09/23/2013 10:53 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Thugged Out, But Not Dumb

During the many Banking on Our Future financial literacy tours I do, year in and year out in urban, inner-city public middle schools and public high-schools across the nation (where Operation HOPE is active), I often run into young men who think they have the world all figured out. They often think that cool equates to being "thugged out," and what I call "dumbed down."

"It takes 20 years to change a culture." -- Quincy Jones

"In the last 20 years we have made dumb sexy. We have dumbed down, and celebrated it, and now we want to make smart sexy again..." -- John Hope Bryant

These young men all seem to want to stand in a certain way, to have their hands hanging down in a certain way, and they often want to talk in a certain way too. The funny thing is, it was not always this way. When I was growing up, there were 35 kids in a classroom in inner-city Compton, Calif., and back then 30 kids wanted to learn, and five kids were acting like a knucklehead. Today, you go into the same classroom and you have 30 kids who are acting like a knucklehead, and five kids who are ashamed to admit they want to learn.

I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with these kids. They have simply been hijacked by thug culture. And with it, we seem to have an entire generation of young people who have dumbed down and celebrated it. But this I also know -- these kids are not dumb! Not at all.

A drug dealer may be illegal and running an immoral business, and may even be earning a special place in hell for their activities -- but one thing they are not is dumb, as I have written in a previous The Huffington Post blog.

They understand import, export, finance, marketing, customer service, human resources, and security too. Even gang organizers have proven their business organizing and strategic planning abilities. What they are missing are strong, positive business role models, business internships, and a solid, ethical business plan -- and backing. But they are not dumb.

I knew all of this about these young people already, but I did wonder about their ethics, and their values, as I believed that at bottom, these so-called thugged-out young men had them (ethics and values) too.

No one around me seemed to agree with me, so I decided to challenge my own belief in a generation that fundamentally lacked belief in itself. And so, I pushed, hard.

I went into one of the so-called toughest schools, in one of the so-called toughest neighborhoods and public schools we serve, and I approached what I thought was the toughest young men in the room. I knew he was also viewed as the leader amongst them. If I could impact him, I could then "get" to the others.

This young man was the definition of thugged out, but I also knew he was not dumb. He had tattoos all over his body and neck, he had pants hanging off his rear end, earrings in both ears, gold chains around his neck, and talked in a slang so deep it would qualify as its own language. But I knew he was not dumb. There was more to this young man than met the eye, so I decided to test it.

In front of everyone, I asked him to think of his life at age 40, and he had a daughter of 19 or 20 years old. I asked him if he would love his daughter, if he had one. His response was immediate and strong. "Of course," he said.

I told him that I assumed he would want only the best for her, and that he would do anything for her, his blood. He would want her to be super successful, and once again he responded, "Absolutely. No doubt!"

It was then that I told him to imagine that there was a knock on the door of his home. The same home he paid for, and where he raised his children and took care of his family. I could see in his eyes, that his aspirations had transported him right to where I was in this story.

I told the young man that when he opened the door to his home, he saw on the other side a young man of 18 or so. The young man had tattoos all over his body, neck, and even his face. He had gold chains all around his neck, was wearing a wife-beater T-shirt, and short pants barely hanging off his rear end. No belt. He stood hunched over, with his heels touching together, and his feet pointed outward, each in a different direction. His attitude was, well, just bad. His language was hard to decipher, and he was a high school dropout with a criminal record. No job. The young man then said the following:

"Yo bro, I'm Jess, my man... and, you know, you know...I wanted to come through... I wanted to come on through to meet you, you know..." The young man continued, "I wanted to meet you, cause I love yo' daughter you know? I plan to marry yo daughter, and wanted to know, you know, what you had to say bout the whole situation..."

I asked the young man what his response would be to the young man at the front door, and the response was immediate and strong -- "Hell no (you ain't marrying MY daughter)!" Precisely.

And so, my message to the gathered young men, on an otherwise this normal school day in an inner-city neighborhood was simple: If the young man at your door is not good enough for your daughter (to marry), then how can he possibly be good enough for you (to be)? They all got it. For the first time all day, no one had a single attitude-laced thing to say. They were all now focused on one thing -- changing the reality of their future. Precisely.

Many of these young men will soon play a role in our newest innovation at Operation HOPE, and our coming movement with America 2020, HOPE Business In A Box Academies and the Gallup-HOPE Index.

This is not a lost generation, just a generation that is a bit lost. We can find America's future, just as soon as we help these young people to find themselves.

We are all in this thing, together.

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.