Hope is on the way
John Hope Bryant has dedicated his life to providing economic education to underprivileged sectors of society. His aim is to enable these people to free themselves from poverty using the tools of capitalism
He talks constantly, with an energy that comes from somewhere deep inside. His use of gestures and rhetoric places him in the great tradition of Afro-American speakers, from W.E.B. du Bois and Martin Luther King right up to Barack Obama.
John Hope Bryant is getting his message across. He was an adviser to George W. Bush, and he also has President Obama's attention in attempting to answer the following question: How can America's poor escape from their own personal financial crisis?
Today, John Hope Bryant, born in 1966 in South Central Los Angeles, is discussing the issue of "financial literacy", as he so often does. His voice is deep and his language rhythmic. Bryant highlights the case of a single mother who has fallen into the trap of consumer capitalism and been overwhelmed by credit card bills. Then, more widely, he talks about the greed of a financial system that has lost its values. He frequently makes reference to historical events: "In 1962, 22 million people in America were unable to vote." The tempo of his speech increases. "In 2010, 40 million people in America - the world's richest country - do not have a bank account." The civil rights movement won universal suffrage, thank God. "Now we need the silver rights movement, to ensure that all people have access to economic education and financial services."
After no more than ten minutes of conversation with John Hope Bryant, it is impossible not to wonder whether this man may be even more charismatic than the president he has advised for the last two years. One of Obama's predecessors, Bill Clinton, describes Bryant as a "whirlwind of good ideas," who can show the financially illiterate of America and the world the way out of individual and structural poverty. Most importantly, his ideas are much more than just theoretical.
He teaches young people from inner-city problem areas the
"language of money"
His life's focus - financial literacy - is reflected in Operation HOPE. Bryant founded the organization in 1992, immediately after the Rodney King riots in South Central Los Angeles. Since then, Operation HOPE has helped more than one million people in the USA and in southern Africa to put their personal finances in order, buy their own home, or start a business. Over 10,000 volunteers in 69 community centers teach young people from inner-city problem areas the "language of money". Case by case, staff draw up debt relief plans, overcome the hurdles involved in acquiring start-up loans, or in partnership with banks double every dollar of equity capital saved to ease families' paths from renting to owning their own home.
In terms of numbers, Operation HOPE has allocated almost one billion dollars for social development. Bryant loves numbers - particularly big ones. He also loves to link them to anecdotes. John Bryant places his hand on the button of his navy blue suit, jerks it forward abruptly and says: "This was produced by a business owner who took our entrepreneurship program. Today he earns a million dollars a year." Bryant's mission is the systematic development of the American dream. He wants to heal the wounds of capitalism with the tools of capitalism, or as he puts it: "Structure capitalism so that it finally works in favor of the poor."
John Hope Bryant tackles poverty from two different angles. From the bottom, he helps individuals. The language of money is not so complicated. Anyone who puts in a little effort can learn it, and Operation HOPE offers classes free of charge in precisely this. From the top, he works tirelessly as a political activist and Young Global Leader, as a newspaper commentator and book author, and as a blogger and keynote speaker, with the aim of putting financial literacy on the agenda of both politicians and business leaders. In the wake of the financial crisis - the billions lost on Wall Street, the Lehman collapse, and the ever-rising state stimulus packages - no other American can have done so much to ensure that the "unbanked population" - those in American society who have no bank account - is not totally forgotten.
As is the case for most successful activists working for a better world, the focus of Bryant's endeavors was not stumbled upon by chance. His own past is rooted in poverty, with money - or rather a lack of it - a constant worry in his family. Neither of John's parents graduated from high school. He grew up in districts where people usually joined a gang to prevent being robbed on the way home from school. John, however, escaped from this deadly gang culture, or rather he was forced to. His mother was always close by and barely let him take one step alone. When the first children from his neighborhood started dying from drug abuse or bulletwounds, he saw why.
John Bryant quickly recognized that money would offer a route out of this ghetto of violence and poverty, though hardly any families - let alone single mothers - had a financial plan. In these areas, people survive on a hand to mouth existence. The rare checks they receive are exchanged for cash at exorbitant fees. Individuals fall for dubious, enticing offers with low starter rates, which are marketed at great expense in communities where people have little knowledge of or experience with money. A loan shark lurks on every corner, bridging the gap to the next welfare check at absurdly high interest rates. "And because people don't believe they even have a tomorrow, they go to liquorstores to forget about their today," suggests John.
At the age of ten, he independently set up his own candy store, before obtaining his high school diploma. Then, without any further academic instruction, he became a sought-after speaker in the most prominent universities around the world. Today he points to social science research to prove that: "Things do get better if we approach them in the right way."
The financial crisis offers an historic opportunity
As an exception, John Hope Bryant does get excited about small numbers every now and then. "Within a community, you only need five percent to be good role models in order to lead the next generation out of poverty," he quotes from Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point". "Not 50 percent, not 20percent, not even 10 percent is necessary." Bryant seamlessly moves onto his second major focus, which is connected to financial literacy, and gives it a wider dimension: leadership, or more specifically, "Love Leadership".
To European ears, the title of his new book may sound a little sentimental, though an alternative title could be "Good Leadership", playing on the double meaning of the term 'good'. "Value-based leadership can and must spread a positive epidemic," Bryant notes. This has always been his belief, and as he sees it, the financial crisis now offers an historic opportunity.
"This isn't a recession; it's a reset, a new start," continues Bryant. He never feels this more strongly than when in discussion with Young Global Leaders. At the Davos summit before last, the older leaders were all saying that it was the worst crisis of all time, that the world was ending and that everything was a disaster. Many YGLs, however, held the view that this reset offered great opportunities, and that we could now really start changing things." Bryant pauses.
He quickly looks at everyone sat around the table, and continues: "Think about it. The best leaders are always born in a crisis, and as I mentioned, we only need five percent to be role models in order to change things - it's been scientifically proven." John Bryant embraces everyone before he leaves for his next meeting, where he will discuss financial literacy again. As the last sentence of his book on love leadership suggests: "Hope is on the way."
SOURCE: Young Global Leaders