Jan 15 2012

Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls: Celebrating the 1st Graduating Class

From the moment Oprah Winfrey announced her intention to build a leadership academy for impoverished girls on the African continent, critics were vehement and vocal about why it was the wrong thing to do.

When scandal rocked the school, not once, but repeatedly, the critics’ voices were amplified in the media, and their negative opinions about Winfrey’s methods and motives seemed even more valid in the eyes of dubious observers.

Winfrey said that to her, these girls are like her daughters, daughters whose lives included devastating experiences that never deterred them from wanting to reach their full potential:  “Divorce. Violence. Molestation. The loss of one parent. The loss of another parent. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief,” Oprah recounted.

Despite the many harsh realities the girls faced, 72 of the original class of 75 persevered and graduated. All 72 are headed to universities in South Africa and the United States to study in a diversity of fields including law, engineering, medicine and accounting.

“I’m one proud mama today,” said Winfrey, calling the students “phenomenal, phenomenal, phenomenal women.”

Winfrey noted that these students were born in 1994, the same year apartheid died in South Africa. She told the graduates they were brought to life  “in a nation that said: You are free. You are free to rise. You are free to soar.”

Oprah asked staff and family members to stand for applause during the commencement ceremony. She praised the teachers, administrators, social workers, psychologists and family members who devoted themselves to educating the young women, saying the school’s success was owed to teachers who came early and stayed late, social workers committed to their roles, and parents who helped to  instill discipline despite difficult home lives.

Winfrey said she has learned over the years that it takes a dedicated team to support students, especially those who have experienced poverty and personal trauma.

When the first group of students arrived five years ago, most of the 11- and 12-year-old girls had never used a computer. Many had attended schools with dirt floors and no desks. Some were left orphaned by AIDS, cancer and crime. All of them were selected for their desire to be educated, and their passion to serve their people.

There were times Winfrey felt discouraged by serious problems that occurred at the academy, including molestation charges against a dormitory matron, and a newborn baby found dead in a student’s room. Throughout the crises, Winfrey said she “always held the vision that this day was possible.”

Now that these women are headed out into the world to realize their potential and make their impact, it is impossible to side with the naysayers who said, among other criticisms, that Oprah should have done something like this closer to home.

Regardless of where on earth these women stand, they stand as beautiful, brown, brilliant symbols of what caring motivation and quality education can and should produce.

–by Kathleen Cross for rollingout.com


Apr 24 2011

What We Owe Eve

I am a genealogy enthusiast who has spent countless hours tracing my roots back through the generations, often discovering historical gems that connect me to people I had never heard of whose survival and life choices resulted in my existence. It is a sobering and soul-stirring experience.

When Bryan Sykes’ book, The Seven Daughters of Eve was first released, the genealogist in me was way stoked. Here was the Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford spelling out in words what many of us humans had already concluded in our hearts was true: All of humanity is, in fact, one family.

Blasting any lingering ideas of multi-regional human origins, Sykes, using mitochondrial DNA as a guide, shows how every human being alive today descended from an original “Eve” — an East African woman who passed her mitochondrial DNA to her daughters, and they to their daughters, and so on until your mother and mine.

What makes mitochondrial DNA so fascinating is that unlike recombinant DNA, which we inherent from both parents, and which recombines from one generation to the next to create the beautiful diversity in humanity, mtDNA is passed down from our mother only, and it does not recombine. Your mtDNA is like a relationship timeline that can accurately reveal your generational proximity to another person (that is, how recently related to another human being you are).

We have been conditioned to use physical features to determine our “racial” proximity to others, but the physical features we typically use to determine someone’s “race” (skin color, eye color, hair texture, facial features) are actually determined by a very small amount of human genetic material — less than 1% of who we are genetically has anything to with how we look! In Seven Daughters of Eve, Sykes gives countless examples of people who thought they belonged exclusively to one “racial” group, only to have their mtDNA reveal that their ethnicity was quite mixed and that they had recent ancestors of other “races.”

These stories and others like them make nonsense of any biological basis for racial classifications…We are all a complete mixture; yet at the same time, we are all related…Our genes did not just appear when we were born. They have been carried to us by millions of individual lives over thousands of generations.

The implications of Sykes’ work are potentially life-changing for us as individuals, and world changing for us as a human family. When enough human beings make the shift from focusing on imaginary racial and geographical boundaries, to recognizing how truly interconnected we all are, perhaps we will collectively move toward a more peaceful coexistence on this planet we all call home.

