At Operation HOPE's Global Financial Dignity Summit, there wasn't much controversy to be found-the premise that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, is deserving of dignity in their financial lives doesn't leave much to argue about.
And yet you could be forgiven for leaving the event feeling slightly conflicted: motivated, on the one hand, by the uplifting speeches and the evidence of widespread interest in spreading financial literacy throughout low-income communities and beyond, and unsure on the other hand that any such effort could be both scalable and effective enough to make much of a difference.
But any skepticism would have to wait until the end of the conference to surface, after the final rush to swap business cards with banking executives and the heads of nonprofits, on the last pass through the convention hall as the FDIC and CFPB booths were shutting down, on the airplane trip home from Atlanta. The summit itself was squarely focused on the positive, with an agenda that ranged from a keynote address by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to a Q-and-A session with rapper-turned-businessman Russell Simmons.
A pre-conference program at Atlanta's famed Ebenezer Baptist Church lent an additional sense of purpose and history to the proceedings. Ebenezer is where Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. preached, and two members of the King family (Martin Luther King Jr.'s only living sibling, Christine King-Farris, and his daughter, Bernice King) appeared over the two days of events, reminding delegates that their fathers saw economic justice, and financial education, as a civil rights matter.
"Dad was all about financial literacy," said King-Farris, who recalled that her father, affectionately known as "Daddy King," encouraged many of his congregants to realize the dream of home ownership.
Operation HOPE describes itself as the "largest national urban delivery system for financial literacy empowerment in the nation." It organized the gathering at Ebenezer to cut the ribbon on its newest Financial Dignity Center, housed within the church's Martin Luther King Sr. Community Resource Complex. In seminars and one-on-one sessions, counselors at Operation HOPE Financial Dignity Centers around the country offer advice on cleaning up bad credit, purchasing a home or obtaining a small-business loan.
The summit (American Banker was a media sponsor) officially kicked off back at the convention hotel, with a timely address by Don Graves, head of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. Graves had been with President Obama that day for a heavily publicized meeting with corporate CEOs invited to the White House to discuss the fiscal cliff and its impact on hiring.
The dignity that employment can provide was a key theme that carried into the second day of the summit. Michael Arougheti, the president of Ares Capital, triggered a wave of applause during a panel discussion when he cited a recent observation made by Operation HOPE founder John Hope Bryant: "The new philanthropy is a job."
But it takes more than a job to fully participate in, and benefit from, the financial system. For that, you need to know the vocabulary of money. You need someone to show you, through formal training or just by example, how to responsibly manage your finances. On this, every speaker who addressed the issue agreed wholeheartedly.
"Forty percent of the population wouldn't know what to do if they had a $2,000 emergency," noted SunTrust CEO Bill Rogers, who didn't hesitate to answer in the affirmative when he was asked whether financial literacy should be a required course in high school or college. "I would say actually middle school is the best place to start," Rogers said. "By the time you get to college, you sort of already had to have had it happen."