|Oprah & students cut the ribbon at the school's opening ceremony. (AP Photo/Denis Farell)
What would you do with 40 million dollars? Would you retire and travel around the world? Would you feed the hungry? The possibilities are infinite. With 40 million dollars, Oprah Winfrey has built the school of her dreams in order to fulfill the dreams of 152, and counting, South African girls.
The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy is no doubt a dream world for these girls. It is luxurious; way beyond expectations and far better than the living conditions in their hometowns. When the girls arrive at the 28-building, 50-acre campus of the Leadership Academy in Henley-on-Klip, South Africa, they find themselves sharing a bedroom with only one other person—and their own bed, no less. They also find fireplaces in every building, state-of-the-art technology, sports fields, and art and decorations by African artists, all of which contribute to a nurturing and supportive, yet rigorous, educational environment. It is an oasis for any learner, but it is especially so for these girls, who come from the poorest rural areas of South Africa.
South Africa is still emerging from the effects of Apartheid, a series of laws that legally allowed for racial discrimination, segregation and human rights violations which were only abolished in the early nineties. Few have running water in their homes; a family of seven is likely to share a two-room shack; health care is limited; education is minimal, especially for girls, who are more likely to stay home and take care of family members, and as many as one million South African children have been orphaned due to the AIDS epidemic.
For Oprah, the country is the location for a new chapter in her own life, one of hands-on giving, and of personal importance and pride. She is not only investing in the educations of 152 girls, she is investing in their futures and the future of a nation. “I wanted to give opportunity to girls who were like me. Girls who were poor, who had come from disadvantaged circumstances, but girls who had a light so bright that not even poverty, disease, and life circumstances could dim that light,” Oprah explains. She sees these girls as the visionaries and leaders of tomorrow. She also sees herself in the girls attending the school.
When Oprah travels to South Africa, the living conditions are very much the same there as they were for her fifty years ago. Born in Mississippi, in 1954, Oprah grew up experiencing poverty and inequality first-hand. There were no bathrooms in the house, no running water. The family grew their own vegetables so that they would have food to put on the table. Segregation and inequality between blacks and whites remained prevalent, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public schools in the same year of Oprah’s birth. Oprah’s father had to tip his hat to any white man walking by; a burning cross was placed on the Winfrey front yard; and blacks were still treated as second-class citizens.
Poverty and racism proved not to be the only challenges for Oprah. At age six, she moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to stay with her mother, who was living on welfare. What happened in the years spent at her mother’s home initiated a fast downward spiral for the young child. Oprah was raped at age nine, and then endured more sexual abuse from her cousin’s boyfriend. Perhaps as a foreshadowing of her determination and spark, Oprah ran away to escape the abuse; however, she quickly became an out-of-control and promiscuous adolescent. By age 14, she was pregnant and homeless, and so she was sent to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey. Vernon was strict; but his tough-love turned his daughter’s life around. Vernon, who earned his high school diploma and then opened up a barbershop, was now well-established and valued education above all else. He required Oprah to read a book a week, and achieve high marks in school—“C’s” were not acceptable.
Oprah was still in high school when she began her broadcasting career at a local radio station. By age 19, she landed a job as a news anchor for a Nashville television station. She was the youngest person, and the first African-American woman, to do so. She climbed the ladder to a successful career in television, and now wears many hats, from film producer and actress, to inspirational guru and child advocate, to businesswoman and philanthropist, to author and magazine publisher. The Oprah Winfrey Show, which began her fame, has been on the air since 1985, and has received more than 40 Emmy Awards. Oprah also starred in the films “The Color Purple” (for which she earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations) and “Beloved,” among others.
In addition to her on-screen projects, Oprah has also promoted literacy and discovered authors through her book club; initiated a National Child Protection Act to establish a national database of convicted child abusers, which President Clinton signed into law in 1993; and established The Oprah Winfrey Foundation to empower women, children, and families through education. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) inducted her into the Hall of Fame in 2005; and Time magazine named her one of the “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century” in 1998; and in 2005, the magazine named her one of the top “100 Most Influential People in the World,” right alongside Nelson Mandela, whose home she was in when the idea for the Leadership Academy first hatched.
In her letter in the January issue of O Magazine, Oprah writes, “Going to Africa changed me forever. I was sitting in Nelson Mandela’s living room when I told him I wanted to commit $10 million to build a school for girls who had no other chance to make it in the world. He was thrilled…this is the best investment I have ever made, building a future for girls who more than deserve it.” She continued, “The school’s fundamental value is to encourage each girl to develop her critical thinking to create the best life possible for her, and then use her life in service to others, no matter her calling.”
The Leadership Academy’s first two classes will consist of seventh and eighth grade girls, who were chosen from an astounding number of roughly 3,500 applications arriving from all over the nine provinces of South Africa. Qualified applicants had to demonstrate leadership and academic potential, come from a household earning less than $800 per month, and write an essay on dreams and draw a picture of their dream house. “I want somebody who already knows that education is empowerment, and who wouldn’t have had the chance to fulfill the great possibilities of her life had this not happened. I want to change the trajectory of a child’s life,” Oprah writes in the Academy’s website.
