Saturday, November 10, 2007

Arts and Entertainment: Operation Hope opens in Harlem

A new branch of Operation Hope opened its doors recently in New York's Harlem neighborhood. The Hope Center of Harlem focuses on connecting minorities with mainstream, private sector resources and empowering underserved communities. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story on the national nonprofit group's latest venture.

Operation Hope's founder John Bryant likes what he hears in Harlem these days. The sounds of drills and jackhammers beating in the background during the opening reception of the new Hope Center were like economic music to his ears, he says.

"Those are not gunshots you hear. Those are not problems you hear. Those are not kids hanging out on the street corners creating problems you hear. Those are men working - building the new Harlem. And that's a beautiful thing," he said.

Harlem was the center of African American culture in the first half of the 20th century, but for much of the second half, it was associated with crime, drugs and poverty. Today the area is experiencing an economic boom, but according to Bryant and bankers who work with his group, many Harlem residents don't receive or seek out enough financial information.

Bryant founded Operation Hope in 1992 in the wake of civil unrest in Los Angeles, California. On April 29th of that year, riots broke out when a predominately white jury acquitted four police officers in a racially charged trial. Fifty-three people were killed. Since then, Bryant has worked to help disadvantaged communities attain economic stability and equality.

For Harlem's Hope Center, Bryant recruited private banks, investment groups and even local government to raise money for the center and find advisors and volunteers to offer services there. New York Superintendent of Banks Richard Neiman says Harlem suffers from a lack of financial institutions and bank branches, making residents more susceptible to predators.

"When communities lack traditional branches, they risk being targeted by non-traditional entities, particularly check cashers, mortgage brokers, mortgage banks. Not all are done in predatory practices but they do, in many cases, subject individuals to higher fees and other services," he said.

Bryant says the Hope Center will be a place for community members to learn about financial services, research economic options and empower themselves with the information needed to make sound financial decisions. He says it's not about how much money you have, but what you do with that money.

Michael Smith, president of the New York Bankers Association and an Operation Hope board member, agrees. He says he wants to see the center's programs, like Banking on Our Future, which offers personal finance instruction at public schools, grow and expand in Harlem, and all over New York City.

"If there is one thing that the most recent crisis in the housing market has proven, it is the need for financial education. If there's one organization that has made it the clearing call, it is Operation Hope and its Banking on Our Future program. Financial literacy is the long-term cure for predatory lending," he said.

Arlen Gelbard of E*Trade Financial says many Harlem residents don't even have a bank account. His firm, along with financial giants like JP Morgan Chase and Deutsche Bank, contributed to the Harlem Center. Gelbard says that while his company does a lot of outreach and nonprofit funding as goodwill, investing in Harlem could also be a good investment for financial institutions.

"If you look at this from a pure business perspective, less than 50 percent of the people who live in Harlem have a banking relationship. So really, if you want to take a longer-term view, these are our future customers, not only for E*Trade, but for Chase, for Deutsche Bank, etc.," he said.

For those future customers in Harlem, one man has some sound advice. Though he's not a banker, Operation Hope's global spokesperson Andrew Young has some serious credentials of his own. The former congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and United Nations ambassador says arming people with the right information is the first step to financial literacy. Young says that when he was working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he wasn't a big fan of the way capitalism works. But, he says, he's learned that you can make capitalism work for you, and he hopes people will take advantage of the new Hope Center in educating themselves about money.

"How is it that there's always somebody in the world making money? And when you see somebody losing money, don't get upset. Look around and see where are the people who are making money, and find a way to hook up with them. That's what the Hope Center is about. A Hope Center is about hoping that you gonna get hooked up with some money," he said.

The Hope Center also offers seminars, classes, access to computers and the Internet, and networking services for jobs and internships.

Founder John Bryant says education is the key to eliminating poverty. "This Hope Center is the embodiment of this dream - it is a 'Silver Rights Movement' of moving people up and out of poverty and giving people a hand up and not a hand out," he said.

Bryant's way of describing his mission as the "Silver Rights Movement" is a word play on the "Civil Rights" period. But, he says, giving people the financial tools needed to get out of poverty, or as he refers to it, attaining the "silver rights" they are entitled to, is no game.

By Mona Ghuneim, New York
Published with the permission of Voice of America