Financial Literacy: The First Empowerment Tool for a Silver Rights Movement

Written by

John Hope Bryant
John Hope Bryant Founder, Chairman, and CEO of financial literacy empowerment nonprofit Operation HOPE, John Hope Bryant is one of the foremost authorities on poverty eradication around the world. An advisor to the last three sitting U.S. presidents, a thought leader, public speaker, and an innovator in the business of empowerment, Bryant is no stranger to poverty. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, he was homeless for six months by the age of 18. Finding his way out of poverty, he has dedicated his life to leading the way for others. He currently serves on President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability and is an internationally-recognized thought leader for transforming low-wealth communities into self-sustaining neighborhoods.

To not understand the language of money, financial literacy, and to not have a mainstream bank (or credit union) account in the 21st century, clearly an economic age, is to be an economic slave. If you do not know better, you cannot do better.

My personal hero and mentor, civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young, once said, “To live in a system of free enterprise, and to not understand the rules of free enterprise, is the very definition of slavery.” If the 20th century was about the emergence of democracy amongst free people all around the world – from Gandhi in India to Nelson Mandela in South Africa – then the right to vote made democracy and freedom real to the average person. In the 21st century, in the backdrop of a global economic crisis and in an era of economics, understanding the language of money (financial literacy), accessing the mainstream financial system with dignity, avoiding financial predators and pursuing your aspirational dreams, is in fact the freedom we seek today.

More individuals do not have a bank account today or are under-banked today (approximately 40 million according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), than did not have the right to vote in 1962 (approximately 22 million). We must first and foremost unpack the “language of money” for the masses of this world. This includes understanding financial education (basic knowledge), financial literacy (the basic ability to operate in the world of free enterprise and capitalism), financial capabilities (the U.S. Treasury Department coined phrase focused on your available options, products, tools and services), and Operation HOPE’s specialty – financial and economic empowerment (the ability to act on opportunities and aspirations in your life).

With this we must help to spark a new generation of educated, hopeful, empowered, aspirationally-relevant and opportunity-rich young people here and around the world – focused on maximizing their enlightened self-interest, and advancing the interest of civilization and community in the process. Here are 5 things every democratic country can do to advance economic empowerment in their respective countries:

  1. Launch a campaign for mentors and role models in your country. In the bestselling book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, research has shown that at 5% role models every community stabilizes. Not 75%, or 50%, or 25% or even 10%, but a mere 5% of role models. There is reason for society to be hopeful and hope filled indeed. (Most under-served communities have 3.7% role models or less.)
  2. Financial literacy as the new civil rights issue, and the first global silver rights empowerment tool. Require all student learners, through 12th grade, to take a mandatory course in financial literacy.
  3. A bank account for all. Access to a mainstream bank account is as essential in the current economic era as the right to vote was during the 20th century, around the world. Provide a basic bank (or credit union) account to every child at birth, no different than the right to vote (as a birth right), and in the U.S., no different than the issuance of a Social Security Number.
  4. Orient government policy to the creation of small business. In the U.S. and most developed countries, small businesses account for the bulk of job creation (the majority of jobs come from small businesses in their first 5 years), and every (private) big business, started as a small one.
  5. Nurture a generation of entrepreneurs and a culture of entrepreneurship. America’s greatest triumphs, from Henry Ford and the automobile (industry), to Ted Turner and CNN (and 24 hour newscasts), to Bill Gates (Microsoft, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and Steve Jobs (Apple), have come from the power of a simple but paradigm shifting “idea.” The developed world is shedding jobs in this global re-alignment and developing countries are “young” (both with respect to industry and in most cases population demographics) and hungry for almost everything. Governments cannot continue to “fund” GDP growth nor subsidize all those with growing needs. Governments need to nurture and launch a major 10-year effort to spur a youth entrepreneurship generation, and a 20 year effort to change and mold a “can-do” culture.

How do we pay for this? The innovation and creation of new emerging markets, resulting in the introduction of new sources of government tax revenue, is how. This approach is “net gain” for all involved, and is one of the truest definitions of Love Leadership in action. When you do what is outlined above you, over time, also create a new generation of stakeholders, contributing working class, engaged and energized citizens who vote, and who aspire to one day be middle class (key for any stable democracy). These are your future employers and the foundation of a sustainable, lasting democracy. When you do this, you are helping to secure the lofty promise that democracy called forth in the 20th century, and in so doing you are helping to restore confidence and credibility in “markets,” by making free enterprise and capitalism work for all.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “You cannot legislate goodness or force someone to respect you. The only way to social justice, in a capitalist country, is economic parity.” At Operation HOPE we understand that the solution is financial dignity, which will then inspire and inform our left-brain, logic-based quest for the knowledge to act on our (right-brain, aspirational) dreams. The answer is right brain to left, not the other way around. The key to a financially literate nation, and a growing movement around the world, is a focus on the financial dignity of each and every individual. Built on the back of civil rights, this is a new movement – reaching, teaching and empowering every person with financial dignity, using the powerful tools of financial literacy.

This is silver rights.

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