Sykes puts it in perspective with this analogy:

I am on a stage. Before me, in the dim light, all the people who have ever lived are lined up, rank upon rank, stretching far into the distance…I have in my hand the end of the thread which connects me to my ancestral mother way at the back. I pull on the thread and one woman’s face in every generation, feeling the tug, looks up at me…These are my ancestors…These are all my mothers…

I love that in every human cell mitochondria is the “engine” that uses oxygen to power everything. It is as if, there, in our mitochondria, is our GREAT grandmother Eve, telling us collectively to breathe deeply — and to remember our connection to her and to one another.

The Seven Daughters of Eve may sound too scientific to read for pleasure, but Sykes personalizes the science in a way that makes it a truly interesting read. I highly recommend this book!

Dec 14 2010

Prince William will be able to say the word “Mummy” again soon

“Being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” -Diana, Princess of Wales

If you’re like me, that whole Disney-style princess thing is one huge turnoff. I mean really, what self-respecting mother is going to teach her daughter that the ultimate happily-ever-after comes from catching the eye of a handsome prince and getting lucky enough to sit next to his throne for the rest of her life?

Uh, no.  I don’t think so.

I’m way more excited about Tinkerbell and her little fairy BFFs who are adorably flawed (Tink has a bit of an anger management problem), are able to acknowledge the awesomeness of their individual gifts, and proudly use those gifts to make the world better for everyone.

It makes perfect sense to me that Diana Princess of Wales was, and remains, so incredibly adored worldwide.  Diana was never content to simply be Prince Charles’ wife, but instead chose to behave more like a fairy princess, refusing to pretend she was flawless, and flying around the world using her powers to relieve human suffering–while encouraging us all to be more loving.

Nothing brings me more happiness than trying to help the most vulnerable people in society. It is a goal and an essential part of my life.” -Diana

When she died the world lost a true philanthropist, and her two young sons lost a loving mother and role-model who was teaching them by example how to use their royal positions to serve others.

I will fight for my children on any level so they can reach their potential as human beings and in their public duties.” -Diana

Just 12 and 15 when they lost her, Diana’s influence on the boys did not fade as they matured.  Both princes are now known for their humble and friendly approach to the public, and both have upheld their mother’s legacy of philanthropy by contributing time and money to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, wildlife preservation, environmental protection, the inner-city disadvantaged, the homeless, and African poverty relief.  Harry is co-founder of Sentebale, a joint effort with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho to help meet the needs of children orphaned by AIDS .  Diana’s sons have honored their mother by serving those she would if she were here–underscoring their strong belief that the dead continue on in another life and guide those they left behind.

I’m aware that people I have loved and have died are in the spirit world looking after me.” – Princess Diana

Though she died over 13 years ago, Diana’s legacy as devoted mother of these two grandsons of Windsor (who are second and third in line for the  throne) has recently become the topic of much conversation, as her eldest William just announced his engagement to his longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton.  William proposed to Kate a few weeks ago while in Kenya, offering her the sapphire and diamond engagement ring his father Prince Charles had given his mother.

She’s not going to be around to share in any of the fun and the excitement…so this is my way of keeping her sort of close to it all.” -Prince William

The wedding will take place in late April, not long after Mothering Sunday (the UK version of  Mother’s day), a day that is extremely painful for William.  Last year he celebrated the holiday by announcing his patronage of the Child Bereavement Charity, an organization co-founded by his mother a few years before she died.  After several private meetings with bereaved families, he spent time with a group of children who lost parents or siblings.  He spoke candidly with the youngsters, referring to Mother’s Day as an occasion of sadness and emptiness, and describing a loss like theirs as “one of the most difficult experiences anyone can endure.”

Never being able to say the word ‘Mummy’ again in your life sounds like a small thing. However for many, including me, it is now really just a word – hollow and evoking only memories.” -William

Those who cherish the memory of Princess Diana will be watching with excitement and hope as William and Kate begin their lives together as man and wife, and though I’ve never considered myself a “royal watcher,” I must admit I’m eager to see a few years into the future when the couple become parents, something William says they certainly plan to do. That is when Mother’s Day will be transformed from an excruciating occasion into a bittersweet celebration. When the day is spent honoring the mother of  his children and reminiscing about the amazing grandmother they didn’t get to meet, I suspect Mothering Sunday will take on a new and much more joyful spirit for the prince.

God willing, Prince William will be able to say the word “Mummy” again soon, and when he hears it from the mouths of his little ones, he may find it holds a magical quality that, like Tinkerbell’s pixie dust, will lift him high above his pain.