Preparing for a Different Kind of Disaster

Why the National Emergency We Should Fear Most Isn't a Hurricane or Earthquake

By Published on .

John Hope Bryant
John Hope Bryant
September is National Disaster Preparedness Month, and the BP Gulf spill is reminder enough of how critically important disaster preparedness, response and recovery are to our great nation, and to each of us as well. That said, there is a present disaster that threatens not just the Gulf Coast, but our entire nation. It threatens every family, our national economy and even the American way of life as we know it. It is the disaster of massive levels of financial illiteracy in America, and is found at all levels of society. Against the backdrop of the global economic crisis, I believe that financial literacy is nothing short of the new civil rights issue, and the first global civil rights empowerment tool. It is also an issue that the creative powers that drive media, communications and message marketing can do something about.

Think about it: The No. 1 cause for divorce in America is money; and the No. 1 reason why black and brown students drop out of college today is not academics, but money. Three hundred and fifty brilliant young women with a 3.5 GPA or better were left sitting on the opportunity sideline of life earlier this year at Spelman College in Atlanta because they didn't have the $3,000 needed to "gap" their college tuition. Or consider the fact that 70% of our economy has historically been consumer-driven, and 70% of Americans were living from paycheck to paycheck even before the global economic crisis, according to the Federal Reserve.

When you lay aside fraud, financial predators and investment speculators, this global economic crisis has at its roots massive levels of consumer and borrower financial illiteracy. That includes you and me. Instead of asking when we obtain a mortgage, "What's the payment?" We should be asking, "What's the interest rate?" We purchased homes like most people purchase a toaster at Sears, asking, "What's the payment?" Worse, one could argue that we all did a (Bernie) Madoff; as consumers and heads of households, we robbed Peter to pay Paul, purchased too much house, leased too much car, bought things we didn't need (sometimes two of them) and had no idea how the story was going to end.

Well, if we take a look around us, we have to admit that the storyline is not good. America seems to be either in foreclosure or having a global yard sale. As recently as last year, approximately half of all those in foreclosure never even picked up the telephone to call their lender. That's right, they never called. The reason for that is simple: shame.

So how does any of this impact you and the clients you serve in the creative media space? Well, approximately 60% of all corporate fraud is internal, not external. The homeowner or consumer who is struggling to get by is the also the employee on the fourth floor of your client company. Not only is he or she a threat to themselves and the company financially; but a financially stressed person is simply not going to be an inspired or focused employee, and a company's No. 1 asset is its people. America's asset is her people. But you and I, working together, can change the world.

The recent first-ever collaboration between Operation Hope, BBDO New York, as led by its president, John Osborn, and the National Association of Broadcasters, led by Marcellus Alexander Jr., was a powerful start in the right direction, with the series of financial literacy spots made available to NAB members. You could start such a practical movement within the hallways of your agencies and client companies.

On the occasion of National Preparedness Month, let's not just talk about assembling an earthquake or disaster kit, although these things are critically important. Let's also make sure that the households you care about can get back on their feet quickly after disaster strikes.

Three things leaders in the marketing and media space can do:

1. Start a movement of financial literacy empowerment within your place of business, or right at home. Start here. In partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Operation Hope created the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit, or EFFAK. Encourage your employees, colleagues and friends to organize their family's identification and critical financial information, and tuck it away in a place other than their homes. With the support of FEMA, these documents are now available free and online at

2. Join your natural competitors and become natural collaborators, designing a national, sustained campaign to get the word out about the need for financial literacy education and empowerment for all. This is the only way that this crisis will never happen again, and is the only true protection for our children and our children's children. Take a page out of BBDO NY and NAB's book, and the PSA spots they created together.

3. Go to and make a 5MK Pledge to help us break the impetus of the high school drop-out generation. We can use the power of financial literacy, the language of money and aspiration, to keep kids in school and to "make smart sexy again." If you don't have money, then pledge your skill or even your time as a Hope Corps volunteer.

Disaster Preparedness Month, like the global economic crisis itself, should not point to our fears and our weaknesses as a nation of people, but rather to the rainbow that follows the storm. In the midst of every crisis lie the seeds of enormous opportunity. Within that opportunity, in turn, lies our hope.

Let's reclaim America's greatness, not by avoiding our problems, by blaming them on someone else, or by seeing the glass as half empty. Let's simply double down and recommit to the virtues, values and classic American hustle and work ethic that made this country absolutely great.

Let's not let this global economic disaster go to waste, as a teachable moment for us all.

Let's go.

John Hope Bryant is a founder, chairman and CEO of Operation Hope, a national nonprofit organization focused on providing economic education and empowerment to communities across the U.S. and South Africa. Operation HOPE offers free services to Americans feeling the effects of the recent economic downturn at 888-388-HOPE (4673).
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