I was honored to be asked to speak at the international conference of and for 100 Black Men of America this past weekend in Hollywood, Florida; joining more than a thousand African-American male leaders from throughout the nation and across the globe, all bound up in one shared mission -- advancing the race and serving the community. 100 Black Men of America is a first class non-profit organization of servant leadership (Love Leadership), and I am a proud to count myself as a member.
The specific focus of this year's conference was squarely on the topic of mentorship, mentoring and role modeling, which got me thinking about one of the major crises facing not only Black America, but the future of American competitiveness itself - the skyrocketing high school dropout rate amongst all of our kids.
Approximately 30% of all kids are dropping out of high school in America, irrespective of race or class.
Approximately 40-50% of urban kids are dropping out of high school in America, and somewhere between 50-70% of young black men are dropping out of high school, in the richest country in the world. No, these numbers are not a typing error. As my friend and partner in the fight Mrs. Marguerite Kondracke, CEO of America's Promise Alliance, has said, "if we are not careful, the next group of under-performing assets will be our children."
And so, as I looked around at this amazing conference, inspired by all the progressive, positive, contributing black men (and their supportive families) who had committed and given their time to attend, frankly I also wondered who was going to marry all the beautiful, well-educated and focused young black ladies now being born into the successful families of 100 Black Men of America members? Or alternatively, who was going to work in their businesses in the future? Or who was going to pay into their Social Security, funding their planned retirement? Black men without an education or marketable skills? I don't think so.
I began to think that, respectfully stated of course, maybe Dr. King had it a little easier in the 1950's and 1960's, inasmuch as he was dealing with issues of love and hate on the one hand, and black folks whose get up and go, had not got up and went on the other. But today, increasingly the issue is not mere love or hate, but rather indifference. People who appear to not even care enough about you to hate you on the one hand, and some black folks who seem to have lost all hope on the other.
I said when I founded Operation HOPE in 1992 in South Central Los Angeles following the Rodney King riots, "indifference is the death nail of the soul," and with a high school dropout rate of 50-70%, young black men without a radical intervention are simply on the path towards what I would call "radical indifference" in America today. A place and space where, in the minds of those with resources, you simply do not matter.
The problem with indifference
The real problem with indifference is that it simply does not work, for anyone. We are all inter-connected whether we like it or not. Or as Dr. King said during the civil rights movement, "the movement was about saving black men's bodies and white men's souls." The problem today is further compounded when the black community, because of its history of pained misuse, misreads the signals around what the real problem is.
I remember when President Ronald Reagan was in office and a friend of mine called me, complaining that, in his view, President Reagan was a racist. I had to beg to differ with my dear friend. His policies may not have been my particular cup of tea but I never thought for one moment that the man was evil, or even mean spirited. We simply shared a radically different view of the world. At worse, I thought, "we could disagree without being disagreeable." Furthermore, I took it as my personal responsibility to educate him (Reagan) as to my view. And so, while I didn't know with certainty what was in President Reagan's heart, I was fairly sure that:
I knew that President Reagan didn't know or have any deep relationships with black people.
I knew that President Reagan never grew up around any black people, and he certainly wasn't related to any black people (at least none that we know about).
I knew that his spouse was not a 'sister' (no disrespect Mrs. Nancy Reagan).
I knew that the President's social structure almost never intersected with the social structure of Black America, except possibly in moments of crisis.
And so, as I told my friend, "...President Reagan wasn't 'hating' on black folks, respectfully, he simply wasn't thinking about black folks." And this is the crisis that young black men increasingly find themselves in, in America today. Invisible, in plain sight.
And when no one cares enough about you even to hate you, you know you are in bad shape.
Where we are today
When 50-70% of black young men are dropping out of high school, we all have a major problem. But when 70% of those in prison have no high school diploma, we then have a 100-year crisis of a race. We also have an unsustainable proposition for an America that simply must remain competitive in the world.
Mainstream America must recognize that indifference is just as damaging to the soul and the fabric of society (if not more so), as conscious discrimination itself.
In this regard, I had to also recognize and accept that I was discriminating too. Yes, me. And yes, I am African-American.
Because I grew up in Compton, California and South Central Los Angeles, I thought I knew what poverty looked and felt like. I did not.
I had a mother who told me she loved me every day of my life, and a dad who has now owned his own business for 54 of the 87 years he has been on this planet. I had role models who greeted me every morning when I awoke, and who ended the day with me at the kitchen table every night. I was never poor; I just didn't have any money.
