When Oprah Winfrey talks, the world listens. That is why I was particularly distressed to hear Oprah say, "I became so frustrated with inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn is just not there."
If that sense of wanting to learn is not in these schools, it is not because of the children. Rather, it is because of the adults in their lives or, to be more precise, the adults who are not in their lives.
I absolutely agree with Oprah that this work can be frustrating. However, that is why the Black Star Project in Chicago sends hundreds of mentors and role models into the same schools that Oprah shuns to do the difficult and sometimes thankless work of inspiring, motivating and encouraging our children to overcome their circumstances. Unlike Oprah, our mentors and I do not have the luxury of abandoning our inner-city students.
When Oprah publicly makes the kinds of statements that might discourage people from volunteering in schools, they make my job and the job of those working to improve the lives of poor, Black, inner-city youth a lot harder. We find it is already a struggle to get middle-class Black men and women to take time off of work for just two hours a year to volunteer as motivators for these young Black students who are "begging" for mentors and role models to help guide them in their search towards a better life. Oprah's statements have given potential volunteers just the excuse they need – not to help at all.
Oprah continues, "If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or sneakers." Again, I agree with Oprah. The students might have learned about this kind of materialism from watching her shows. In spite of the many great shows she has produced, Oprah is best known for giving away 600 new cars during one show and sponsoring $10,000 cosmetic makeovers during others. Oprah is a good teacher of the kind of materialistic attitudes in inner-city children for which she shows disdain.
We acknowledge that Oprah has done some wonderful things with her Angel Network. We applaud Oprah for spending her money to help African school children improve their lives, but we disapprove of her words that might discourage others from volunteering in American schools. With very little money, every day of the school year, we strive to uplift inner-city children's learning attitudes and improve the skills of their parents with our many Black Star programs.
Simply talking about the bad attitudes of inner-city children or the lack of effective parenting skills in their communities does not solve these problems. Oprah and the Black middle class need to become partners and participants in the movement to rebuild our families, to redevelop our communities, to educate our children and to save our race.
Otherwise, all Oprah and the Black middle class do is give us loud, well-reported, empty words that overshadow the heroic work of community organizations like the Black Star Project.
Phillip Jackson is executive director of the Black Star Project, located in Chicago.