Winfrey, Oprah (Paper I)
By Greta Hendricks Johnson
Graduate Student, Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus
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In her words, Oprah Winfrey's philosophy of philanthropy demonstrates her commitment to giving: "Think about what you have to give, not in terms of dollars because I believe that your life is about service. It's about what you came to give the world, to your children, to your family" (Harpo Productions).
One of the most recognizable faces of the past two decades, Winfrey has received world acclaim in the realm of entertainment. As chief executive officer of Harpo Productions (her multimedia corporation) and host of her own television talk show, she has achieved unprecedented success. Reaching more than 21 million viewers weekly, the show has entertained viewers for sixteen seasons and is going strong. Consistently ranked number one among talk shows, it earned thirty-five Emmy awards. Harpo Productions, initially started for Winfrey's television projects, expanded to include film, music, and publishing, as well as the promotion of health and fitness. Harpo's projects have a heavy emphasis on education and philanthropy (giving, serving and voluntary association for the common good).
Listed in Forbes Magazine , in 2003, as the first African-American woman billionaire (Forbes.com), Oprah has proven to be a great humanitarian and an avid supporter of philanthropic causes, particularly in the areas of education, children and women. Winfrey's canny ability to relate to her audience is evidenced through her compassion and empathy as she listens to the stories of others. Through openly bearing her own soul, she has exposed traumatic episodes from her own life on nationwide television . This experience was a catalyst in creating a bond between herself and her viewers. Perhaps it is from this early pain that viewers see the roots of Oprah's dedication to philanthropy.
Oprah Gail Winfrey was born January 29, 1954, in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Her father, Vernon Winfrey, was a twenty-one-year-old enlisted man. Her mother, eighteen-year-old Vernita Lee, remained unmarried after Oprah's birth and tried to adjust to single parenthood. Oprah was sent to live with her grandmother and was under her care for the first six years of Oprah's life. Nurtured by love, it was here that she received the foundation that carried Oprah into adulthood. She developed a passion for reading that brought to light her oratory talent and ability to shine on stage. Unfortunately for Oprah, Vernita desired to make a change in her life and circumstances. She relocated to Baltimore, taking Oprah with her. No longer in the safety of her grandmother ' s home and presence, Oprah was exposed to a different lifestyle, which proved to be adverse. Traumatized by sexual abuse at the hands of several relatives and an acquaintance of her mother, Oprah turned to the streets. Pregnant by the age of fourteen, she miscarried and was left feeling distraught and in despair. In an act of desperation, Vernita sent Oprah to Nashville, Tennessee, to live with her father. It was here that her life took a major turn. Vernon put rules in place and insisted that young Oprah adhere to them. He encouraged her to refocus her life and begin to concentrate on her education. Vernon required her to complete a weekly book report, which rekindled her love for reading. Working for the school radio station, she soon found her voice in broadcasting. This became the forum to propel her to stardom.
After graduation, she entered Tennessee State University, majoring in radio and television broadcasting. Popular and well liked, she was named Miss Tennessee State. Hired by local television station WTVF, Winfrey became the youngest and first African-American female anchor. This title of "the first" would follow Oprah throughout her career. Deciding to move back to Baltimore, she began co-hosting a local talk show. In 1984, she was offered a job in Chicago, a decision that proved to be the most important one of her career. In Chicago, she hosted the television show AM Chicago for station WLS-TV. The show jumped to number one in her first month. Within the same year, her timeslot increased to an hour and was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. In two years , it became nationally syndicated and the rest is history. The show is broadcast in over 109 countries, making it the highest rated show in history. Although started with the usual fare of talk show topics, Oprah's show became distinctively different in the mid-1990s when the competitors increasingly chose topics for shock value and sleaze, not relevant to the lives of average people. In 1994, Oprah pledged "to refocus the show on uplifting meaningful subjects," and began to cover stories on humanity and improving our lives (Harpo Productions). Philanthropy was cast into the limelight of talk show TV.
