Oprah Winfrey participated in a star-studded opening ceremony for her new school in South Africa yesterday. Despite the attendance of celebrities like Mariah Carey, Sidney Poitier, Spike Lee, and Tina Turner, the real stars of the day were the school girls who assisted Oprah as she cut the ribbon to the entranceway of her new $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy located on a 50-acre site just outside the city of Johannesburg.
This school is a realization of Oprah’s dream to do something significant for those who have not. It was also built in response to former South African President Nelson Mandela‘s request. When she met Mr. Mandela several years ago, Oprah asked him what was the most pressing need in his country, and he explained that it was education. Oprah’s response is certainly more than impressive, and its purpose is to offer the girls maximum opportunity for scholarly success in an environment that is not only conducive to learning but also provides them with every amenity. While this bothers some, Oprah's goal is to make the experience not just a daily respite from real life but about altering their lives forever.
As I watched Oprah “defending” herself on CNN’s Larry King Live last night, I felt a sense of outrage. In these days before we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a national holiday here in the United States, I find it troublesome that people are questioning Oprah’s motivation for building this school. Confounding and basically silencing her critics with her benevolence, Oprah has maintained her dignity while eloquently explaining her reasons for building the school in South Africa. As she has done this, she echoes the passionate call of Dr. King to make life better, not just for people of one race in one place but, for people everywhere.
The objection some critics have made about the school is insulting, not just to Oprah, but to all people in this country and the world. Why criticize someone for spreading goodwill and doing good works? It reminds me of those critics who complained about Madonna and Angelina Jolie adopting babies from other countries. Instead of lauding these women for their good intentions, people complain that there are babies in this country that need to be adopted and schools that need to be built.
While I certainly agree that these things need to be done here as well as abroad, I think people are missing the most salient aspects of these situations. Most significantly, Oprah has worked very hard for her money after growing up living in poverty and surviving abuse by a male relative at an early age. No one should question what she does with her money simply because it is her money. She has every right to go out and buy herself sports cars, yachts, jewelry, and anything else she desires. The most amazing thing is the fact that Oprah has seen fit to be so magnanimous as to spend this money on those who have not. It should not matter where the school is built, but more that the motivation was to help the needy and rectify an abhorrent situation (lack of education and dignity for these impoverished South African girls).
Most of all, the actions of Madonna, Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt, Oprah, and others who want to help those in need anywhere is a way to inspire similar philanthropy everywhere. I find this to be a kind of spreading the wealth and love to all, engendering a truly "world without borders" mentality. Besides setting good examples for everyone to follow, it allows us to understand the significance of good works and the need for those who have to do more for those who have not. It builds on Dr. King’s legacy of dreaming for a better world, especially for the children, who are the most important resource on this planet but often the most neglected.
Yes, most of us don’t have Oprah’s financial resources, but that doesn’t have to stop us from volunteering our time someplace to help those who are needy. There is also the option of doing charitable work through a church, temple, or mosque and finding within ourselves the compassion and love that is so desperately needed by so many others. If nothing else, writing a check (no matter what the amount) to a reputable organization is a way to help feed, clothe, and educate children in need.
Oprah’s legacy as a television personality, author, actress, and publisher is a given. She is a media icon in this country and around the world, and it’s not surprising that (based on my own observation as a school principal for seven years) she is one of the most popular subjects for written reports during Black History Month (celebrated every February in the USA). Girls identify with her and want to write about her phenomenal success, but boys like her story too because they understand that through hard work, determination, and talent, Oprah rose to the top of her field and it means they can too.
Despite all the personal and professional triumphs of her career, it is obvious that Oprah is most proud of building this school. Whatever her legacy is and will be, she can always be remembered as the founder of a place that not only bears her name but carries on the mission of education even after she has gone. Listening to her speak to Larry King, I was struck by Oprah's utter lack of pretentiousness. This has always been the secret of her success: she is not one of them; she is one of us.
Even with all her wealth and celebrity, Oprah is the epitome of that old cliché: down to earth. In a poor country on a poverty-stricken continent, Oprah has made a difference. It should matter not where she made this difference, but that she made it at all. We should celebrate her vision, her dedication, and her allegiance to the notion that the whole world is ours, and in that there is responsibility to make it a better place. She has certainly done that and more with her new school, and people everywhere would do well to try emulate her generosity in the biggest and best way within their means.