On May 5, 1992, as South Central Los Angeles smoldered after four days of riots, 30 tourists—bankers and corporate CEOs, mostly white—took a bus trip through the epicenter of the violence. “They stuck out like a sore thumb,” says John Bryant, the outing’s organizer. “And the scene they saw was devastating. There was smoke, flames, broken windows and people in the streets.”
For Bryant, who had grown up just blocks away, the sight was especially wrenching. Then 26, he had just founded his own financial-services company and was at the beginning of a fast-track career. But when he watched the riots explode from his plush eighth-floor office, he experienced, he says, “a turning point. I had unintentionally hurt my own community by blaming poverty on the poor, by not having any empathy. So I felt compelled to do something, to right my own wrong.”
For guidance Bryant went to the Reverend Cecil Murray, his pastor and a well-known community leader, who told him, “Take your business skills and put them to use.” Within two months, using $20,000 of his own money, he launched the nonprofit Operation Hope, and organized that first bus trip to prove that South Central was worth saving. “CEOs drove by these communities for 15 years and never got off the freeway,” says Bryant, who showed his guests not just gutted shops but well-tended houses. “I wanted them to go back to their offices and say, ‘Hey, I just went through South Central. Why aren’t we lending over there?’ ”
Today they are. Ten years after the L.A. riots—which were sparked by the acquittal of four police officers charged with beating motorist Rodney King—Operation Hope, in partnership with more than 100 banks and corporations, has, according to Bryant, helped secure $68.8 million in mortgages for 424 home owners in once-blighted neighborhoods. It has given a further boost to 65 small business owners with more than $4 million in loans. In all, says Bryant, 36, thousands of people have been helped, including pharmacist Gilbert Mathieu, 69, whose 22-year-old drugstore burned to the ground in the riots. Mathieu was rebuilding within a month, thanks in part to a $100,000 loan negotiated by Operation Hope. “Without it my pharmacy might not have been rebuilt,” he says. “Operation Hope helped me, and they helped the city too.”
Still, Bryant stresses that his intention is not just to repair the past but to build for the future. To that end Operation Hope has opened three financial centers offering banking, mortgage and educational services in poor L.A. neighborhoods, as well as in cyber cafes, where patrons can take courses in computer skills and financial planning. In 1996 Bryant also founded the nonprofit Banking on Our Future, whose volunteers have taught the basics of investing and savings accounts to kids in 300 inner-city schools nationwide. Clifford Thornton Jr., 10, heard Bryant speak at a seminar and took his advice to heart, saving up S80 in his piggy bank. “I put money in it every day,” he says.
Bryant admits he is an unabashed self-promoter—he displays memorabilia from Presidents Clinton and both Bushes on a table in his home office—and some local critics complain the size of his accomplishments is exceeded by that of his ego. “You could accuse Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Mother Teresa of self-promotion,” he responds. “The question is, do you promote yourself for self’s sake—or to bring attention to a cause?”
Powerful allies agree. “John Bryant has done a great job,” says former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. “He’s always in there pitching.” That opinion is seconded by Carlton Jenkins, 46, a partner in an equity fund that invests in struggling communities and has donated to Bryant’s effort. “People who do what I do for a living appreciate John,” he says. “Operation Hope keeps the conversation going about disparities in the access that people in low-income areas have to home ownership, technology, capital and credit cards.”
Bryant’s own route to the good life began in one of L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods. The youngest of three children born to Johnie Will Smith, now 77, a cement contractor, and his wife Juanita, 67, a seamstress, Bryant was 5 when his parents divorced. While other kids wore pressed khakis and sneakers to school—the uniform of the in crowd at the time—Bryant’s mother dressed him in crushed velvet three-piece suits. “She didn’t want me to be ordinary,”.he says. “I got my ass whipped, but it did force me to be an individual.” At age 10 he set up a candy store in the family den and earned, he says, $300 a week. As a teen he attended the Hollywood Professional School for aspiring young actors, where classmates included Tatum O’Neal and Todd Bridges.
But it was only after he dropped out of San Diego City College—and, failing at a series of business ventures, lived for six months in his Jeep in a parking lot—that Bryant finally found direction in life. Landing an entry-level job at a merchant bank, he persuaded his bosses to let him earn commissions by managing accounts for wealthy clients applying for high-interest loans. “The first year I did zero in business,” he says. “The fourth year I did $24 million.”
Today Bryant—who was married briefly and now dates Tracey Hilgeman, 31, a rental-car company account manager—is paid a $150,000 salary by Operation Hope and live in a three-bedroom condo in L.A. , decorated with a large collection of Shona sculptures from Zimbabwe and a Richard Avedon photo of himself for a Gap ad.
Yet those tokens of success, he says, aren’t nearly as rewarding as the transformation that he is helping to effect in his city. Today, as more than $1.2 billion in development money pours into a community once ravaged by violence, South Central, Bryant believes, is improving in every way. “After 40 scorching days, it’s easy to start a fire—all you need is a spark,” he says, recalling those traumatic days from a decade ago. “But if it’s been raining, it’s harder to create the friction. People’s spirits are much stronger today. It’s been raining for 40 straight days.”
Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles