By any standards, the $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is extravagant. The school's 152 female students enjoy a campus that ranges over 22 acres and 28 buildings. Living quarters include oversize rooms with 5-star hotel quality linens, a yoga studio, a beauty salon, indoor and outdoor theaters, hundreds of pieces of original artwork, and other lavish amenities. None of this would be all that surprising were the newly opened academy found in Connecticut's wealthy suburbs. But it's not. It's located 40 miles outside Johannesburg, South Africa.
And that means Oprah has been taking some heat. Some detractors don't like her extravagance. "It is hard not to see that many feel that what Ms. Winfrey is doing is too much," one anonymous South African school official quipped. Others think Oprah's money could have been better spent in the U.S. That argument has always struck me as short sighted. I'm from Omaha, where I constantly hear people whispering quietly that billionaire Warren Buffet does a lot of good for the world through his charity, but he doesn't do much for Omaha. So what? Shouldn't there be a distribution of resources in philanthropy? What's wrong with the mega-rich focusing on global issues and the just-a-little-rich focusing their efforts closer to home?
For the most part, though, even Oprah's critics have been willing to thank her for her charity and move on. That is, until she dared to respond with these comments:
If you are a child in the United States, you can get an education. I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there. If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school."
Now, just like comedian Bill Cosby before her, Oprah finds herself under friendly fire from the African American community. "Oh, no, she didn't," blasted Eugene Robinson in today's WaPo. Robinson is right to argue that materialism is an American problem, not just an issue in American inner-cities and their minority communities.
The better critique of Oprah's charity, though, is to ask whether she is doing the most good she can with the money she spends. The poor need a lot of things, but schools with beauty salons? I have no doubt that one $40 million super-school will do a lot of good in South Africa. But wouldn't four $10 million schools do more?
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