I learned early, "there is a difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke is a temporary economic condition, but being poor is a disabling frame of mind and a depressed condition of your spirit, and you must vow to never, ever be poor again." Powerful stuff, but I did not get to this point on my own. I had role models and mentors in my life. People who showed me the way. You too, if you have achieved anything at all in this life.
Growing up, I used to blame poverty on the poor. I assumed that if you were not successful, it was simply because you were lazy. You simply weren't applying yourself. And then one day, a light came on; "it's what you don't know that you don't know that's killing you - but you think you know!"
And so, from that day forward, I no longer blamed poverty on the poor. I understood that the young black man in the ghetto was not only "not dumb," to want to be say, a rap star, a professional athlete or a drug dealer - he was actually brilliant. Yes, brilliant. Brilliant and predictable, because like all of us, he was modeling what he saw. We need to give these kids something better to see.
The Malcolm Gladwell book "The Tipping Point" makes the case that with approximately 5% role models, a community stabilizes. Not 80% role models, or 50%, or 25% or even 10% role models, but a mere 5% role models. The problem in inner-city, urban and low-wealth communities, is that our role model level is somewhere around 3.7% role models or less. It is simply too thin.
The answer is simple - we need to give these kids something different to see.
Enter, organizations such as 100 Black Men.
Moving towards a solution
Let's start by not complicating the problem.
Kids don't want an education for the same reason that you and I don't pine for a sub-prime mortgage. We don't want a mortgage, we want to become a homeowner, and that young person doesn't dream of an education, per se, but what an education might afford him or her - achieving aspiration.
I believe that kids are dropping out of high school because they don't believe that education is relevant to their future. The way you make education relevant to and for their future, is to show kids how to succeed, how to prosper, how to do well, and even how to get rich (legally), if that is what they want.
For me that answer is financial literacy (the language of money), free enterprise and capitalism, ownership, opportunity and entrepreneurship. We must tie education with aspiration in life, and when we do that I believe we will begin to see the urban high school dropout rate begin to disappear, and life relevancy re-emerge.
Gallup, a new partner around the Gallup-HOPE Financial Literacy Index with the organization I founded, Operation HOPE, recently proved through research that hope was a greater indicator of academic success than GPA and ACT scores, and that while 50% of kids were hopeful, another 50% were not. Guess what the urban high school dropout rate is? That's right, about 50%. The most dangerous person in the world is a person with no hope.
My mentor and friend Quincy Jones has said it takes 20 years to change a culture. Well, over the past 20 years we have made dumb sexy. We have dumbed down and celebrated it. Over the next 20 years, we need to "make smart sexy again." And this is why I have teamed up with national co-chairs Quincy Jones and my other mentor, civil rights icon Ambassador Andrew Young, along with the likes of QD3, Tyrese Gibson and Jeff Johnson, to launch 5 MILLION KIDS (www.5mk.org), or 5MK for short, to help break the back of the high school dropout generation in America, and in so doing, to "make smart sexy again."
This will only happen when organizations such as 100 Black Men of America, Operation HOPE, Susan Taylor's National CARES Mentoring Movement, and countless others - and then you and me - decide to do something about it.
Give me 1 hour a month, 12 months a year (12 hours a year), to go into a classroom, a Boys & Girls Club, a church, Mosque, nonprofit organization or anywhere kids gather, and teach what I call "A Course in Dignity." Simply tell your story, sharing your life experiences, and letting these young people know that they can make a mistake and not be a mistake.
Remember, we all got to where we are modeling someone else. Who is going to model you? Visit Operation HOPE online and sign up to be a HOPE Corps volunteer, or go to 5 MILLION KIDS (5MK) online and make a 5MK Pledge. And of course, visit 100 Black Men of America and help them make a difference in acommunity near you.
Rainbows, only follow storms. Let's go.
John Hope Bryant is an entrepreneur, the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, former vice chairman, U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, financial literacy advisor to the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council, a Young Global Leaders for the World Economic Forum, internationally recognized public speaker and author of LOVE LEADERSHIP; A New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), which debuted in August, 2009, as the Amazon.com #1 Hottest New Book (for Leadership), on the CEO Reads Top 10 Business Best Seller List, and was published in November, 2009 in digital audio book format on Audible.com, iTunes and other audio book retailers . Love Leadership was listed amongst the Top 25 Business Books for Inc. Magazine/CEO Read for the first 8 month period after release.