Learning to Give, Philanthropy education resources that teach giving and civic engagement


Winfrey, Oprah (Paper II)

By Victoria Pasternak

Graduate Student, Indiana University at Bloomington


Biographical Highlights

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Entrepreneur, actress, educator, producer, philanthropist, and talk show host, Oprah Winfrey (1954- ) has had a wide-ranging effect on American culture. Despite her difficult childhood, she determined to make a better life for herself and others. Beginning her career as a television reporter and anchor, Oprah went on to find success as the first black woman to host a nationally-syndicated television show and the first black woman to own a production company. In 2003, Winfrey was named the first black woman billionaire and she has been named the world's most recognized person. Despite such wealth and popularity, much of her professional, voluntary and monetary efforts have gone to support the underprivileged. According to Oprah, "There really is nothing more important to me than striving to be a good human being" (Academy of Television Arts and Science 2003). Through her personal giving and support and her work through both Oprah's Angel Network and the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, Winfrey has been perhaps the most significant female African-American philanthropist in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.


Historic Roots

Oprah Gail Winfrey was born to Vernita Lee on 29 January 1954 in Kosciuscko, Mississippi. Initially raised by her grandmother, Oprah was a smart child with a gift for the spoken word; she could often be found reciting poetry or reading aloud at church. At the age of six, Oprah moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to live with her mother; she would spend most of the next seven years there (Academy of Achievement, "Oprah Winfrey Biography").

As a young adolescent, Oprah often acted out and misbehaved; once she attempted to run away. After initially trying to place her in a juvenile detention center, Lee sent Oprah to live with her father, Vernon Winfrey, in Nashville, Tennessee. Winfrey's strict demeanor had a considerably positive impact on his young daughter. In her commitment to school, Oprah found success, winning awards for speech and debate and securing a college scholarship at the age of sixteen.

When she was seventeen, Oprah obtained a job at a local radio station in Nashville, Tennessee. Majoring in speech communications and performing arts at Tennessee State University, Winfrey continued to work in media throughout her college years. She signed on with WTVF-TV as a reporter/anchor. In 1976, Oprah graduated from college and moved to Baltimore, Maryland, for a position at the ABC affiliate as a co-anchor. Just two years later, the station offered Oprah an opportunity to co-host People Are Talking , a morning talk show (Encyclopaedia Britannica "Winfrey").

In a significant career move, Oprah moved to Chicago in January 1984, to take a position as the host of AM Chicago . Competing against the top-rated talk show of its time, Winfrey proved she was able to attract a wide audience and, in 1985, AM Chicago was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show . That year, Oprah also landed her first major acting role. Her work in The Color Purple earned her nominations for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe award. Just one year later, The Oprah Winfrey Show went national and, in 1988, Oprah became the first black woman to own her own television and film production company, Harpo Productions, which bought the rights to The Oprah Winfrey Show . In 2003, Winfrey became the first black woman billionaire.


Importance

Oprah Winfrey has become one of the most admired American television icons of her time. Her own advancement as a woman of color has paved the way for many to follow. In addition to her many "firsts," Oprah has won numerous awards for her personal and professional work. She was awarded the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2002, the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and the 1986 Woman of Achievement Award from the National Organization for Women. Time Magazine also named her as one of the "100 Most Influential People of the Twentieth Century." Other awards received by Oprah include two People's Choice Awards, The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the International Radio Television Society Foundation Gold Medal Award, the National Book Foundation's fiftieth anniversary gold medal, the NAACP Image Award (four years running), and the NAACP's 1989 Entertainer of the Year.

In 1987, Winfrey established the Oprah Winfrey Foundation as a way to "support the inspiration, empowerment and education of women, children, and families around the world" (Oprah.com "About Oprah"). Given her own history of abuse, Oprah initiated a campaign for a national database of child abusers in 1991. In December 1993, President Bill Clinton signed "Oprah's Bill," which became the National Child Protection Act, an act establishing a national registry of convicted child abusers.

In 1997, Oprah created two segments of her show that would make dramatic differences in the lives of many individuals. In an attempt to increase reading among her viewers, Winfrey created the Oprah Book Club. The club invited viewers to read a selected book and discuss it on the show; widespread participation is evidenced by a significant increase in sales for each featured book. Even old "classics," such as Steinbeck's East of Eden , have resurfaced as New York Times Book List bestsellers after being selected by Oprah. The second segment created in 1997 was Oprah's Angel Network, a campaign focusing on three philanthropic programs: collecting spare change in the "Worlds Largest Piggy Bank" in order to fund scholarships through The Boys and Girls Club of America; volunteering time and funds to build homes for those in need with Habitat for Humanity; and encouraging individuals to create their "own miracle[s]" by making a difference in the lives of others (Oprah.com "Oprah's Angel Network"). Since its founding, the network has expanded its programs to include the Use Your Life Award, which provides a monetary award to individuals who are making a difference in others' lives through charitable organizations.

