Three years ago, I said that Operation HOPE was coming to Alabama. At that time my interest was in helping those most impacted by the devastating Alabama tornadoes, led by Fred D. Smith and our HOPE Coalition America division. It took us three years, but we are finally operational in the state. Literally in this instance, representing rainbows after storms.
I was personally hurt by what happened in Alabama following the tornadoes. I new that the federal disaster recovery funds scheduled to flow into the state could have not only helped those impacted by the disaster (to recover and rebuild), I knew that the nearly $1 billion that the federal government was prepared to set aside to help those in the state, could have literally reset the levels of poverty itself in Alabama.
The impact of $1 billion in Alabama might equate to ten times that amount elsewhere. That said, only a small fraction of the intended funding ever made it into the state and into the hands of its residents.
The issue was not fraud or government waste or abuse, but simply a very low level of applicant requests for assistance, in far too many case. Some of this was sadly the result of an abysmally low level of financial IQ, or financial literacy in Alabama. Financial literacy is the civil rights issue of this generation. Particularly, in a place such as Alabama, with such a significant population of low-wealth residents, combined with lower levels of overall educational attainment. This is not a knock on Alabama and its residents, this is a reality — and it must be changed.
I remember touring the local area three years ago, and entering a FEMA trailer people to get briefed. The FEMA and local state officials representatives were nice enough, and you could tell that they had a genuine desire to help. That said, a lot of what was happening, or more accurately, not happening with impacted residents, simply fell outside of even the most liberal job description for officials on site. In other words, what was really needed at that time, was no one’s real job to do. Thus, the extreme need for our services at HCA. Disaster financial recovery.
I remember a story of an elderly man, owed more than $150,000 because of damages, but was confused by the paperwork and out of frustration just walked away from it all. He didn't understand why he was completing an SBA (Small Business Administration) Emergency Loan Application. He reasoned that he was not a business owner, and he didn't want a business loan. The problem is Congress stipulates that all disaster funding must flow through the SBA. So, in order to even qualify for the $40,000 in emergency disaster grant authority, or the (up to) $250,000 low interest disaster rebuilding loans, someone impacted must complete the SBA forms. Those that do not get nothing. No exceptions. And this happened countless times in the mass confusion of response to this disaster.
The man in this particular example (and his family) received no support to rebuild, even though authorities confirmed that he was due every cent, and wanted to give it to him. But, this dignity rich black elder statesman of his community didn't understand the rules and the language of money (financial literacy), and for generations to come in his family, it will hurt. It will hurt Alabama too.
Or the story of the family that was owe approximately $90,000 for the rebuilding of their family home. The problem was they could not prove that they owned the property. Everyone in the community knew they owned the property and was willing to vouch for them. The family had lived in the area for decades. The problem was simple -- they had no documentation proving that they owner the property. As is common to this day in many parts of this country, property ownership is still passed down from generation to generation verbally. Unfortunately, this meant that thus family received zero financial support to rebuild. It hurt this family, but it hurt Alabama too. Lost revenue. Lost asset ownership. Lost GDP. Lost hope.
I have deep roots in Alabama. My mother is from Carbon Hill, Alabama, something locals refer to as a typical 'stop light' town in the Deep South. She was born there and moved away with her family as a child. My wife and I took mom back there to visit several years ago (nothing much had changed), but that was tourist sight-seeing. What I am planning to do now, is not. It's the work of revitalizing community, and her people, from the ground up.
Now it's time for me and others to return to Alabama, as adults, and do something tangible that improves the lives of those still living there. Those that call Alabama home today.
Such is our plan for HOPE Alabama, and with it, our first effort in the state -- Birmingham, 2020, which is part of our larger Project 5117 initiative. The crown jewel of our Birmingham 2020 launch, rolled out publicly on January 23rd, 2014 in Birmingham, Alabama, are initially two HOPE Inside locations, located within Regions Bank branches. In our HOPE Inside locations we will provide a holistic range of financial inclusion and economic empowerment tools and services for youth and adults alike. And all services are free.
And while our initial efforts on the ground in Birmingham, Alabama are led by founding lead partners Regions Bank and Protective Life Insurance Co, the reality is we will need the whole city leadership behind us. And then the leadership from throughout the state.
The reality is, there needs to be a regional 2020 initiative in a half dozen substantial cities throughout the state of Alabama. And we are committed to helping to see this vision through.
Starting right now.
John Hope Bryant is the 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), and is the only 2010-2012 bestselling business author in America who is also African-American. His newest book, due out May, 2014, is HOW THE POOR CAN SAVE CAPITALISM, and will be published byBerrett Koehler Publishing).