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January 03, 2007



Well, it's better than just NOT starting a school. Which is the easiest, and most common, form of attention to Africa: nothing.

There are lots of arguments to be made every which way for what the best, most effective, most-needed way to give is, in Africa and anywhere else. And clearly, not everyone will agree on any of it. But I think it's hard to argue that providing a quality education for 150 students is "reprehensible", even if your own preference would have been to provide some other kind of thing.

Donating money or supplies to schools in many African countries is far more complicated and frequently less effective than you might think; infrastructures that can support electricity are not always present, a culture that values learning and reading is not always present, rooms that can safely store large numbers of books are not always present, teachers who have the training to use the technology are not always present. Donated items (computers, books, toys, paper, etc) are often left untouched in storerooms or display cases. Providing a full school to a limited number of students, yes, limits the number of students, but it also (at least theoretically) allows the project to be controlled more tightly and managed more successfully. That's not necessarily better than providing something less fancy for more people, but it's also not necessarily worse.

I have no opinion about whether or not Oprah is starting the kind of school I myself would like to start, or if starting a school is even the best use of resources in this particular situation. But I think it is problematic to label such an act "reprehensible"- it may not be a genius-inspired solution to a serious problem, but it's at least an effort in the right direction. What is reprehensible, in my mind, is all of the obscenely wealthy people in this country who make no philanthropic outreaches at all.



You bring up a lot of good points. I knew I was going to get reamed on this. And sometimes I do go and just talk out of my ass. Maybe that is what I am doing here.

However, a couple of points: First, let me be clear, I don't mean that starting a school, whatever kind of school it may be, is reprehensible. I was refering to whatever Oprah's system of selecting and not selecting her students that seemed to be based on some kind of arbitrary thing like which kid's story was most tragic or which kid "had a gleam in her eye" that rose above her tragedy.

You are right that starting a school at all is better than not. Here is where I think there is a problem, though. This is a 40 million dollar, 28 building, 22 acre school with marble inlays and theatres and private suits for the girls to live in. That's all lovely, and Oprah wants the children to be surrounded by beauty because beauty inspires greatness. Maybe, but lets talk about what this beauty really is, it is money and material things. Beauty that inspires greatness might also be in a natural, more sustainable setting with modest accomodations but where the students learn to respect and sustain their place in nature, for example.

Point being, there are necessities to provide a good education. Clean water, food, a safe living environment, access to information and teachers/mentors, things like that are necessary. But there is a threshold where more money for better material stuff is not going to really get you any better education. In fact, after you pass that threshold it causes harm to others. Inequity to that extreme causes harm.

Why must we throw excess money at a few girls to show them that they are 'worth it?' These girls who tried out are worth the hair salon. Are worth the education. And worth the respect and admiration of Oprah and her celebrity friends. Okay. But wouldn't it be a better message to send to show that all these little girls are worth it? That every girl in Africa (and everywhere) is worth clean water, safety, adequate food and nutrition, etc? Why does a 28 building campus need to happen in order for educating these kids to be justified as worth it?

So, please don't misunderstand me. It isn't that the opening of a school itself is reprehensible, and I do understand that people are going to disagree about the nature of how to spend money for charitable things such as this. It is the elitist nature of the school, the material excessiveness that troubles me. Training people to be like us (Overindulgant Americans)is not the solution, it is part of the problem. Because our lifestyle is a great deal of the reason why Africa has some of the issues it has.

But again, who knows? Maybe I'm just speaking out of my ass. It just rubbed me the wrong way.


It'd be great if the world would show that all little girls (and boys) are worth it. And if we all and they all had adequate food, education, housing, medicine, love, etc. But one person can't do that (not even Oprah).

I won't say that a 28-building campus isn't extravagant. Certainly it is. But I'm not sure I think that's the right place to be directing complaints. Extravagance is a pretty hard thing to define; what seems superfluous to you and me apparently seems standard to Oprah. Like I said, I'd rather have her build a ridiculous school than no school.

