but we are all sick. The answer, or at least a large part of it, is massive doses of practical financial literacy education. "When you know better, you tend to do better." Education is the ultimate poverty eradication tool.
I explained that the President’s desire of putting people into the first home of their own — a very honorable and much desired outcome I might add, in and for black, brown and low-wealth communities — was very different, actually, than keeping them there! That once again, financial literacy education can make all the difference in the world.
That our own lending experience and track record at Operation HOPE and our network of HOPE Centers proved this out. Almost 1,000 new low-wealth homeowners and small business owners created since we started lending in 1994, and not one home loan has ever been reported as a foreclosure! This is not magic, it is the result of a massive amount of hands-on time invested, in the form of effective financial literacy education for the under-served; or what we at Operation HOPE call "private banking for the working poor."
Again, when you know better, you tend to do better…
There is an old southern saying, "…no matter how much I love you, my son or my daughter, if I don’t have wisdom, then I can only give you my own ignorance." And so, out of LOVE — we pass down bad habits, from generation to generation. Or, in other words, "I can only give you what I have (to offer)." That people in low-wealth communities were of course not dumb or stupid, but "it was what they didn’t know that they didn’t know, …that was killing them."
The President listened, and he took notes too.
The President listened to others present, and jotted down more notes after they spoke.
When I had a quiet moment with the President, first in a brief session in the Oval Office, and then later as part of my opening "framing" remarks during the main meeting (which went on for almost 2 hours I might add, and was originally scheduled for just one hour), I spoke with the President and his advisors about what I termed "the opportunity."
An opportunity to make a real and sustainable difference in the communities I care most about (around poverty eradication). Communities I honestly believe, after meeting with him, he genuinely cares about too. And respectfully, …that now was the time to act.
I went on to say that he had in fact "hit a nerve" in the black community with his talk and new focus on ownership and responsibility, ….but that more was needed to make this real and relatable to distressed black and brown communities in this country. That the black community in particular, "had to see themselves wrapped up in the very policies you are proposing (for their benefit)." And if we didn’t (see ourselves in these policies), the result would not be skepticism, which is healthy on balance, but cynicism — which is not.
I encouraged the President to seriously consider expanding and embedding financial literacy education as a baseline requirement in and for his Ownership Society agenda. Social Security too (in the form of a 1-2 hour on-site financial literacy course, made available through employers to and for all part-time and full-time employees, prior to any opening of any sort of private account).
Approached in the right way, I told the President that he had a unique opportunity to help minority and low-wealth America to take th
e critical growth step from just civil rights, to (include) silver rights too. To help "spark a movement" in America. A silver rights movement!
A movement, frankly, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of under a different name in 1968. He called it "the Poor People’s Campaign," and in 1968 King said, and I quote, "you cannot legislate goodness," and "you cannot pass a law to force someone to respect you…" That "the only way to social justice in a capitalist country, is through economic parity." Ownership. — Sound familiar?
That Dr. King was speaking to and for poor whites (there are more poor whites in America today that poor anyone else), poor blacks, Latinos, Indians, Asians and others. Today, this would include middle-class America too!
That Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, three weeks before his March on Washington for the Poor People’s Campaign, …but his vision lives on today.
That Ambassador Andrew Young, the right arm to the late Dr. King and the new national spokesman for Operation HOPE, said just recently, "Martin and I succeeded in integrating the lunch counters, and the public buildings, and even the public school house, but never the dollar, …and this is the work that Operation HOPE is doing today!" The Silver Rights Movement.
For two hours the President mostly listened, and then responded, as each attendee gave his view of the current day priorities in Black America; from the problem of gangs, to broader issues of social justice, to economic empowerment (…and thank you Deborah Wright, chairman and CEO of the largest black bank in America, Carver Federal Savings Bank, for both underscoring the need for financial literacy education in the building up of a healthy inner city economy, and also highlighting the success stories of the CDFI Fund) and others.
Senior staff present with the President for the full length of the meeting included Karl Rove, recently appointed deputy chief of staff and senior advisor, Claude Allen, recently appointed to the post of domestic policy advisor (the first African-American domestic policy advisor in U.S. history, I might add! And sharp too…), and Jim Towey, assistant to the president for the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. All three carrying the title of assistant to the President at the time. Also present were a half dozen additional senior staffers, including Jeremy White (good people), deputy director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, and Tina Hervey (also, very sharp), of the White House office of public liaison, and both African-American.
As we wrapped up our discussions I could not help but to hope that this was a new beginning of and for a real relationship — the one between the black community and the President of the United States.
With the President meeting with private sector, faith and community leaders from the black community on Tuesday, and then members of the Congressional Black Caucus the same week, on Thursday, it was indeed hope, not inappropriately placed. Let’s see where we go from here…
In the meantime, I and we will continue to positively and proactively push the "issue portfolio" that I believe will increasingly define the 21st century, itself an economic era, ..which is economic empowerment. And, of course, education before anything else.
As we got up to leave, I once again reminded the President (respectfully of course) and the group to focus on the power of financial literacy education to make a difference. This in a nation where, according to the Federal Reserve, fully 80% of the nation’s economic activity is on the back of the U.S. consumer. That means you and me friend. We are America’s economic engine.
At the end of the day, you can’t really talk about managing your own Social Security account, if you cannot even manage your own checking account.
The President heard me. He even told me, ..on the substance of the things said by me in the meeting — he agreed. Financial literacy education, just like literacy itself, was indeed important. Very.
Cannot ask for much more than that (from one meeting) from the leader of the free world. Let’s see where we go from here!
Onward, with HOPE.