The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) celebrated its tenth anniversary this year so it’s time to evaluate its success over that time and to look ahead to the future. OWLAG was founded as a school for disadvantaged black South African girls. It teaches them many skills such as those they would need to return to their communities and be positive role models for subsequent generations of young black South African women.
OWLAG also takes girls who never had the chance to excel intellectually and infuses in them the belief that they can use their minds for their own and others benefit. The school reverses the set of priorities that so many South African black girls grow up believing: that they exist to serve and satisfy the needs of men. The school doesn’t teach that men exist to serve women; it teaches its women that they are independent actors in their own lives, that they answer only to themselves, and that they are no more expected to serve another as the other is expected to serve them.
The effect OWLAG has had on the girls who have passed through its doors has been compared to the interventions that have taken many a compulsive gambler and turned them into model citizens to whom slots online are nothing more than one of many healthy diversions.
OWLAG had its generation as an idea in 2000 when Oprah Winfrey visited Nelson Mandela’s home in Madba. She was so moved that she pledged to build a school there. Oprah Winfrey is one of the wealthiest women in the world (one of the wealthiest people in the world!) so when she made the commitment to build a school for disadvantaged black girls, observers were sure that her pledge would be realized one day. It took only seven years to get the school off the ground. That included finding staff, developing a curriculum, defining the school’s mission, and building the school.
The first class graduated in 2012. The school is essentially a high school. It serves girls who likely would have had no chance to go to high school or to go study beyond high school. The first class had 72 girls all of whom went on the higher education in South Africa and elsewhere. These girls started studying at the school when they were in 7th or 8th grades. As the student progressed, the school added grades so that today it is a full-fledged high school.
Post-college, many of the girls go on to further academic success in prestigious universities whilst others go back home to do their part to make life better for the next generation of young girls.
OWLAG is proof that private citizens can have an extraordinary effect on others; that waiting for governments to effect positive change isn’t always the best road to take.
Oprah Winfrey personally donated over $40,000,000 to the school’s establishment. She founded a charitable foundation that funnels money to the school. Donations are tax deductible in both South Africa and the United States.
There is a worldwide phenomenon in leadership training for young people in many countries in the world. This is in some measure an indictment of standard educational systems that teach rote learning through lecture-response learning.
For example, there has been an explosion of leadership training “colleges” in Israel which take high school graduates and prepare them for life through leadership activities. Most often, these Israeli youths go into the army after the leadership training and have proven themselves more qualified generally than young men and women taken from Israeli society at large to fill leadership roles in the army.
The South African girls who are accepted to OWLAG come from disadvantaged families and societies. Many have suffered abuse in some form. The school struggles mightily to help the girls shed some of the damage they were caused by the abuse they suffered.
No school or psychologist can claim 100% success and so is the case with OWLAG. Even as so many of the girls go on to being extremely productive members of modern South Africa, some of the girls continue to carry the most deleterious effects of the traumas they suffered.
Future for OWLAG
An enterprise that is committed to making such a massive and positive affect on society cannot sit on its heels. Every year presents new challenges. We hope that OWLAG can learn to teach many of the alternative coping mechanisms that are at least represented in many other countries. These would include art therapy, animal therapy, and the many similar therapies that have taken root in Western countries.
A Model for Others to Follow
OWLAG is one school serving a limited population. Its success in only ten short years should serve as a beacon for other privately funded initiatives to follow its mold and improve upon it. This is what happened in Israel when one post-high school leadership college opened its doors about 15 years ago, earned recognition for having a brilliant idea, a needed vision, and the financial means to see them through. Money came into many other pockets and today there several dozens such leadership colleges in Israel.
Kudos to Oprah Winfrey
Here was a black American woman, as successful as any person has ever been in American television, seeing it as her duty as a citizen of the world and as a black American to put her money to good use to help needy South African black girls.
Oprah Winfrey’s great success in America was not a fluke; it came from the drive, perseverance, and hard work. These are just some of the leadership values OWLAG teaches.
When she started her journey, Oprah Winfrey didn’t know that her school would be successful nor how successful it would prove to be. So, warm congratulations to Oprah Winfrey for once again proving that great ideas come in many forms and from many directions.