Whatever the selection methods are used are going to be unfair. No question about it. That's true everywhere though (except maybe not Canada. they're practically perfect up there). Kids in the US don't get good schools because they deserve them, or not, they get them based on how much money their parents have. Everyone deserves the beauty salon. I don't really like the tap dancing competition idea, but I don't know what else would be better. Random lottery? Rock paper scissors? An essay competition?

I understand and sympathize with all the complaints about this, and Oprah in general. However, I see a worrying trend where people seem to feel that doing a less-than-perfect job of helping others (giving money to the wrong cause, doing volunteer work in the wrong country, etc) gets attacked as being worse than not having done anything. I would much rather live in a world where people spend too much money to try to fix problems in haphazard ways than in one where people throw up their hands in dispair, say "Well I can't do anything about that" and turn their backs to the issues.

Obviously it'd be even better if people spent exactly the right amount of money in a very organized way that actually solved the problem. But until somebody figures out how to do that, I'll take the former over the latter



Although I still think there needs to be discussion and accountability for those who venture into non-profit causes, I think you make a very compelling point regarding criticizing those who are doing something rather than the many people who choose to do nothing at all. I will keep this in mind next time something like this comes up.

I also want to thank you for being brave enough to comment on site. I don't mind emails, but sometimes it seems like people just want to bash me privately instead of being brave enough to put their opinions out there for the world to consider like I did. I appreciate that you did that, because it only makes the public discussion richer.

That Girl

i DO watch Oprah and while I dont denigrate anyones attempt to make the world a better place, as in most things we carry our baggage with us wherever we go.
Just because it is a charitable donation does not mean that it should be absent of criticism - racism, sexism, classism are topics that everyone should debate.
If a very wealthy person donates all their money to the KKK I dont have to shut up about it just because they are trying to make what they consider a donation to further a positive change.
Vis a vis Oprah I thought the most amusing part of the "summer roadtrip", although it went unackonwledged by her, is how much of her "serenity, positivness, etc." was dependent on not having to face the things the rest of us do in our daily lives.
Waiting in line, which consumes a portion of almost every day for almost every non-Oprah person, having annoying people near you, having stupid, racist, obnoxious, mysoginist people around you constantly takes a toll, whether Oprah would prefer to believe it or not.
This is how people become Republicans, by refusing to address these issues.
Oprah may be the hardest working woman in Hollywood but almost anyone would trade her style of hard for say, a single mother who cleans houses hard.
And by the way, Id much rather the person who donated to the KKK didnt donate at all, just like Id much rather have seen all the money that went into this project be spent differently.


I think it's inappropriate to compare starting a school in South Africa to donating money to the KKK. For one thing it's a false analogy; developing a specific project is vastly different than contributing undedicated funds to an organization with a malevolent charter. For another thing, no one (here, at least) is claiming that the school will be actively contributing to evil in the world, while we all (I hope) agree that the KKK does.

Additionally, if someone affiliated with the KKK decided to fund an identical school in South Africa (or in some other slightly more plausible locale - let's say rural Georgia), I would say that while I disagree with the ideology behind the group, I applaud this specific action and encourage more people and groups to do the same. I say the more highly-funded schools for disadvantaged children, the better.

Certainly, this and all charitable projects and organizations should be criticized, and, hopefully, improved upon. And certainly, Oprah's life is far easier and more privileged than most women's lives (men's lives too). I see her accepting the fact that this privilege comes with a responsibility to help others, and I see her making an honest, if sometimes less-than-perfect, attempt to do so.

I haven't seen any specific, constructive criticisms here. Does someone have an honest idea about a better way to contribute? I am genuinely interested: I have ties to schools in Rwanda and Kenya and connections with aid workers and potential (minor) donors, but we all face real obstacles in making meaningful contributions. This is partly because I do not have Oprah-like resources, but it is also because the situation is a tricky one. As I mentioned before, donations of items like books and computers tend not to be used; donations of money tend to pay for food, clothes, and electricity; and (rare) offers of volunteer hours are frequently met with resistance and are short-lived regardless. The end result is that the state of education is unchanged and the prospects of the students remains bleak.