484 girls were selected to be interviewed, and Oprah herself interviewed the finalists, creating the final list of 152 eager, personally hand-selected students to become a part of the school. These girls will pay nothing; and when they graduate, they will be able to go to the college of their choice, anywhere in the world, and will be funded by Oprah.
This innovative school is designed to discover, teach and inspire a new generation of leaders. Oprah will be among those inspiring these girls, teaching leadership classes via satellite. The Academy website elaborates on their mission: “Trained in decision making, critical and expansive thinking, social responsibility and the rewards of giving back to one’s own community, they will be prepared to lead in the quest for peace, progress, and prosperity in South Africa and the world.” And this is just the beginning; the Academy will be the model for other schools that Oprah hopes to build in struggling communities.
Former South African president, and human rights icon, Nelson Mandela, has high praise for Oprah: “This school will provide opportunities to some of our young people they could never imagine, had it not been for Oprah. The key to any country’s future is educating its youth. Oprah is therefore not only investing in a few young individuals but in the future of our country. We are indebted to her for her selfless efforts. This is a lady that has, despite her own disadvantaged background, become one of the benefactors of the disadvantaged throughout the world and we should congratulate her for that.” (From Academy press release.)
Despite Mandela’s praise, Oprah, her philanthropy, and the school are not without critics. These critics, often leaders of other organizations working to provide aid to the African population, are aghast that $40 million isn’t going to be distributed among many, many more people. There are some, too, who are concerned that living this lavishly will further separate these girls from their original communities. Others wonder why only girls have been singled out; and still others question Oprah’s choice of building a school to help African children, and not American children. “This is what I want to do. I wanted to take girls with the ‘it’ quality and give them the opportunity to make a difference in the world,” Oprah told Newsweek. But there are other reasons, too.
The reason for starting with a just-for-girls school is that, although there is a lack of education for both girls and boys in Africa, the girls suffer the most, since they are less likely to receive the opportunity for education. Yet, studies show that educating girls has the most impact on the community. They return home to teach their families, and their own children, about the importance of education. They become empowered, and empower others; and therefore, future generations are better able to provide for themselves.
Why so lavish? Or maybe the question should be, “why not?” Saying that the girls don’t deserve to have something beautiful is akin to assigning them to adhere to the presumption that they will remain living in poor conditions. The big closets in their dormitories allow them the chance to dream big, to believe that they can fill these closets with their potential, and things that they learn how to earn. During the opening ceremony on January 2, 2007, Oprah explains, “If you are surrounded by beautiful things and wonderful teachers who inspire you, that beauty brings out the beauty in you.” Beautiful surroundings also encourage the girls to think of themselves as beautiful and deserving, which only helps to support them in their achievements.
There is no doubt that students in every country could be inspired by the beauty on the Leadership Academy campus. But in some countries, such as the United States, these children have a leg up over these African girls; American children already have the opportunity to get an education, free of charge, but many don’t take it to its fullest advantage. Oprah feels that American children don’t always appreciate what they have, and don’t have the same drive to learn that South African children have. Oprah has, in fact, invested a lot of time and money in American inner-city schools, but hasn’t felt that her impact was fulfilling. She tells Newsweek, “If you ask the kids [in the US] what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.”
Education gave Oprah the freedom to invent herself, and continually reinvent herself; and the girls, too, will have the opportunity to invent their futures. In the press material for her Leadership Academy, Oprah writes, “Education is the path to the future. I believe that education is indeed freedom. With God’s help, these girls will be the future leaders on the path to peace in South Africa and the World.” Already, they inspire hope in a new standard of leadership; one 11-year-old candidate says, “I can lead because I value the opinions of others, I listen to them, I can help them, but I don’t let them break the rules.”
Oprah’s own personal and professional growth, coupled with her early beginnings, is an inspiration to anyone looking to change and make life better. She has become a leader and a heroine because of her intelligence, compassion, hope, and drive to become her personal best. Her community outreach teaches us how to give back—to her fans, her community, her country, and now stretching to South Africa. All of her goodwill and inspiration started with one person, Vernon Winfrey, insisting that Oprah make education her priority. This bit of personal history is a shining example of the infinite amount of good that can come from turning around one's life.
So, when some criticize Oprah for spending $40 million on 152 girls, when that money could have supplied thousands with food, health care, and education, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the other side of the coin in this argument. Through focusing on the relatively small number of girls hand-selected to attend the School for Leadership (450 girls will eventually attend at the school’s full capacity), Oprah is actually increasing the possibility that these girls will truly make a difference, and, as one 12-year-old student says, “go out there and change the world.”
The idea of helping one to save hundreds or thousands isn’t new; in fact, the theory reaches far back through the centuries. The notes from ancient rabbinical scholars in the Talmud ascribe that, “when you help save a life, you save a generation.” Now, multiply that by 152.