Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Oprah's Leadership Academy. A New Variation Of The Child-Sponsorship Schemes?

Diary of an Anxious Black Woman is the creation a new woman of color in the blogosphere and she has only written two posts but I'm sure we'll hear great things from her in the future, especially given her first post-introduction entry. It's called The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy: Black Feminism, Surrogate Motherhood, or Colonialist Fantasy.

A couple of months ago, The German, VanGoghGirl and I watched the Primetime Special about the academy for girls that Oprah created in South Africa. I was really awed by the scale of this endeavor and how she had managed to carry it out. Seeing all of these African girls receiving this awesome opportunity made me very happy for them. I remember when I was a girl with dreams about what sort of future I wanted for myself. I can only imagine what it might be like to grow up having those same dreams and knowing that you have virtually no chance of seeing them come true. The idea that even a few girls could now feel more hopeful about their future just filled my heart with gladness. But the creation of this school has not come without controversy.

I remember when Oprah was building this school she caught a lot of flack because she said she'd rather build the school in Africa because so many students here would rather have I-pods and tennis shoes than an education. The truth is, I agree with her. It's true that Americans are obsessed with the acquisition of material goods but what Oprah did not explain was why they are like that.

There are many people who provide a much better explanation for this but, in my opinion, it seems to be at least related to the capitalist system we have in the USA. When wealth determines one's ability to succeed much more than merit does, it is inevitable for children (the ones most susceptible to buy-in) to pick up on this and adopt these values. So, is it any wonder that they'd seek the things that, in their minds, signify success?

I can't pretend to understand how the average South African citizen feels about Oprah building this academy in their country. Here in America, there are a lot of people who absolutely disagree with her decision. They say the money should have been spent on American students or the money should have been spread out across the country instead of just one elite school or that she created the academy in order get more praise from the media. Those assertions make up the majority of the criticism about Oprah's decision and I have a few thoughts about them.

I think that if Oprah was only focusing her philanthropy abroad, I'd have more issues with it. I think there's a lot of wisdom in the principle that charity should start at home. However, Oprah has created several programs focused on providing more educational opportunities for people in this country too. In fact, this is where she started her philanthropical work and she hasn't discontinued it nor has she stated any plans to do so.

The argument that Oprah doesn't care about these students and that she did it to draw attention to herself seems pretty silly to me. From everything I've seen over the years, Oprah really does have an enormous soft spot for children, especially ones who had the same sort of economic background as she had. I'm willing to bet that Oprah does, at the very least, enjoy the attention that she receives from the media but then there are plenty of ways she could have garnered praise if that's just what she was looking for. Even if she didn't create this academy, Oprah could spend the rest of her life completely surrounding herself with people who do nothing but compliment her.

Some who disagree with her investing the entire amount on one school say that the money could have helped a lot more people. But here's the thing, 40 million dollars is not enough to fully educate an entire nation of children and even if it could, there would still be more children outside of that nation that equally deserve to be educated. At some point you must decide how many people you'll help or else the funds will become watered down to the point that they don't really help anyone. The question then becomes "Where is the right place to draw the line?" I think it depends on how much you want to help each individual but, no matter how many people you choose to help, there will always be a lot of people who are excluded. Even a billionaire can not fix the lack of educational opportunities for everyone who needs them.

My personal opinion is that what they really best in places like South Africa is small action groups (preferably controlled by the people who live there) because they can recognize what the local needs are and how they can be addressed most effectively. Unfortunately, even keeping small organizations in place requires a lot of money, money that isn't usually provided by the governments where help is most urgently needed. In order to get the sort of money that will be needed to improve the conditions in all of the poor areas where these girls come from, someone has to draw attention to what's going on there. As the world is now, that person must almost always be some sort of charismatic figure in order to get that attention these organizations need.

Mother Theresa brought attention to the plight of impoverished Indians. Though I do not admire many of her actions (my sister used to work in the orphanage that she established and she can talk on that subject for hours), it is undeniable that her words and her personality inspired many people to give to other organizations in India, too. The non-governmental organizations existed before Mother Theresa started campaigning for the poor and it would have been better if people would have paid attention to their voices even if an outsider didn't come along to speak for them. Still, I think that to the extent that they did receive funds from people who didn't hear about the need for aid in India until Mother Theresa came along, her advocacy was a good thing.

I'm going to name a much more controversial figure that has also made a similar impact on the world: Osama bin Ladin. Through his own image as a party-boy-turned-(wannabe)holy-man, he appealed to many people's sense of obligation and deep religiosity. This allowed him to attract funds and potential soldiers from around the world. His message is/was not really unique. Many others have expressed the same sentiments over the years. However, his personality and ability to create arguments that sounded compelling attracted the sort of attention that others never received. Those arguments promoting violence were despicable and they also show that charismatic personalities can influence societies in a number of ways. If bin Ladin wasn't seen as some rich guy that could be out enjoying the finer things in life, most people wouldn't have found his words half as compelling but he used his personal story to promote his cause with a lot of success.

We still don't know what sort of results Oprah's academy will produce but I'd much rather see her use the force of her personality to work on a cause like educating young African girls than for her to adopt the "I pulled myself up by the bootstraps" attitude that many people express.

The issues others have raised that concern me the most are that she may be setting these girls up for a Pygmalion scenario where can no longer fit in with the society they came from. BrownFemiPower discusses this in "Oprah, Black Feminism, Colonialism, Separatism".

Reading her post and the comments that followed made me think about those "Save the Children" sponsor programs you always see commercials for on television. You know the one where the nice bearded white guy looking like a benevolent santa-figure is holding an brown child with dirt smeared across her face and then in the next scene they show some little kid walking through the sewage in a shanty town with no shoes on. After that they call for people to send money RIGHT AWAY because these children might not have another moment to spare. What you don't hear about is how these sponsorship programs often lead to the further breakdown of poor third-world communities. The same factors that make child sponsorship programs so detrimental to the individuals that they are supposed to help may also wind up applying to Oprah's new academy. Unfortunately, since it has already opened, it looks like there are going to be a lot of girls used in this grand experiment of her's before we find out one way or another.

If you want to read more about the child sponsorship issues, there is a wonderful 9 point fact sheet that spells it out much better than I can.

1 comment:

Anxious Black Woman said...

Thanks for this response! You've given me even more to think about.