Oprah Winfrey's impact on the philanthropic sector and philanthropic lives of Americans (in particular) has been profound. From the everyday heroes she highlights to the causes she covers through her media outlets (ie. television, magazine, and film), Winfrey encourages philanthropy. As a generous wealthy donor, Winfrey takes a hands-on approach in making a difference in the world, often becoming involved in the causes and in promoting the organizations or causes to which she donates. The Oprah Winfrey Foundation has been an avenue for her substantial philanthropy. Additionally, she provides information on many venues through which her viewers and followers can become involved in the many issues or organizations she has highlighted throughout her career, ranging from Habitat for Humanity to Heifer International to women's education to child abuse and neglect.
The focus of a majority of her working life, The Oprah Winfrey Show has become Winfrey's main vehicle for highlighting philanthropy. In September 1997, Winfrey introduced Oprah's Angel Network, to "inspire people to use their lives and to reap the truest rewards that come from giving to others" (Harpo Productions). Asking the viewers to send in spare change to assist the needy and provide college scholarships, the audience responded in tremendous numbers. Over $5.1 million has been collected, in addition to $7 million from sponsors and entertainers.
In 2000, Oprah's Angel Network made another contribution to recognizing everyday philanthropy with the announcement of the "Use Your Life Award." Recipients are "individuals who through their charitable organizations are making a difference in the lives of others" (Ibid.). By 2003, fifty-four people had received awards from the fund of over $4 million collected for that purpose. The "Use Your Life Award" provides caring individuals with a check for $100,000.
Following the activities of Oprah's Angel Network, and Oprah's focus on how an individual's dedication to service enhances the lives of others, have become favorite treats for Winfrey's viewers. Inspired by the philanthropic deeds of others, the audience responds from the heart and, as a result, donations continue.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Winfrey's motto of "intent and service" is apparent in her commitment to philanthropy. The first recipient of the Academy of Television Arts and Science's Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, she donates at least 10 percent of her annual income to charity. In 1987, she established a private charity, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation. A crusader for women and children, the foundation has awarded hundreds of grants to nonprofits that "support the inspiration, empowerment and education of women, children and families around the world" (Phila.gov). She has contributed millions of dollars across the globe toward education for underprivileged but merit-worthy children.
In addition, the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program provides scholarships to those who have a desire to give back to their communities. Reaching across borders, Oprah has partnered with South Africa Ministry of Education preparing young girls through the opportunity for schooling, building educational facilities, providing school supplies, books, libraries, clothes, teacher education and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (opening in 2005).
Oprah's Angel Network has formed alliances with other nonprofit organizations and contributed millions to their efforts. Monies have been provided to Habitat for Humanity allowing volunteers to build 200 homes. Kids Can Free the Children has received enough to build thirty-four schools in ten countries. Among the many who contributed to Oprah's Angel Network are Paul Newman's nonprofit organization, Amazon.com CEO Jeff Begos, and countless other celebrities.
Key Related Ideas
Oprah's own traumatic childhood experiences have created a genuine concern for children. In 1991, she rallied to establish a nationwide database profiling convicted child offenders, under the National Child Protection Act. Testifying before the Senate, Winfrey assisted the "Oprah Bill" in being signed into law by President Clinton in 1993.
O, The Oprah Magazine is also a means to enlighten the public on social issues and the necessity to help and serve others. Geared towards self-awareness, health, and life enhancement, articles also include community service and opportunities for volunteerism. A recent issue of O featured an ex-professional football player who tours the country speaking to groups of men (including current players) about domestic violence and the need for men to seek counseling in order to prevent spousal and child abuse.
Oxygen Media, another venture of Harpo Productions, launched a cable network for women. One of the network's series, Use Your Life , was developed by Winfrey to showcase everyday people making an effort to enhance the lives of others and impact the world a little at a time.
Important People Related to the Topic
As a public figure, Oprah's influence is far reaching. Connected to her audience and her peers, she interacts with people in all walks of life. Winfrey is broadly recognized as a brilliant business woman; an articulate and compassionate television host; an accomplished actress, producer, publisher, and educator; and a passionate spokes-woman for social causes. Her name and reputation warrant a great deal of respect and her worldwide exposure is overwhelming. The following list reflects only a small number of people connected to Winfrey in relevant ways.