I'm not convinced that Oprah's idea is all that bad. Her 150 graduates will presumably be able to go on to higher education and far more influential positions than they would otherwise be eligible for. High self-esteem and a sense of entitlement are pretty much required for any kind of powerful role in politics, and an elitist school is sure to imbue the students with all kinds of superiority complexes. This could backfire, sure, and it could also result in all 150 of them abandoning their country for more glamorous and high-standard-of-living kinds of places. If that happens, then fine- this idea didn’t work and someone should try something else.

Then again, maybe at least some of those girls will grow up strong and assertive and with the resources to effect even more change in their world.

Meanwhile, I think it’s unfair to rail against Oprah for not singlehandedly raising all of the world’s disadvantaged children out of poverty. At least she’s doing something. Could she do more? Yeah. We all could do more.

Lisa: I hope I made it at least sort of clear that I’m not trying to lionize Oprah, or claim that her selection methods are ideal. I just, you know, like to see criticism where it’s due (Madonna? Paris!) rather than where it’s merely tempting.


"This is how people become Republicans, by refusing to address these issues."

Almost fell off my chair laughing at that comment! (In a good way!)

I think the comparison to the KKK was just to point out that charity shouldn't escape critism and be thought to be "all good" just because it is charity.

The most obvious, better solution to this problem would be for Oprah to have funded several more, more modest schools that would accept more students. I don't know what the number crunching would turn out to be, but lets just hypothetically say she could have funded say, 20 schools, nicely decked out but not extravagant, for 150 students each. Alternatively, she could allow a few thousand students to attend school at the current campus rather than 150. These students would have been chosen by lottery or some other such method that doesn't involve them having to tap dance and tell tragic stories to get in.

I totally don't get your notion, Cecily, that one needs to feel superior to be successful in life. I think that is one of the big problems with some of the politicians and leaders we have. I'm totally confused by this. Girls need to be confident in themselves, but one of the reasons they struggle with this is because of the notion that if they aren't beautiful enough (hair salon) or skinny enough (excersise studio) or rich enough (everything else in the 28 buildings) that they aren't good enough. A simpler school that works to strengthen the girls from the inside by feeding their mind with real information about what the world is really all about and shows them how they can best contribute rather than put them in a lavish, rich and fake environment that can only be reproduced in Hollywood seems a better path to ensure their roles as future leaders.

Again, I do think maybe doing something in this case is better than nothing, and I don't think Oprah's school is fundamentally bad, and I do understand that answers to these problems are complex, but a 'better way' in this case is so blatently obvious that you wonder how zoned to the outer limits and out of touch Oprah has gone. I mean, even the South African government pulled its cooperation from the project because of the elitist nature of the school. It's not just me, here.

Paris and Madonna get a good amount of media scrutiny, whereas Oprah is generally hailed as being all good and saintly. I'm not saying that Oprah deserves the scrutiny that Paris Hilton gets because Paris brings on a great deal of negativity through her choices. But Oprah does deserve for her actions to be looked at critically and people have every right to debate and discuss their opinions of her actions as she is a public figure with a huge amount of power and influence in the media. She can be much more dangerous than a Paris Hilton or a Madonna if not checked.


I think Oprah has a lot of great motives, a lot of intelligence, and a truckload of talent. But I personally find a lot of the public nature of her philanthropy, both through the show and beyond it, to be so, so focused on the image of her in the middle of it all that I find it all...while positive...self-serving in the end. There's a lot of spectacle attached to it. In one way, it brings issues to the public, and that's good. But on the other hand, I find it hard to take a lot of her efforts seriously, because they have her personal brand all over them. To a point that feels unnecessary to me. To a point that we're left with attractive images, and no real understanding of the reality she's trying to assuage.

I dunno. She's a public personality, therefore she loves being in the public's eye, why should her philanthropy be any different. But go to the school's website. The school is named after her, not after say, a South African woman these girls might be familiar with. The pictures on the sight almost all feature Oprah in her glory. It just seems to be all about O in the end. It's her money, at least she's doing some good things with it. But all I end up seeing at the end of the day is her ego.


