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Remarks at the Operation HOPE 20th Anniversary Bus Tour Ceremony, Los Angeles, California

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Commerce Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank
Remarks at the Operation HOPE 20th Anniversary Bus Tour Ceremony, Los Angeles, California

Thank you, Don [Graves]. And thanks to John [Hope Bryant] and Lance [Triggs] and everyone here at Operation Hope.

It is a true honor to be at this celebration on behalf of President Obama and the administration.

Six months ago, President Obama dedicated the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. It’s just steps away from the Commerce Department building where I work.

It has a huge granite Inscription Wall that frames the central monument. That wall has 14 of Dr. King’s quotes from speeches he gave over his lifetime.

One of those quotes is from a speech that he gave right here in Los Angeles. It says this:

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

It’s clear that 1991 and 1992 were indeed a time of challenge and controversy–not only for Los Angeles–but for our entire nation.

We watched as a prostrate Rodney Glen King was beaten.

We watched for months as justice seemed to never come.

And we watched as 53 lives were needlessly lost in the City of Angels during the riots that followed.

I watched all of this from my then-home in Chicago, Illinois, wondering what would happen next.

Now, I have to let you know that I am an economist by training–not everybody’s favorite occupation, I know. But much of my past work as an economist has focused on how America can address its inequalities–and how women and men from underserved communities can get the education and the opportunities and the jobs. . . and the hope. . . that they need to improve their lives.

So when I heard that this city had lost over 100,000 jobs in the year before the riots, I began to understand that this was about much more than just Rodney King.

This was about a breakdown of opportunity. A breakdown of social institutions. And, I suspect, a loss of hope by many in this part of the city.

But then something happened.

Just when it appeared that the city of Los Angeles was at deep risk–parts of it burned and gone–we glimpsed a phoenix among the ashes.

It started when the debris of destruction was removed from a street corner. . . .

Then, a burned-down business was patched up, and re-opened. . . .

And then, community leaders started to create a new vision for their neighborhoods.

Yes. This was the phoenix of hope at work.

As the dust began to clear and settle, it was clear that there were many who were standing strong in the midst of the chaos, and seeking a way forward.

One of those people was John Hope Bryant. He conceived Operation Hope in the days following the civil unrest. He stood strong and Operation Hope began to make a difference in this community.

Many institutions saw the potential of this organization early on. I’m pleased to say that the Commerce Department was one of them. We awarded Operation Hope $200,000 in 1999 to help fund the Inner City Cyber Café. Vice President Al Gore was here when it opened.

Since then, Operation HOPE has helped bring more investments, more economic opportunity, and more empowerment, into underserved communities. Among other things, this organization helps people achieve what I think is a wonderful and powerful thing–not just “financial literacy” but “financial dignity.”

When the most recent recession hit in 2007, Los Angeles and other cities were threatened once again–not with the flames of riots and billions of dollars in physical destruction that we saw here 20 years ago, but with the very real destruction of lost jobs and (again) lost hope, shaking the economic security of working families.

So, again, we all got to work.

For example, through the Recovery Act that President Obama signed in 2009, $7.5 million dollars went from the Department of Commerce to the City of Los Angeles to install high-speed broadband connections and to place thousands of new computers at about 150 sites.

This Commerce Department grant focused specifically on parts of the city where poverty and unemployment were – and still are – high.

Today, as a result, about 130,000 people are using those computers every week–from students doing homework to unemployed workers applying for job. Access to the Internet  improves access to education; it improves access to healthcare services; and it fuels economic development.

In other words, together we are not just developing communities–we are developing minds.

And you know, our economy is showing strong signs of growth once again, with four million jobs created across America over the past two years.

That’s good news. But our work–of course–is far from finished.

We must do more to ensure that every child has access to a world-class education, with good teachers and mentors. That includes preventing interest rates on student loans from doubling on 7 and a half million students on July 1, as the president is calling for this week.

We must ensure that entrepreneurs in every neighborhood have a fair shot at turning their dreams into reality. . . and hiring their friends and neighbors along the way. We will not be satisfied until every person who wants a job has found one.

We must ensure that our faith communities can continue to play strong roles as catalysts of change and renewal – something that I have been personally involved with for years.

And, perhaps most important, we must ensure that we all stand together, arm-in-arm, no matter what comes our way. After all, it is much easier to face those moments of challenge and controversy when we are united.

I will close with a quotation from one of the most gifted speakers I know. President Barack Obama said this at the end of his dedication speech at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial:

“[F]or all our sometimes-tragic history, ours is a story of optimism and achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this Earth. And that is why the rest of the world still looks to us to lead. This is a country where ordinary people find in their hearts the courage to do extraordinary things–the courage to stand up in the face of the fiercest resistance and despair and say this is wrong, and this is right. We will not settle for what the cynics tell us we have to accept and we will reach again and again, no matter the odds, for what we know is possible.”

This community stood up after the riots 20 years ago, and allowed hope to rise from the ashes. You can see its effects all around you today. This is what happens when we stand up and when we stand together.

I humbly thank you again for this opportunity to be here with you and to speak today. May God bless all of you, may God bless this community, and may God bless our United States of America.