In December 2002, ground was broken for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, an endeavor supported by a $10 million gift from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. As of September 2002, Oprah's Angel Network had: 1) raised $5.1 million from viewer donations and $7 million from celebrities and corporate sponsors, 2) granted scholarships to 150 students, 3) funded over 200 homes through Habitat for Humanity, and 4) with the organization Kids Can Free the Children, had built thirty-four schools in ten countries. In addition, over fifty "Use Your Life" awards have been presented, totaling over $4 million.

Finally, Winfrey has made significant contributions toward institutions that further education, including large gifts to several historically black colleges and universities. Recipients include the United Negro College Fund, the Harold Washington Library, Chicago Academy of Arts, Chicago Public Schools, and her alma mater, Tennessee State University.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Through the development of her own private philanthropic organizations, Oprah Winfrey contributes her time and wealth to groups and issues that are personally relevant, including children, women, education, and the African-American community. Her partnerships with many nonprofit organizations and educational institutions, her desire to educate and challenge her television viewers, and her anonymous gifts to individuals demonstrate the many ways in which her philanthropy is practiced. Winfrey's altruistic efforts are motivated by her upbringing and made possible by her bountiful career accomplishments. Oprah has said she values her financial success because it enables her to "make an important difference in people's lives" (Winfrey 1997, 242).


Key Related Ideas

African-American philanthropy :

Black philanthropy was critical to the poor and played a key role in developing the first black schools, banks, and insurance companies; and it has been an essential component of virtually every black protest movement in history. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement have affected the lives of every other minority group in America and set the precedent for judging the claim to equal rights for these groups. Additionally, understanding black philanthropy as being both informal (through countless small and large acts) and formal (through volunteering at and giving to nonprofits like the church) can widen the use of a more inclusive definition of philanthropy. (Brake and Nissan "Black Philanthropy")

Child welfare : Concern with the health and education of children.

Coalition-building : Constructing or convening alliances of organizations, people, or groups interested in accomplishing specific goals. For example, often nonprofit organizations with similar missions or interests collaborate on initiatives; such as, Oprah's Angel Network's support for Habitat for Humanity helps both organizations create opportunities for children and the disenfranchised.

Women and philanthropy : Women's activism, advocacy, and giving were key to the formation of a formal philanthropic sector in the United States. In particular, "through leadership, volunteerism and charitable contributions, women have built portions of the sector that serve the underrepresented, underprivileged and powerless - namely, women themselves, children, and minority groups. Through these roles, women have not only met their missions of social and public policy changes, but have access traditional seats of power and influence (Shimmel "Women's Use").


Important People Related to the Topic

Stedman Graham (1951- ) : Oprah Winfrey's long time companion, Stedman Graham co-taught a leadership class with Winfrey at the J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University in fall 1999 and 2000.

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) : The first African-American woman millionaire, Madame C.J. Walker started from meager beginnings like Winfrey. Walker, the daughter of two slaves, invented and founded a line of hair care products specifically formulated for African-American women. Madam Walker's philanthropy within the African-American community was significant; among the more astounding of her gifts was $1000 to support the building of a YMCA that served blacks in Indianapolis and $5000 toward the NAACP's anti-lynching movement in 1916.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

Founded in 1963, A Better Chance seeks to increase the representation of students of color who are "capable of assuming positions of responsibility and leadership in American society" (A Better Chance "Mission"). Through its many programs, the organization aids in providing access to lifelong educational and career opportunities for students in the sixth grade through college. Through her Angel Network, Oprah has collaborated with A Better Chance and The Boys and Girls Clubs of America to provide more than $3.5 million in scholarships.

With its earliest beginnings in 1860, The Boys and Girls Club of America strives to provide a safe and stimulating environment for young people, especially those from underprivileged circumstances (B&GCA).

Habitat for Humanity builds partnerships between volunteers and families in need in order to construct decent, affordable homes. According to the Habitat for Humanity Web site, the organization has constructed more than 150,000 houses worldwide (Habitat for Humanity "Quick Tour").

Kids Can Free the Children is a youth-based international organization that Oprah Winfrey has worked with to build schools in ten countries. According to the organization's Web site, the group's purposes includes freeing children who suffer from poverty, abuse or exploitation, as well as empowering children to speak up and take leadership roles on issues that affect them (Free the Children Homepage).

Oprah Winfrey has publicly and financially supported The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) , the country's oldest civil rights organization.


Related Web Sites

The Academy of Achievement Web site , at http://www.achievement.org , provides biographical sketches of individuals who have had a significant impact on society through their will to achieve. See the Oprah Winfrey profile at http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/win0pro-1 .

The National Women's Hall of Fame Web site , at http://www.greatwomen.org , honors famous American women and provides their biographical profiles. Oprah Winfrey was inducted in 1994 for her achievements in philanthropy and business, see more at http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=171 .

The Oprah.com Web site , at http://www.oprah.com , includes details regarding her life, her television show, O Magazine, and her philanthropic efforts. Several pages in the "Press Room" section of the site provide "Fast Facts" and current press releases .


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