Maya Angelou (1928- ): Author, poet, actor, producer, and educator, Angelou's interests coincide with those of Winfrey. Inspired by James Baldwin, Angelou has used her poetic skills to beautifully relate the Black experience in America. Sexually abused as a child (as a result she did not speak for six years), Angelou wrote about her early life experience in the highly acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Awarded with fifty honorary degrees, she has taught at universities here and abroad. Her award-winning poetry makes her a sought after speaker in the areas of education, entertainment and politics. Angelou is also an advocate of causes concerning women and children.
Jeff Bezos (1964- ): Founder of the cyber-space, commercial retailer Amazon.com , Bezos was Time Magazine's 1999 Person of the Year. Bezos is committed to various charitable causes. He vowed to assist Oprah's Angel Network and match viewer dollars two-to-one, up to five million dollars in contributions.
Bill Cosby (1937- ): Comedian, actor, author and philanthropist, Cosby made his mark in the field of entertainment as a comedian. Notably distinctive, his form of comedy is family oriented and delivered without the use of profanity. Television proved to be Cosby's venue for great success that spanned four decades. In 1965, he was cast in the first major dramatic role for an African-American actor on a television series - the show was the highly successful I Spy . His creation, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972-1984) was a popular cartoon series based on his own childhood adventures. Cosby was also creator of one of the most successful prime time sit-coms in television history, The Cosby Show (1984-1992). This show was a first to portray an upper-middle-class African-American family in a positive light; it remains in syndication and has made him a wealthy man. Cosby is also host of the television show, Kids Are People Too , and finds the time to write a children's television series, Little Bill . Though entertainment became the focus on his life, Cosby earned a doctorate of education in 1977 at the University of Massachusetts. Several best-selling books include Cosby's humorous reflections on life's lessons. His writings reflect this outlook of the natural process of learning. As a staunch supporter of formal education, Cosby and his wife Camille created Hello Friends/Ennis William Cosby Foundation. The foundation is dedicated to their son (who was murdered) and focuses on the early detection and treatment of dyslexia.
Nelson Mandela (1918- ): South African political activist and statesman. As a young man, Mandela was president of African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, committed to fighting the injustices of South African apartheid. Targeted by the South African government, he was imprisoned without just cause for twenty-seven years. After receiving world-wide attention, Mandela was finally released on February 11, Nelson Mandela (continued): 1990. Upon his release, he resumed his position as president of ANC. After apartheid was abolished, he was instrumental in reforming the South African government and was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for these efforts. Winning the country's first election under the majority rule, President Mandela remained in office until his retirement in 1999. He continues to speak out against world-wide injustice and for the protection of human rights. Creator of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, he is working alongside Oprah Winfrey to improve education for African children.
Toni Morrison (1931- ): Writer, editor, and educator, Morrison was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature. As author of The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved, she has earned critical acclaim for her work. Morrison was named professor of the humanities at Princeton University, being the first African-American woman to receive this honor at an Ivy League university. Oprah Winfrey starred in and produced the movie , Beloved , based on the writings of Toni Morrison.
Paul Newman (1925- ): Renowned actor and philanthropist, Newman began his film career in 1954. He emerged as a Hollywood leading man, appearing in a long list of hits, including: The Long Hot Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Sting, Absence of Malice, and The Color of Money . He continues acting today both in films and on stage. In 1987, Newman founded the nonprofit organization, Newman's Own. The organization donates 100% of after-tax profits from the sale of its product line of food items (including spaghetti sauce, salad dressing and popcorn) for educational and charitable purposes. Newman's Own also makes contributions to Oprah's Angel Network projects.
Steven Spielberg (1946- ): Director, producer and philanthropist. Spielberg is the most successful Hollywood director of all time, with film blockbusters spanning four decades. They include Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark (and the other installments of the Indiana Jones trilogy), Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, American Beauty, Gladiator , and Shrek . For these he won several Academy Awards.
Spielberg is also an avid supporter of social causes. He donated all of his earnings from Schindler's List to a nonprofit organization supporting Jewish issues. Oprah Winfrey was cast in the role of Sophia in his movie, The Color Purple .
