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Oprah's Academy Gets A+

By Saul Garlick | Think Impact | March 6, 2007

Oprah Winfrey. Photo by Alan Light (CC).

Good leadership makes all the difference. So why are people complaining about Oprah's new school in South Africa, a leadership academy for girls? The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is lavish and fancy, and cost Oprah about $40 million to build. It has 26 buildings, computer resources, yoga rooms, and more.

Many people have raised their eyebrows at the expense and relative size of enrollment. Her school will ultimately serve a mere 450 students. At the moment, it only has 152. Because my organization, the Student Movement for Real Change, also builds schools in South Africa, I have been asked many times about my position on the matter. Is her school too much for too few?

These questions forced me to think deeply on the issue. My initial reaction was, "Gee, with $40 million, I could educate thousands!" Then, after further reflection, I began to realize the remarkable value that her institution has in South Africa. Indeed, the implications of her work are almost limitless.

If Oprah identifies even five future leaders of South Africa and empowers them to improve their country, millions will feel the positive ripple effects. These five hypothetical students probably would have received a mediocre education and given up. But with Oprah selecting top young girls to immerse in education and opportunity, the long-term impact will be nationwide.

Every country needs a wide variety of institutions that move it forward by developing its capacity. Oprah's Academy is a cutting edge example in Africa. She is not only educating leaders, but also fostering within South Africa a sense of leadership among its most underserved population: black girls.

It has been said that Oprah's decision to build this school came partly from the wish of Nelson Mandela. If the school was conceived with the vision of Mandela and the resources of Oprah, Africa could experience a true renaissance in its leadership—not the superficial renaissance that people believed they were seeing in the rise of Museveni in Uganda, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and countless others. The future of education in Africa must be multifaceted, and it is good for South Africa to define this facet.

It is interesting that Oprah has selected Mr. John Samuel, former CEO of The Nelson Mandela Foundation, to be Chief Operating Officer for the new leadership academy. With the vision so grand, he is the obvious choice.

In 2003, Student Movement for Real Change members and I met with John Samuel at the Mandela Foundation. He not only listened carefully to our dreams and hopes for South Africa—we were six American students that had at that time raised merely $10,000 for a primary school in Limpopo, a northeastern region of South Africa—he also offered his, and Mandela's, kind support. It inspired countless students to take on the cause of international education.

And that cause runs deep: It is a responsibility we face as engaged members of a global community. Universal primary education is the second Millennium Development Goal, and it could not be a more noble cause. It is also a right—children must be given the chance to read, write, and explore the possibilities of their future.

Denying a child his or her most basic needs for a bright future by failing to engage and support the issue is akin to standing by during an atrocity. Individuals with the means to advance a just cause, such as education, get to decide their priorities and how they can advance that cause. South Africa has a need for strong, well-educated leaders, and Oprah has rightly decided to support that endeavor.

Oprah has also correctly embraced the cause of gender parity through her support of an all-girls leadership academy. The goal of gender parity in international education by 2005 has already been a disappointing failure. Oprah has rightly selected young women for promising academic opportunities so that they become the leaders who will ensure that similar failures are not repeated. Her work deserves additional credit because its mission is that of leadership, a phenomenon generally lacking on the continent but magnificently exemplified by Nelson Mandela.

Last year, former South African president F. W. de Klerk explained that, although the country has come a long way, special education has been left behind. That's one of the initiatives his foundation is working on. It appears that South Africa may yet be an example unto the world through the efforts of Mr. Mandela, Oprah, de Klerk, and even small contributors who are able to build a single classroom.

Oprah's Academy is a meeting of the minds and the needs of a country on the upswing. South Africa, the regional superpower, is also plagued with 25 to 40 percent unemployment rates and shantytowns that stretch for miles. There is a great deal of work to be done in that country, and Oprah is filling one of many voids that remain. It is a beautiful country that embodies promise and the legacy of peaceful transition of power.

Read More: Culture, Education, South Africa, Africa

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