Atlanta. It’s the hometown of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a stomping ground of the civil rights movement.
When opportunities were not readily available for Blacks, outlets such as Dr. King’s alma mater Morehouse College allowed African-Americans to receive a quality education to help make opportunities for themselves.
Forty-three years after his death, however, and just days before the unveiling of Dr. King’s memorial in Washington D.C., Atlanta, like several other cities across the nation, is dealing with a pressing obstacle: unemployment.
Atlanta’s unemployment rate stands at 11.8 percent in July, up from 11.3 percent last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For African-Americans, however, the most recently available data shows their unemployment in the city of Atlanta stands at 24.1 percent, according to the Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
“We’re used to corporate America pulling back for a minute, but then hiring again. We’re used to diversity programs working. We take affirmative action for granted. We assume people will be sympathetic to our concerns and our needs. We are used to big businesses like IBM and others being responsive to us,” John Hope Bryant, president and CEO of Operation Hope tells BET.com. “But those days are over. This is not a recession; it’s a reset.”
Bryant, who heads America's leading nonprofit social investment banking and financial literacy empowerment organization, is on a mission to teach people the “language of money.” He wants to give them the dignity of a hand up, not just a “handout.”
Since 1996, the HOPE Centers have served over 950,000 customers, educated over 71,000 adults, provided one-on-one counseling to over 32,000 clients and funded more than $664 million in loans.
Now, in Atlanta, their mission is a bit different. They’re focusing specifically on how to teach low-income residents to be entrepreneurs.
“It almost doesn’t matter whether you become an entrepreneur or not. What you need to have today is an entrepreneurial mindset,” Bryant says.” If you’re Black or brown in America, you’ve been doing so much with so little for so long. You may not have the magic of compounded interest, meaning capital to invest, but you better have the magic of compounded hustle, which is time, attention, focus, and hard work.”
Operation HOPE is building a HOPE Financial Literacy Empowerment Center in the Martin Luther King Sr. Community Resource Complex at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. The center will support entrepreneurship opportunities for low-income individuals and families, allowing them to take control of their economic future. There are currently HOPE Financial Literacy Empowerment Centers located in five cities in California, as well as New York, New York, Washington D.C. and New Orleans, Louisiana.
“We’re the only nonprofit in 40 years invited on the King campus. They said they believe if Dr. King was alive today, our work would be the work he’d be doing,” Bryant says.
The official HOPE Financial Literacy Empowerment Center is scheduled to open in early 2012, but that has not stopped the mission of the organization in the meantime. In April, a “Hope Express” Office opened in Atlanta offering credit and money management classes and the organization’s eight-week small business/entrepreneurship program. To date, the Atlanta office has serviced nearly 300 individuals and funded nearly $10 million in loans.
“In the eight weeks we give you the basic soup-and-nut tools to become an entrepreneur, start a business, get your licenses and permits, and we make sure you’ve got the fundamental building blocks in place for a business. Most importantly, you’ve got a viable business plan. We’re really tough on you, so it’s like a boot camp. We come at you hard. Basically there’s a lot of love in the word 'no.' I love you, but you’ve got to hustle. I love you but nobody’s going to do this but you.”
Bryant explains that there are about 27 million businesses in America today. Six million of those businesses actually employ people and the rest are shell companies which, for example, are the product of mergers. 5.9 of those six million companies have 500 employees or less, and only around 987 of those businesses employ over 10,000 people.
“In the richest economy in the world, the largest economy on the planet, there’s only [around] 1,000 businesses [that employ people] out of 300 million people in this country … That’s just not good odds,” he says.
“I guess to put it really bluntly, from my perspective President Obama is not going to save you. Good man, doing the best he can, but he’s not going to make your mortgage payment. He’s not going to make your car note, he’s not going to raise your children, and he shouldn’t. That’s our responsibility,” says Bryant. “We’ve got to get out of the victim mentality.”
The activist and CEO says that most jobs come from the small business community. He says that Blacks are usually the last hired and first fired in corporate America. Not because of racism, per se, but because we live in a relationship/trust-based society, and quite frankly, many Blacks don’t have those relationships. Instead of the tough worker, “America” will hire their cousins, brothers, and friends. Therefore, before it becomes eliminated, Bryant says that we need to redefine our definition of the Black middle class.
“We think the Black middle class came from government jobs after World War II, which is almost the case. But our history, Black history, is also one of enterprise, also one of business, also one of doing for self, also one of becoming doctors, lawyers and professionals in segregated communities where we had to create our own economies. So, we can do this. We’ve done it before,” he says.
In Atlanta and in urban communities across the nation, Bryant says that if the current economic situation for Blacks is not just a recession, and if sustained corporate underemployment is a reality for the near future, then we need a new “do-for-yourself” mindset in our communities and we need it sooner rather than later.
In reference to Dr. King, Bryant wants to make sure that the messages of creating savings and owning homes and businesses that the civil rights leader and former pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church taught his congregation are remembered in the 21st century.
“My mission in life is to silver rights. From civil rights to silver rights. To make free enterprise and capitalism work for the poor. That’s my mission. That’s why I do all of this work. But I can’t do this by myself.”
To find out more about Operation Hope in Atlanta or in a city near you visit www.OperationHope.org.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Bob Andres)