The 21st Century Definition of Freedom: Self-Determination for All

In the 21st century, the definition of freedom was tied to what was going on in the wider world. And what was going on in the wider free world involved a handful of defining movements towards emerging democracies around the world -- from leaders like Nelson Mandela in places like South Africa, to leaders like Mahatma Gandhi in places like India, to leaders like Michael Collins in places like Ireland.

And then of course here we have been blessed with leaders such as Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. and his strategy lieutenant (Ambassador) Andrew Young, leading a homegrown civil rights movement right here in the United States. And far from a 'black solution,' the civil rights movement, which I have always referred to as the third major paradigm shift for a nation after our freedom from Britain and our civil war, was to quote Ambassador Andrew Young, "always about redeeming the soul of America."

In each of these places throughout the 20th century, the "issue" was race, the color line and social strife, and the cure was most always democracy. And the instrument to secure that democracy for all was in large part the right to vote for all, once democracy was solidly in place.

The right to vote ultimately triggered real changes in public leadership, which triggered changes in important laws and the public policy that in turn governed fundamental issues of fairness, and fair play. I think it is fair to say today, looking back on the 20th century, that democracy indeed won this fight.

While democracy continues to fight the good fight for space and place in our lives in important parts of the world -- not yet free to vote, dream and to create on their own -- for most of the world the issues we face today are different.

Today the issue is not so much race, the color line and social strife, as it is class and poverty. Or put another way, "whether you are black, white, red, brown or yellow (for those in the U.S.) you just want to see some more green (as in U.S.currency)." Just look at say China, a staunch communist country which has unabashedly taken up the mantle of capitalism and at least a version of what we call free enterprise.

The 20th century was marked by issues of race and the color line, and the 21st century is going to be marked, globally, by issues of class and poverty.

The new definition of freedom today is self-determination.

I was recently a passenger in a Washington, D.C., car service where the Pakistani-born car owner and driver had immigrated here to the United States, quickly building a family and a entirely new life. I asked him why he had come to the United States, risking so much to get here, and the life and family he had left back at home. His answer was one word. Freedom.

I went on to ask the owner-driver why he ran this particular business; after all he was not about to get rich doing it. He picked me up at 9 a.m. in the morning, stayed with me all day, often dropping me back off at the hotel sometime after 11 p.m. that same evening. He sometimes worked weekends, often holidays, and I independently calculated that he could not be making any more than about $90,000 a year, operating two commercial cars for hire. "Why do this hard work," I asked. Again, the answer was simple, instantaneous, and one word. Freedom.

This young man did not come to America to 'get rich,' he came here for a feeling. He wasn't even running his own small business -- the heart of the American dream experience -- to get rich. He was doing this for that same feeling. To do as he liked, when he liked, however he liked.

He had a choice of who entered his car as a client, who stayed, and even who came back. He had an option to take one vacation with his family in a year, or work a few more days in a month and take two vacations in that same year.

He could send his child to public school in a free nation, or he could work a little harder and send that same child to private school, or later send them to a college or university of his or their choice.

Like most small business owners in America, this man was not focused on growing his business 20 percent per annum, a certain amount in his bank account, nor a certain quantified 'return on equity.' He was focused on living his version of the American Dream, and living a life that today I call 'self-determined.'

But self-determination is not only the desire for small business owners, it is the desire of most everyone, here and around the world.

And that is why I believe that we must move from a legacy of civil rights justice for a few, to a future of silver rights empowerment for all. Or as my my late friend Dr. Dorothy I. Height, then chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women, "open wide the freedom's gate!"

It is why I believe strongly that financial literacy is the new civil rights issue for this generation, where more individuals don't have a bank account than didn't have the right to vote in 1962 (according to the FDIC approximately 40 million are unbanked or underbanked today).

It is why financial dignity is a goal for most people in the world today.

It is why philanthropy for me is a job provided to and for others!

It is why I believe that the real underlying solution, in troubled places here and around the world like Egypt, are in fact jobs.

I am talking about a broad-based generation of jobs; from private sector jobs, to newly minted corporate jobs for the college trained, to small business jobs, and the magical power of entrepreneurship that creates jobs. Not just government sponsored jobs for all.

It is why I believe in the silver rights movement we are advancing here at Operation HOPE.

It is why we are focused on moving 100 million or more Americans (approximately third of the U.S. population) up and into true participation in the free enterprise system; anchored with education, self-esteem, real choice and real opportunity for all.

The new definition of freedom is self-determination.

Let's go.

John Hope Bryant is an entrepreneur, author, advisor, and one of the nation's most recognized empowerment leader. He is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, The 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.