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An Economy for All

John Hope Bryant discusses how financial literacy can transform neighborhoods
By Dawson Bell

Page 9

John Hope Bryant refuses to believe that poverty and desperation are immutable conditions. A 50-year-old entrepreneur, activist and author, Bryant is the inspiration behind Operation HOPE, a multifaceted initiative aimed at increasing financial literacy, entrepreneurialism and hope in communities where they are in short supply, including Detroit’s impoverished neighborhoods.

A featured speaker at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference, Bryant’s impassioned remarks inspired To-Do List action items focused on increasing financial literacy in underserved areas and raising awareness in micro-lending in revitalization efforts. The Chamber is now working with Bryant to recruit businesses to host HOPE Inside Centers throughout the city. Prior to his appearance at the 2016 Detroit Policy Conference, Bryant spoke to the Detroiter about how the American economy can be revived, one neighborhood at a time.

Tell us about the philosophy and vision of Operation HOPE?

I’m a businessman and an entrepreneur from South Central (Los Angeles) and Compton. I got a lot of support from my parents, but I grew up with a lot of bright, talented people who never got the memo about how the economy works. The people we saw with money were drug dealers, rap stars and athletes. Kids thought that was normal. They didn’t see that the economy is built on small companies by entrepreneurs who make small companies big.

Steve Jobs was brilliant, but if he’d been born on the south side of Chicago to poor black parents … he would not have created Apple. We need to get our storyline back. It’s not a small thing. It’s a civil rights issue. If Martin Luther King were alive today, he would be dealing with this.

So, what do you do?

Operation HOPE was founded after the Rodney King riots in LA (in 1992) as a way to expand financial literacy in urban communities and foster a culture of entrepreneurism and economic aspiration among young people. Nothing improves your life more than God and love, but you can raise your credit score. The (Operation HOPE) centers can give you the tools to do that.

We’ve changed the business model (for the centers). We started with standalone buildings, but we found that people wouldn’t come in because they were ashamed to be seen looking for that kind of help. Plus, the costs were eating us alive. So, we flipped the switch and went to the nonprofit financial services model and started to partner with banks and community institutions where we can co-locate. The banks began to see that when you give customers the tools to become financially stable, they become borrowers and business partners instead of bad debts. Now (the banks) want to know how many more centers they can have.

We’re getting requests from hospitals, police departments, hotels. Many of them recognized that their own employees need assistance with financial literacy. Our goal is to have 1,000 locations open by 2020. Our Detroit location has exceeded all expectations … with more in the works.

What can you say about the kind of fit Detroit is for a program like Operation HOPE? Are there special challenges, distinct opportunities?

Detroit is in many ways a perfect place for us to be. Every time I come there I’m inspired, and the potential is everywhere. The lack of hope is a problem. The lack of literacy among the minority population is a problem. The role modeling … of seeing successful black and brown entrepreneurs. But the biggest problem we have is scale. We have just one location. The problem with poverty is not poverty, it’s culture. The problem in Detroit is you’ve been hijacked by thug culture … by a decreasing tax base … by abandoned homes. Two thousand sixteen is a very important year. We’ve got to get 10 locations. We’ve got to create … internships, schools. Once that happens 100 times, Detroit starts to turn around.

What’s the evidence that programs like yours makes a difference?

I point to our clients. We have 2 million clients. We directed $2.5 billion into underserved neighborhoods. So, what we’re doing is not theoretical. We have done the research of how our clients, if you move their credit scores 120 points … what kind of decisions they make. That person … makes fundamentally different decisions. Their self-esteem is different. Their orientation is different. The way they walk, talk and feel about themselves is different.

You’ve said there’s a difference between being broke and being poor. What do you mean by that?

Being broke is economic. Being poor is a frame of mind … a depressed condition of your spirit, and you must vow to never be poor again. Until you deal with that, you will never solve poverty. We are trying to use the free enterprise system to set people free, and make the economy work for all. Operation HOPE is really about building the first ever nonprofit financial service network for the underserved, with the mission of building an economy for all and creating an open-source capitalism model where people can set themselves free, to have the freedom of self-determination. I’m not a conservative capitalist or a liberal capitalist. I’m a capitalist.

You’ve said you’d like to see Operation HOPE centers replace payday lenders and check-cashing operations in poor neighborhoods. Why? Aren’t they providing a service that people need?

There’s good capitalism and bad capitalism. I’m not opposed to those types of operations in moderation, but when you take out a $300 payday loan that you can’t repay on time and it becomes $1,300 in six weeks, that’s not capitalism. That’s getting robbed in broad daylight. It’s modern financial crack. I’m not trying to put them out of business. I’m trying to rob them of their customers. I’m trying to turn poor neighborhoods into 700-credit-score neighborhoods.

About Operation HOPE

Operation HOPE, the nonprofit financial empowerment agency headed by entrepreneur, businessman and author John Hope Bryant, is founded on a simple idea: America and the world, especially in poverty stricken urban areas, have enormous untapped potential for economic and spiritual growth.

The organization’s mission is similarly simple: to develop and deploy resources that will allow poor people to assert control over their financial futures and utilize their innate entrepreneurial gifts. Operation HOPE relies on a variety of programs to realize those goals, partnering with corporate sponsors like Gallup Inc. and major banking institutions to promote financial literacy school-based economic education and business mentoring.

Improving financial literacy and increasing participation in the mainstream economy is the single best way to transform neighborhoods and communities from pockets of despair to thriving, vital contributors to regional and national prosperity, Bryant said.