Solving Poverty: Atlanta in Black and Green, the Tale of Two Cities

04/22/2013 04:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013
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As I noted in another 'Solving Poverty' piece for The Huffington Post, the new racism today is actually poverty.

Yes, it feels really bad if a racist calls you a highly offensive name, but it is completely un-dignifying when you cannot pay your rent, make your mortgage payment, or you find that your car has been repossessed by the lender while you were sleeping. You can walk away from the racist. And more so, when you know who you are, there is actually very little the racist can say or do to change the way you feel about yourself.

You cannot walk away from poverty.

The reality of poverty faces you as a parent every morning when your child looks up at you for lunch money, and as you reach into your pocket, finding only lent and marked up job wanted ads instead.

Or every time you stop for gasoline and have to stop the pump at $6, or you're at the grocery store, intent on collecting the ingredients for that special meal for your family, but finding that you are $20 short and have to put the healthiest choices back.

Poverty faces you in the unfortunately regular arguments you have with your spouse or mate (money is the number one cause for domestic abuse and divorce in America today), or the first time you have to address your teenage child, whose daydreaming about which four-year college they desperately wish to attend. And today, what I am describing is not a 'Black thing,' it's a 'green thing.'

Whether you are white, black, red, brown or yellow, today you just want to see some more green. U.S. currency, that is. We are all in this mess together.

Atlanta, Georgia, the amazing and innovative international American city I now proudly call my home, is today home to the most Black entrepreneurs and Black-owned businesses in America -- and an enormous population of the Black unbanked too.

Atlanta in Black and green is a tale of the new racism, through the lens of poverty. One great city, that unfortunately tells two stories of and about Black America. And increasingly today, the modern poverty story can no longer be blamed on simple racial discrimination. Increasingly, it's about us not having our priorities straight also. One could argue we actually don't need more police in America's urban, inner-city communities, we need more business role models and business internships.

Want to drastically transform high school graduation rates? Offer them a decent job right after high-school graduation, assuming of course they meet certain baseline academic standards of excellence.

And this is the reality we face here in Atlanta, Georgia, 50 years following the Birmingham Movement and the 50th anniversary of the Letter From A Birmingham Jail, written by Dr. King as resident pastor of Ebenezer Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

This week we stood in the same historic church, but this time it was filled with equal parts black and white leadership, representing a broad cross-section of power from government, community and the private sector. This time, while we can claim some impressive ground gained in social justice and civil rights progress, we also had to admit we were treading water at best on the agenda of true silver rights empowerment for all.

The Tale of Two Cities

On the one hand, you have the only true international city in the South; the city that Dr. King, Daddy King, Robert Woodruff, Mayor Hartsfield, Mayor Maynard Jackson, Ambassador Andrew Young, Coca-Cola, SunTrust Bank, and so many other heroes and sheroes helped to build. You have the city that is rightly so heralded as the top American city for Black entrepreneurship and Black business ownership, built on the foundation of a shared prosperity, racial diversity, and engagement between communities and races at the top levels of power.

And then, on the other hand you have this reality --- according to the FDIC, Atlanta, Georgia is the 5th most unbanked city for Black folks in the nation (38 percent of the black population in Atlanta are either unbanked or underbanked).

That's right, the richest black city for entrepreneurship and business, is also one of the top 5 most unbanked cities for Blacks in the nation too.

But this as I see it is not a failure of the mayor (Mayor Kasim Reed has actually done a good job getting the city's fiscal house in order, attracting business and investment, raising standards, creating a healthy environment for overall job creation, and recently even launched an initiative to attack the unbanked crisis in his city), nor the city council, nor even city leadership, per se. It is neither an indictment of racist, or racism in the city. It is a failure of leadership, vision and prioritization. A leadership and relevancy failure that reflects on all of us in the 50 years since Dr. King's dream lived here.

For 50 years, we have been resting on our laurels, assuming maybe that advances in civil rights justice would somehow translate into advances in 'silver rights' opportunity for all. Well, 50 years ago Detroit was the richest city in the world. Today, Detroit is cash broke and threatened by a state takeover. Detroit rested on its laurels, assuming that the good times would always be there, and their (intellectual) brilliance, enough. Such is never the case.

As an entrepreneur this I know for sure -- everyday you wake up you must be about the business of re-inventing and re-imaging yourself. An entrepreneur knows that they hustle and work hard, and that they must prove and reprove relevancy, for a new agenda and a new time. And they know that the so-called 'new agenda' in America has been and continues to be one of business, economics, jobs, finance and money. That said, too many of us are still singing "I Have A Dream," and celebrating only memories long-past.

Where would we be without the past successes of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Council of Negro Women and so many others? Lost, of course.

But an even better question is, where will be in the future if we don't create some jobs and opportunity for poor and struggling folks in America's cities and rural communities? The answer is -- not far, for very long. Not far for long at all.

The Way Forward

The next movement must be about insuring that the total community is bi-lingual, meaning that rich and poor alike speak and understand the 'global language of money,' or what most folks today call financial literacy, and we call financial dignity.

The next movement must be about entrepreneurship and bottoms up job creation in underserved neighborhoods, through the active encouragement of small business.

The next movement must be about cementing an atmosphere of real hope in so-called poor neighborhoods, and a vision for the future rooted in what my friend Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, calls 'good jobs.' Or quoting my friend Van Jones, "the best way to stop a bullet is a job."

The next movement is about making sure free enterprise (and responsible capitalism) works for the least of these God's children. About making free enterprise work for all.

Quoting Ambassador Andrew Young, reflecting back on the civil rights movement, "John, we succeeded in integrating the lunch counter, but we never integrated the dollar."

The new racism is poverty, the new freedom self-determination, and the new path to community renewal and sustainability is both paved in environmental green, and when done right, US currency cash-green too.

Okay, let's go.

John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, 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), the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum. Mr. Bryant is a thought leader represented by the Bright Sight Group for public speaking. Mr. Bryant serves on the board of directors of Ares Commercial Real Estate Corporation (NYSE: ACRE), a specialty finance company that is managed by an affiliate of Ares Management LLC, a global alternative asset manager with approximately $59 billion in committed capital under management as of December 31, 2012.