I probably just read the wrong news sources, but I end up seeing way more people tearing apart Oprah (for lots of different reasons) than most other people. Or maybe just all of my friends do. I certainly don't think she's a saint, and I think she supports a lot of pretty ridiculous things. I just don't think this one is so bad.

I don't think people need to feel superior to be successful in life, in general, and I didn't say that I did. Having a powerful role in politics and living a successful life are maybe mutually exclusive, even, depending on your defininition of success.

With respect to South Africa (and most other African countries) I don't think a modest, adequate education is enough, and I think very few existing schools provide anything close to even that. For long-term improvement of the situation to occur, smaller numbers of people from South Africa are going to need to have superlative educations and become key players in international politics, in order to effect any meaningful change in their country and allow larger numbers of people to become successful in turn. And yes, I do think that to attain that KIND of success, you need to have a pretty big ego. That's not to say that it is right or wrong, but it's how politics works. Sadly, but I think truly, people from other countries do need to have the opportunity to access all of America's grotesque glory, in order to level the playing field.

As far as doing more good, I personally think that South Africa gets way more than its share of international attention, and that Oprah should have started a school in Rwanda or Ethiopia. Even better maybe would be for her to evacuate some kids out of any of the refugee camps and fund their educations in a boarding school somewhere safe. Or she could adopt some families, or a village, or train war widows as seamstresses.

But, she didn't. What she did is not how I would have chosen to spend my money. Too bad for me, and for everybody else, it's not my money. And I think that in the end, good will come of it.

Rachel- I think it's interesting but pretty gross how almost all people who end up being major doers of good seem like they just do it for their own glory. Oprah's maybe an extreme example, but most of the actual international aid workers I've ever met have the same kind of holier-than-thou attitude and some of them really I think just do it so their friends back home will be impressed. I hate it, but the fact remains that however sucky their attitudes are and however many mistakes they make, there they are, living in other countries or funding major projects or getting whatever else done, and here I am, sitting at my desk, complaining about their bad attitudes. I don't know. If you do good for selfish reasons, does it subtract from the goodness of the good?


Overall- (I keep being way more wordy than I intend to be)- what I am reacting to here is the idea that if you can't do everything you shouldn't do anything. You, obviously, didn't actually say that; I extrapolated it all on my own. But I did that because I know actual real people who have said that, in situations where I didn't think it was possible. Like not bringing one dying child to the hospital because "there are dying children all over this country; we can't help them all, and even if we did he'd just get sick again later". This is used as justification for working on overall health care reform- which is a good idea! But I'd like to be able to help some individual dying children too, even if I can't help them all. At some point I think we all have to just bite the bullet and do SOMETHING, rather than keep arguing about what would have been a better way to do it.


Here is an intresting essay:

I think that you are right to say that doing something is better than nothing. But I have never said that I expected Oprah to either educate every disadvantaged child on earth and if she couldn't do that, then forget it. I understand the limits that even Oprah has to face, and I do applaud her efforts. But I'll give you a small example on a smaller scale of what this feels like to me.

I don't make a lot of money, but I try to give a bit to charity. This Xmas, I took one of those tags from a Christmas tree and bought a present for a child in poverty. That is really all I can do, as much as I'd like to give a present to each of them. But what if someone, who say lives a comfortable life with a 6+ figure income came to the tree, which had several tags remaining just a few days before Xmas, and took one. Okay. Fine. But what if instead of giving this child a gift or two that was written on the tag, he gave them a shiny new mercedes benz. And what if everyone else (even the kids whose tags were on the tree and didn't get picked and got nothing at all) would come to know about it because he sent out a press release and was lauded in the media. Sure, a mercedes benz is a generous gift...but it does not appropriately meet the needs of that child. (I suppose the family could sell it, but it kind of misses the whole spirit of giving something the child would want or need and be excited about on christmas morning, and there is still the issue of the other ignored children.) Its just outlandishly innappropriate.

