1,000 Branch Banks to Serve the Poor (You and Me, Too)

If you are middle class today there is a good chance that you actually 'feel' poor in this economy -- meaning 'there is too much month at the end of your money.' Seventy percent of all Americans are struggling to make ends meet, living from paycheck to paycheck. But there is hope.

Thanks to the increasing popularity of mobile banking and other 21st century lifestyle changes, there are 100,000 existing and mostly under-utilized bank branches all across America today. Branches that can be retooled to serve as a powerful (and positive) catalyst for transformational community change. Think about a national platform for banks to 'do good' for others, even while they are doing well for themselves. "Rainbows after storms -- you cannot have a rainbow, without a storm first."

American branch banking needs a renewed and relevant future.

Traditional financial literacy needs a renewed and relevant future.

Think of an innovative solution which re-imagines each, and marries both. Imagine returning the word 'community' -- back into the storyline of American banking.

Think of a local bank branch combined with a credible nonprofit partner; one in the business of financial empowerment and financial dignity for all. One on one financial counseling, at mass-scale across the city, state, and nation.

Think of a local bank branch that offers HUD approved credit counseling to its customers, and surrounding communities alike.

Think of a local bank branch that provides mortgage crisis counseling, including mortgage modification assistance.

Think of a local bank branch that provides Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) counseling, even assistance applying for EITC. What's the magic of EITC? Anyone who earns $50,000 or less qualifies for EITC, and one in four Americans who qualify for EITC, never even ask for it. That translates into approximately $10 billion a year that goes unclaimed by working families. Working families without a proper financial planner or tax adviser who can give proper advice, counseling and assistance. At $50,000 income as a marker, that translates into more than half of the American population as a market opportunity. An opportunity "to do good." This is financial dignity for all.

Think of a local bank branch which helps raise credit scores to 700, through a proven system of one-on-one financial counseling and financial case management. Think of a nonprofit with a record of raising credit scores an average of 120 points over an 18-month period, and you have just imagined what Operation HOPE does for its clients on a regular basis.

Think of a local bank branch which cultivates and brings future customers into the banking enterprise, 'growing the market' not through some strange predatory mortgage product of old, but by taking these individuals out of the predatory, alternative financial space, and up the opportunity ladder into the traditional banking space. Dignity walking. According to the FDIC, there are approximately 40 million unbanked and underbanked citizens throughout the U.S.

Think of a local bank branch that provides financial literacy counseling to children in local schools, and financial education support and a range of soft banking resource support services for families and small business.

Think of a local bank branch that makes financial literacy empowerment real in the lives of people, and revolutionizes and re-imagines the very concept of community service, community reinvestment and community banking, or CRA (the Community Reinvestment Act) as it is known in banking.

Think of 1,000 or more locations across the country which are 100 percent focused on meeting people where they are, and serving the working poor, the underserved and the struggling middle class with the financial dignity services they need and deserve. Imagine having a resource, right in your own community, where you and your family could get the answers you need, and stop arguing over money and financial issues. Imagine a local financial empowerment center, all your own.

Operation HOPE is that "non-profit private banker" for the working poor, the under-served and the struggling middle class, and HOPE Inside is our new delivery mechanism to help transform America, from the so-called bottom-up.

This is my vision for the future of (branch) banking for all in America. Returning it to the dignity-centered business of providing respect and consideration of and for each and every customer, and potential customer, in the neighborhood. To return banking to its roots of the very spirit of community banking for all.

In this regard we are honored to announce that our first national partner in this endeavor is SunTrust Banks, the eighth largest bank in the country, headquartered here in Atlanta, Georgia. And while we genuinely hope that many more banks and mainstream financial institutions will follow the SunTrust lead, under the leadership of their chairman and CEO Bill Rogers the bank changed its company focus from 'mission centered' to 'purpose centered' (they call it "lighting the way to financial well-being"). SunTrust made for a natural first partner here, and we are honored to be associated. SunTrust Banks was there, more than 100 years ago, when an entrepreneur had a vision called Coca-Cola, and they backed him. And now, that same bank backs another bold vision, this time for serving the least of these God's children with banking and financial services, nationwide. Makes perfect sense to me.

Together, we have a shot at delivering a generation of 'silver rights' empowerment for all, or making free enterprise work for all. Growing the Atlanta legacy from a base of civil rights justice, to include silver rights empowerment for all too.

When we do this the American banking industry gets another big bonus -- to become champions, role models and credible leaders in community again. To restore something that even a bank balance sheet can appreciate -- very real corporate brand equity. Reputation restored. Restored through community service.

No, I don't see a banking crisis. I see a revolution in banking, One bank branch at a time.

John Hope Bryant is an entrepreneur, author, adviser, 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.