For most of his life, Bruce Franks Jr. was an underdog. And Franks' transformation from underdog to "superman" propelled him into the national spotlight. The 35-year-old father of five and St. Louis native is the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary "St. Louis Superman," which made its television premiere May 18 on MTV.
Franks, who now lives in Phoenix, rose to prominence during and following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of teenager Michael Brown in 2014. The documentary shows how that incident inspired him to become a community activist and, eventually, run for office.
Nowadays, Franks is also a battle rapper, a business owner, and a consultant and advocate working for two youth advocacy and gun violence prevention organizations, Generation Progress and the Community Justice Action Fund. His fight against injustice and inequality, racial, economic, or otherwise, he says, is just getting started.
Here's how understanding his financial and economic situation early on, and learning about money in general, helped shape him into the man he is today.
Growing up in St. Louis, Franks says his family didn't have much, though that wasn't clear to him until his teenage years when he was bussed to a relatively wealthy suburb to attend high school. It was only then, surrounded by richer, mostly white classmates, that Franks realized that he had fewer advantages.
"I was poor just like everyone else in our community, but I didn't really know that," Franks says. But after seeing what life was like for some of his new friends, it became obvious that Franks, and many others in his community, were experiencing a different economic reality.
From then on, Franks says he started to see things differently. He saw that the financial struggle was alive and well in his own house, as his mother, worked several jobs to make ends meet. That was one of the reasons she was adamant that Franks learn financial habits that would help him succeed.
Video by Courtney Stith
"My mom was one of the few in our community that understood financial literacy and financial empowerment," he says. She taught him financial basics, like how to balance a checkbook and the importance of savings, and was able to, as Franks says, "point me in the right direction."
His mom's lessons helped him keep his focus on school and sports. He was an athlete during his school years and ended up going to junior college and running track. Then, at 19, he had his first child, a daughter. He was young and, he says, a "hothead," but becoming a dad changed his trajectory: He now had to take care of his family, so he went to work.
Through a good portion of his 20s, Franks bounced from job to job — mostly in hospitality, working as a cook and a bartender. He estimates that he had nearly two dozen jobs in a span of around six or seven years. At one point, he held four jobs simultaneously.
He also had a fair amount of success in the music business. As a rapper, Franks goes by the name "Ooops," and he spent a couple of years in Atlanta making a living through his music.
But he missed his family and, in 2010, moved back to St. Louis where he eventually got married and became a business owner. The couple opened an Allstate Insurance branch and Franks learned the ropes from his wife, who had previous experience owning and managing businesses.
"I went from working these dead-end jobs to being a struggling artist," he says, to becoming a business owner and having more control over his finances and his destiny.
Then, on August 2014, everything shifted. "People say you can't change overnight," Franks says. "But I literally changed overnight. From August 8 to August 9, I was two completely different people."
On August 8, 2014, Michael Brown was killed. The incident drew national attention to both police practices and the inequality and economic inequalities persisting in many American communities, Franks says.
"It brought to light the economic disparities," Franks says, as well as to "the instability in our communities," which tied back to persistent and systemic inequalities. "It really opened my eyes."
Once he was in the legislature, he saw another way in which economic power shapes decision-making at high levels. Many lawmakers, Franks says, are aware of the issues that impact his community the most — unemployment, violence, and a lack of economic opportunity — but find it more politically expedient to "kick the can down the road," rather than try to address those issues themselves.
"Money is the root of a lot of things that happen in politics and causes politicians to play politics with people's lives," he says. "That's something I saw firsthand."
Though he was learning valuable lessons and doing what he could to help his constituents, he also found that politics takes its toll. He worked 100-hour weeks and made $34,000 per year.
The long hours, relatively low pay, some campaign finance issues, and a pair of personal tragedies — a close friend and his Godson were both killed within a short time frame — caused Franks a significant level of mental and emotional anguish. "I was in a dark place," he says, "and politics was adding to my trauma."
So, after three years serving in the state government, Franks resigned in 2019, citing a need to deal with anxiety and depression. He returned to St. Louis briefly but then decided to move out west, where he could get recentered and focus on his next chapter in life.
"I needed sunshine and a change of atmosphere," he says, and he's been able to find some of both in Arizona. Now working as an artist and consultant, he's feeling better, on sound financial footing, and looking forward to carrying on the fight against gun violence and economic injustice — two issues that have hounded him for most of his life.
Though he isn't sure where, exactly, the future will take him, Franks says he now knows that the economic issues facing poor, marginalized communities remain critical, and he wants to do what he can to help.
"There's too many people of color, too many poor people as a whole who are barely surviving each day because of the economic strain. It's time that we push forward so that everyone can thrive, rather than just survive."
And after a lifetime of fighting to get by, Franks says he's optimistic about the future. "If I felt any better, I'd be worried," he says.
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