I think one of the issues we may disagree on, Cecily, is how much money and material items are actually necessary to get a high quality education. There is a point where having the funding improves the quality of the education a lot, but then I suspect there is a point of diminishing returns where more money thrown at the child does more harm than good. A good education is more about quality teachers who inspire and who use wonderful methods and curriculum, and access to information and experiences. To some extent this takes money. But I suspect that the difference between a $100 education vs. a $100,000 dollar education is huge. Whearas the difference between a $10 Million dollar education and a $40 million dollar education--not so much. And since the excess not only excludes other children but may, in fact, harm the growth and leadership abilities of the current students (yet to be seen, maybe she'll make little Paris Hilton's, a woman who was given a multi million dollar education.) then it becomes a harmful excersise more than it helps, even though Oprah is "doing something."

I don't know all the answers. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.


Hey, Cecily. Totally hear what you're saying, and as I said in my last post, I think Oprah has accomplished a great deal of good in her career. I was just giving my personal impression of how it's displayed, and how that made me feel. As Lisa said, someone who is such a very public figure leaves herself open to comments and analysis of all sorts. Frankly, she probably enjoys the controversey (sp)?.

Charitable giving is a big, big issue, and there's lots of ways to go about it. I'm personally encouraged by the growing popularity of microcredit, brought to greater public light by Mohammed Yunus's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. If Oprah had him on her show, that would impress me.

That Girl

I think Oprah brings a lot of problems that people would otherwise ignore to light. I dont question at all her intent to make a positive difference on society.
I watch her for precisly that reason. What I object to is the fact that her money has really insulated her from life in a way that is harmful.
Anything "elite" makes Others and Othering is the basis of every kind of discrimination on Earth.
There are some pretty basic feminist objections to the idea of hair salons being a necessity.
Raising children who are divorced from the reality of life around them is a questionable endevor. It seems to me that the best agents for change and inspiration were always firmly rooted in the community they championed - not part of an elite group.
While I applaud Oprah for her work, I dont think anyone affecting the public sphere should be immune from criticism of motive, intent and result.


I don't think anyone should be immune from criticism either. I'm just not sure the specific criticisms offered here are warranted.

I agree that the school as proposed is far from perfect. However, I don't feel that any of the suggestions I've seen (while they are excellent suggestions for schools in the United States) reveal an adequate understanding of the social, political, and economic situations with regard to education in much of Africa. $40 million is probably too much, and day spas are probably over the line; I'm willing to accept that kind of splurging if that's what it takes to get her to build the school.

I agree with Marc Lamont Hill's critique of Oprah's attitude towards inner-city American schools. I'd like to see more criticism directed towards that aspect of the whole issue; I think it's much more reprehensible than any aspects of the proposed school (however bizarre and extravagant they may be).


I'm so glad you posted this, Lisa, because you got me thinking and posting myself and it's been a good workout for my brain.

I have so, so much to say about this that I'm just going to keep posting at my blog. But thanks again for this post. I'm revisiting issues that I had not thought about in a while. It's nice to get worked up.


my friend Julie has a nice blog from her time in the Peace Corps. She was in Kenya doing deaf education. (scroll down a little to the "typical day" entry)


I just get disgusted that our system allows some people to decide whether or not other people live, die, go to school, get basic medical care, eat, whatever...

I don't believe anyone should be allowed to be as wealthy as Oprah or Bill Gates or Bono. The nice things they do with their money--the charities they NEED to give to for tax purposes--does not get them through the eye of a needle in my opinion. It certainly doesn't make them little gods who get to decide who...etc. see above.

But ultimately, it isn't their reseponsibilty to make the world a better place. It's all of ours to overthrow the corporate rule of the U.S. and otehr first-world countries that allows this disparity of wealth in the first place.

Now I feel like we should all sing "Power in a Union" or something...


I have been to Africa. What she has done is amazing and the most deserving and hard working students should get picked. I teach in the American public school system and I teach at a Title I school. The kids think they "deserve" everything and are lazy, like most Americans. Stay at home lady where you obviously belong. What a shame that Oprah would want to choose the most deserving. BTW...part of being a professional is looking professional. Kudos to Oprah for knowing that you morons.

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