The Aspen Institute and the Re-Winning of America

It is appropriate that almost immediately following the Aspen Institute's annual Ideas Festival, Ambassador Andrew Young and I would speak at the Aspen Institute Financial Security Summit, organized by our friend Lisa Mensah and her team. It was a well organized and purposeful meeting, but such is not the point.

Inspired by the Ideas Festival, columnist David Brooks wrote a piece for The New York Times last week entitled "The Opportunity Gap". This piece troubled most people who read it, but it only confirmed what Ambassador Young and I, and our friend Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, already knew; that there was a hug and widening gap not only between the rich and poor adults in this country, but more frighteningly, amongst our children. Brooks article, all backed up by evidence, stats and comprehensive research, also makes the point that my mentor Quincy Jones has made to us repeatedly, and drives his involvement in our 5 MILLION KIDS initiative and the recent launch of the Banking on Our Future, Quincy Jones Edition: that "it takes 20 years to change a culture."

David Brooks states that:

It's not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: "It's perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them -- family, friends, church, school and community." As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

This is the way that David Brooks frames this generational crisis of 20 years. I would say that in the last 20 years we have made dumb sexy. We have dumbed-down, and even celebrated it (example: Diesel Jeans and their horribly successful BE STUPID branding and advertising campaign). Now we must make smart sexy again. We must make smart cool, so that kids want to stay in school.

Against this backdrop, we also must look at not only the generational advantages of the wealthy, but the incentive structure that is helping to make engaged and wealthy kids more engaged and wealthy, and so-called poor children more disengaged, disinterested and in the end, opportunity poor. We must look at the educational incentive system itself.

Let's take the No Child Left Behind legislation for instance. This law is very well meaning, in the sense that every reasonable, rational parent of any race, creed or color, would want their child to be able to read and write before they graduate from high-school. This just makes good common sense. That said, while this is the aim of No Child Left Behind, this unfortunately is not the result.

As a result of its focus on only testing the past results (versus juicing the right future incentives), if you are, say, bad in English, No Child Left Behind simply proves you are bad in English. If you are dumb in math, this law underscores and screams loud to the world -- 'boy, you sure are dumb in math.'

This takes a young person with low self esteem to begin with, and just sends him plunging into a world of 'no hope.' And the most dangerous person in the world is the person with no hope. And it should be a sin for a child to have no hope.

This is the case that David Brooks article makes better than most I have seen, and underscores a widening gulf of not only wealth in our nation, but the core of what makes this nation truly great; equality of opportunity, and freedom through individual aspiration and self determination.

And this widening gulf is not only a problem with and for the so-called poor. As David Brooks points out in The New York Times after attending the Ideas Festival, "affluent, intelligent people are now more likely to marry other energetic, intelligent people. They raise energetic, intelligent kids in self-segregated, cultural ghettoes where they know little about and have less influence upon people who do not share their blessings." This may not on the surface appear to be a disadvantage of the wealthy and well-to-do, but it is.

In the short term, this all seems fine, but in the long-term it all makes the so-called best of our kids less competitive in the global economy. Less competitive, in a world that is increasingly racially diverse, culturally complex, globally competitive and interconnected.

America is the global economic leader in the world today in part because we are the only nation in the world with every race of people within our borders (allowing us to 'speak' and engage with the world as traders, consumers, customers, partners and friends). A nation whose elite are mainstream and increasingly isolated amongst like-minded selves, while the rest of the world is poor, struggling, underserved and economically marginalized, is not a nation that can lead a 21st century world.

What must come next is not a focus on poor people and their so-called weaknesses, but a new found focus on all of our kids untapped strengths. Strength Finders for young people. We need to obsess on the one thing that well-to-do youth have, and our so-called poor youth do not, and that is a base of business role models and business internship opportunities.

The 2011 Gallup-HOPE Index revealed that 91 percent of all youth were not afraid to take risk, 77 percent of all youth wanted to be their own boss, 44 percent said they wanted to own their own business, another 44 percent said they thought they would create something that would change the world, but a mere 5 percent had a business role model, or business internship. 5 percent. If we don't gap the 77percent with the 5 percent, the American Dream as we know it is done for.

Operation HOPE and Gallup decided to change all of this.

Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, and I partnered together to focus on a first in history national measurement of our young people's level of hope, well-being, engagement, financial literacy and economic energy. Gallup and Operation HOPE believe that the future of America lives with the 30 million young people, 4th grade through 12th grade, in public school education across America. We believe that they represent the 'bench strength' for the playoff game of the rest of our lives.' To quote Jim Clifton from his new book The Coming Jobs War, "its a game for all the marbles."

We believe that America is indeed the greatest nation on the planet, but she has to see herself that way again.

We believe that America can continue to be a leader of the free world, well into the 21st century, but in order to do that she has to re-imagine and re-frame her future, inclusive of the economic hopes and dreams of all of God's children, and not just those well endowed with the economic, cultural, societal and relationship-rooted advantages of opportunity, granted to them at birth.

We believe that freedom once came through democracy and from the individual right to vote, but now freedom is increasingly defined through a new lens. One focused on opportunity.

That freedom today lies in and is interconnected with one's opportunity for self-determination.

That one goes hand in hand with the other. A strong and stable democracy is found when the majority of its citizens believe that if they work hard, play by the rules, stop at red lights, answer yes and no sir to authority figures and elders alike, and pay their taxes, that their efforts will be rewarded with a reasonable shot at opportunity. An equal shot at success or failure on their own merit. This thing called self-determination is the new American creed, and the new symbol for freedom for a generation.

John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, 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. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum. Mr. Bryant serves on the board of directors of Ares Commercial Real Estate Corporation, an NYSE Euronext publicly traded company, and a division of $54 billion Ares Capital.