Related Nonprofit Organizations
There are hundreds of nonprofit organizations listed on the Oprah's Angel Network portion of the Oprah.com Web site, found at
uyl_volunteer_main.jhtml;jsessionid=RJLYDAZAIWEARLARAYIB3KQ . These organizations have been profiled on The Oprah Winfrey Show and fall into the following categories: children, women, special interests, community, family and housing, and health. They are recipients of donations from the network or the "Use Your Life Award." The list is updated regularly. Information follows on a few of these prominent nonprofits.
The Garden Project , based in San Francisco, "promotes valuable life skills like work ethic, self-confidence and literacy as well as gives prisoners and ex-offenders an opportunity to give back to their communities by teaching them the farming trade" (Harpo Productions).
Heifer International is a well-established organization dedicated to helping impoverished families address hunger by becoming self-reliant. Donations to the Heifer Project purchase animals for families in hunger-stricken countries or impoverished areas within developed countries. The animals are used by the recipients to produce food (e.g., eggs from chickens and milk from goats) and products that can earn them a living (e.g., sale of a donated sheep's wool).
Susan G. Komen Foundation strives to eliminate breast cancer through the advancement of research, education, screening and treatment. The foundation has raised more than $250 million. The Komen Race for the Cure series is the largest series of 5K runs/fitness walks in the world. Over one million participants walk or run in more than 100 cities across the U.S. and in several foreign countries. In 2002, the race raised nearly $83 million and only six percent of the proceeds spent on fundraising costs. T he Komen Foundation is the largest private funding source for breast cancer research and community outreach programs (Vander Hulst).
Related Web Sites
Academy of Achievement Web site , at http://www.achievement.org , profiles "leaders, discoverers, and creators" who have made the greatest contributions of our times. It provides Winfrey's biography and achievements. It also includes an insightful, in-depth interview with Oprah Winfrey discussing her childhood, influential people in her life, choice of career, and views on philanthropy.
Free the Children Web site, at http://www.freethechildren.org/ , provides information on this "international network of children helping children at a local, national and international level through representation, leadership and action" (Free the Children). The organization fights to free children from poverty and exploitation, as well as empowering them to understand they are able to take leadership and have a voice in what happens in the world. It was founded by Craig Kielburger at the age of twelve. The site can also be found in a link through Oprah's Angel Network.
Habitat for Humanity International Web site , at http://www.habitat.org , offers information about the organization's programs, history, events, access to local affiliates and more. The site also provides Habitat World , a worldwide magazine providing stories and up-to-date information about the organization. This nonprofit organization pairs resources and volunteers together to build affordable housing for those in need. The site can be found with a link through the Oprah's Angel Network section of the Oprah.com Web site.
Oprah.com Web site , at http://www.oprah.com/ , is the official site that covers the gamut of projects in which Winfrey and Harpo Productions are involved. It includes links to information on her two shows, The Oprah Winfrey Show and Oprah After the Show; the O! Oprah Magazine ; her book club; Oprah's Angel Network, and biographical information. There are also pages on the site dedicated to the topics around which Winfrey focuses her television and magazine stories: spirit and self, relationships, food and home, and mind and body. Additionally, the site provides access to a newsletter, e-mail contacts, a message board and an online journal. Oprah.com places a significant focus on philanthropy, with information on hundreds of charities highlighted on The Oprah Winfrey Show and volunteering opportunities for visitors. The link to the Oprah's Angel Network gives the reader tips on how to start making a difference and how to make a donation today. The site provides resources for creating a nonprofit organization.
Bibliography and Internet Sources
A & E Television Networks. "Oprah Winfrey." Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/search/article.jsp?aid=9534419&search=.
Academy of Achievement. "Oprah Winfrey." Hall of Business. http://www.achievement.com .
Forbes.com. "100 Top Celebrities, 2003." Lists. June 19, 2003. http://www.forbes.com/lists .
Free the Children. "Kids Can Free the Children." http://www.freethechildren.org .
Harpo Productions. Oprah.com. http://www.oprah.com/ .
Phila.gov. "Oprah Winfrey, PhiladelphiaÂ´s 2003 Recipient of The Marian Anderson Award." The Marian Anderson Awards . http://www.phila.gov/marian/oprah.html .
Vander Hulst, Angela S. "Special Event Fundraising." Learning to Give. http://www.learningtogive.org/papers/concepts/specialevent.html .
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