Newt Gingrich's politics are not my own, but there have been flashes of brilliance, and generally I have always considered him to be one of the most intelligent "thinkers" within the Republican Party. Even my friend former President Bill Clinton said as much in recent public comments, and Mr. Clinton has good reason to be more than a little hesitant about Mr. Gingrich.
You could agree with him, or passionately disagree with him, and maybe even question intent with respect to some of his actions while in public office. This said, generally speaking I cannot remember ever saying he sounded just plain dumb. Comments by Mr. Gingrich two weeks ago, unfortunately, changed that for me.
Recently the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, took a pretty smart public policy idea — that of encouraging the economic energy of all of America's young people — and turned it into a pretty dumb political stunt. Worse, it was a political stunt that spoke down, and into the dark well of some of the worse aspects of human prejudice. That unspoken bias and belief that '… there's nothing wrong in limiting the aspirations of little black and brown kids to being say… a janitor in America.'
Now, just like Dr. King, I believe that being a janitor can be an honored profession, just like many others that allow the rest of us to go about our daily business; our general living environment in order. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once said "if you are going to be a janitor, then become the best janitor the world has ever seen.
..Sweep streets like Michelangelo painted frescos." Fact is, for a time my own mother, Ms. Juanita Smith, was a janitor while I was growing up, so I am not degrading the role of janitor in society. That said, for my mother it was also a conscious choice, to be a janitor in my school.
She wanted to be the janitor in my elementary school, so that she could spend more time with me, and she could watch over me as I maneuvered my way through a sometimes hostile childhood environment in inner-city Compton, California. As soon I graduated elementary school, my mother graduated from janitorial duties, and returned to the job she was actually trained to do — that of being a specialist fabricator at what was McDonald Douglas Aircraft, now Boeing Aircraft.
Mr. Gingrich is right when he speaks of the power of returning a "culture of work" to some communities, where opportunities for legitimate work have run as dry as water in the Sahara Desert. I am obsessed with being productive, with working, and ultimately to becoming an entrepreneur as an adult, because I had powerful role models. I saw my mother and my father, who owned his own business and has for 54 years, work the entire time I was growing up.
Mr. Gingrich is even right to suggest we lower the age in which young people can seek some level of legitimate employment (Gingrich suggest youth be allowed to start working at 9 years old). I know a little about this myself, as Gallup and the organization I founded recently released national research poll data from the recent Gallup-HOPE Index, which is the only national youth index on levels of youth financial literacy and youth economic energy.
Amongst other things, the Gallup-HOPE Index revealed that 91% of all youth were not afraid to take risks, 77% of all youth wanted to be their own boss, yet only 5% of all youth had a business internship or business mentor, and a mere 4% had a bank account with money in it.
The gap between a youth's aspirations and their hope, and the very real opportunities for them to act on either, are simply too wide in America. And without some positive intervention in their lives, we should not be at all surprised when youth move from a state of being hopeful and optimistic to skeptical, then cynical, and then hopeless, and then right on to dropping out of school, and life. After all of that, we really cannot be all that surprised about what they then drop "into." Most notably, a life of what I call "alternative opportunity."
Growing up I use to think that other kids who wanted to be rap stars, athletes or unfortunately, drug dealers, were just dumb and stupid. After all I thought, I grew up in these communities and I "understood." I did not.
I now understand that not only are these youth not dumb or stupid, they are brilliant. Brilliant because they are modeling what they see. A drug dealer may be unethical and illegal, and there may be a special place in Hell reserved for someone who sells death to their own community, but a successful drug dealer is not dumb. Just an entrepreneur with bad role models, and a horrible aspirational environment.
Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point" revealed that with a mere 5% role models, all communities stabilize. In short, our youth are simply modeling what they see. We need to give our youth something different to see.
But even this is not a problem limited to America's poor and and underserved neighborhoods, nor black and brown people. America's high-school dropout rate is 30% across all American communities and schools (white America included), and a sense of entitlement is a societal ache that will cause untold future pain for an entire generation of young people who seem uninspired by hard work, discipline and sacrafice. This is not a "minority" problem, but an American one. The solution is American too.
Mr. Gingrich is right to point to the 50 million young people 5th grade through 12th grade as an untapped source of economic energy that will drive America's future GDP growth, but he is wrong to single out urban, inner-city and low-wealth communities as his policy visual aid. And Mr. Gingrich is dead wrong to suggest that young people in the inner-city should aspire to be janitors in their own schools. What the….
Let's assume that these 9 year olds actually become the inner city janitors that Mr. Gingrich suggests, and then what have we done?
We have unseated very real and very limited gainful employment (a decent job) for the responsible adults in that same community.
We have effectively removed one of the few and single most consistent working adult role models that these youth actually see every day.
We have de-dignified the "working stature" of the men and women who actually have these jobs now, and whose kids actually attend the schools that Mr. Gingrich dispassionately speaks about. Adults like my mother, and kids like me. What would have been different, if my life was different?
Worse of all, with all the talk of young people becoming janitors, where is the talk of young people — and future American entrepreneurs and small business owners — creating and owning the janitorial business itself that contracts with that school or school district?
I am tired of talking down about paternalistic sympathy of any sort, including th
e economic kind, and it time we talk up about dignity-centered empathy of every kind.
It is time to get on with the ultimate public policy commitment. That one inspired from the Bible; of not just giving a man a fish, nor just teaching him how to fish, but teaching him (and her) how to own the lake too.
Mr. Gingrich, return to the vaulted center of progressive American values, and in so doing you will lend your public policy thought leadership the very integrity and credibility it needs to be considered that which I am sure you intend — best in class in America.
Onward and with HOPE
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass) the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and a Member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum.