Oprah Speaks, We Listen, We are Inspired

            Almost 20 minutes elapsed as we waited for the program to begin.  Then the Groove Yard Jazz Band from Francis W. Parker School here in Chicago stepped on stage and immediately broke into a heavy bass laden piece, “The Message” arranged by Jay Dilla, which featured trombone, piano, and drums.  They easily rolled into a Sonny Rollins standard, “Oleo,” which galvanized our attention.  The appreciative crowd applauded during the solos by the talented members of the band.


            Reveta Bowers, Head of School at the Center for Early Education in California, introduced her good friend, Oprah Winfrey. 


            “I am here today because I believe in what you do.  I sent my niece to Miss Porter’s School, and I have sent five girls to Miss Porter’s this year.  I have a number of nephews and nieces in independent schools all over this country, so thank you.  I believe in you and what you do and appreciate what you do.”  I started a school a leadership school in South Africa for girls.  Starting an independent school is the most demanding, worrisome, and fulfilling thing that I have ever done.  Do you know what I have learned about being rich–Oh, that’s, you are educators, you are not rich!–if you are not careful, your daydreams become reality.  Some days I am overwhelmed by having these schools, but every day I am grateful for it.” 


            She then described the process of creating the school.  What had been done for Oprah as a little girl on welfare in Milwaukee by kind nuns, giving her a Christmas, she wanted to do for these girls in South Africa.  That is where it started: just to give presents to children.  Inspired by her own “humble beginnings” and disadvantaged background, Oprah Winfrey stated that she founded the Leadership Academy to provide educational and leadership opportunities for academically gifted girls from impoverished backgrounds in South Africa who exhibited leadership qualities for making a difference in the world.  Nelson Mandela invited her to stay at his home for ten days.  She ate 29 meals with Nelson Mandela and listened and learned from him.  The spirit of the man fed her and at the end of her 10 day stay, she knew that she wanted to do something important for South Africa.  She wanted to build schools for South Africa.  She wanted to build a school for girls, for when you educate a girl, you change a community: teenage pregnancy drops, AIDS drops, the educated girls have more stable families; the whole community improves because of the girls.  Wanted to create a school that would teach leadership and would take girls with the will but not the chance or opportunity and give them a place of beauty, safety, and hope.  Beauty can inspire, so she hired artists to create sculptures to give art.  The government didn’t support her desire for beauty, so she fought with the government over comfort, luxury, and beauty.  Oprah wanted to send the girls a message: you are valued.  You matter to this place, to this community, to this country and you will matter to this world.  That is why Oprah wanted beauty and comforts (such as closets, bathrooms, and linen for bedding) for these girls.  She wanted these girls to know that they matter.


            During the interview process Oprah went to the school and interviewed many of the girls, these beautiful, powerful, strong, inspiring girls, from abject poverty and dispiriting circumstances.  The video that she showed inspired, as we watch these girls talk about their need to get out their environment where they are victims of rape and abuse.  These girls touched our hearts. Oprah went to interview the girls and to find the “it,” what we used to call at Roxbury Latin, the high “I Will” in the admission process–students who will themselves to achieve, to excel.  Are we good enough to come to your school, am I good enough as a person, am I good enough?  That was the question these girls asked.


            “These girls are so radiant in spite of or maybe because of their circumstances.  It was agonizing to make choices that would lift up or return a girl from or to those circumstances.  150 girls were chosen.  I am certain that these girls will change Africa.” 


            15 December the country closes down in South Africa for Christmas, but the School had to open on 2 January.  Lots of challenges in the beginning, including plumbing, but the greatest challenge was finding good instructors, teachers, and staff members.  “You don’t have a visionary school without visionary staff members and leaders.  We have many capable, committed faculty members, but we need more. We need teacher education and training and professional development.  It is a complicated environment in South Africa, which is just 15 years out of apartheid, and that makes it complicated.”  Right now, she is looking for a head of school, an academic dean, a college counselor. 


            “I expected too much, too soon.”  She has to remind herself that this country is only 15 years out of apartheid, and she has to help the students and the teachers to understand that they can be larger, better.  “The teachers also need to know that they can be larger and greater than they are.”  That is the goal as well know.  Help the staff know that they can aspire to be greater.


            There have been challenges–enough money for clothing, braces, appendectomies, travel–but it has been worthwhile.  There are security guards there, and there are all kinds of security measures, but the abuse still happened: someone accused of sexual abuse.  The girls had trusted Oprah, and she felt as if she had let them down when she first heard the news of the alleged abuse.  She wept with the news, then flew to South Africa to comfort the girls.  How to deal with the crisis, any crisis: stay in the moment.  Stay in the moment and be determined to tell the truth, have transparency and stay in the moment.  Tell the truth, you can be criticized, but you can never be hurt.  15 girls came in to talk of the arbitrary punishment that was occurring and then they said there was something strange between the matron and one of the students.  That uncovered it.  Oprah welcome the girls coming forward and speaking up, because that is what true leadership is: speaking out. 


            Sidney Poitier donated more than 600 DVD’s to the School, and he wanted the following: “I Want these girls to be seated at the table where the decisions are made and to contribute to these decisions.” That is the purpose of this school. 


            What she is trying to do can be encapsulated in the ending of Mr. Chips: While Mr. Chips is lying on his deathbed he over hears someone say that he never had any children and Mr. Chips responses is, “…but you are wrong, I have had thousands of them, all boys.”  Oprah wants to be that inspiration in Africa, and she thanked all of us for our inspiration. 


            Pat Bassett came on stage and thanked Oprah and gave her three paintings commissioned by Rafael Lopez, including “Nuestra Voz” which is a painting of Barack Obama.  Rafael López’s work is a fusion of strong graphic style and magical symbolism. Growing up in Mexico City he was immersed in the rich cultural heritage and native color of street life. Influenced by Mexican surrealism, dichos and myths he developed a style with roots in these traditions.


            Pearl Rock Kane came on stage to present to Oprah Winfrey The Klingenstein Center for Independent School Education 2009 Leadership Award.  She also promised that the Kingenstein Institute will provide professional development for Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy in South Africa.

2 responses to “Oprah Speaks, We Listen, We are Inspired

  1. Sounds like it’s been an amazing time these past few days. I am familiar with Oprah’s school and the opportunities that she is giving these young women. Lopez’s work is terrific; I have seen it many times, and in fact, he spent time at a school in Mexico where a friend is a Father.
    Safe travels.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Michael. Those of us who work in admission find it next to impossible to participate in this conference every year. Oprah’s words and her presence clearly impacted many!

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