By: Dayna Haffenden
Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy For Girls has been standing strong for more than a decade, providing women in Johannesburg, South Africa with the opportunity to further their education.
After having tea with the late Nelson Mandela in 2000, the media mogul was inspired to open a school in the Motherland’s southern country. By January 2007, Winfrey turned her long-time dream into a $40 million reality. The 52-acre campus, located in the small South African village of Henley-on-Klip, came equipped with classrooms, computer and science labs, a library with more than 10,000 books, a theater and wellness center upon opening. The school’s first graduating class consisted of 72 girls, in comparison to the 380 students enrolled today.
Within that same year, Oprah decided to return to her leadership academy. A then-Harpo assistant by the name of Kimberly Brooks immediately took a leap of faith and decided to write a letter to Ms. Winfrey asking to join her on her trip to South Africa. Little did Brooks know, that once in a lifetime opportunity would open her eyes to the world and spark a full circle moment. That moment would come in the form of a documentary highlighting the challenges and success of developing an educational institute.
After working for ABC News and NBC, Brooks landed the role of host/reporter for FUSION Network. Today, nearly one decade after documenting the stories of some of Oprah’s girls, the Northwestern University grad sat down with the philanthropist for her documentary O Girls. In the upcoming hour-long special, Kimberly talks with the businesswoman and actress about her inspiration for starting the school, her relationship with the girls and why Winfrey took a chance on her ten years ago. O Girls will also touch on how five students of the academy’s first graduating class were able to overcome hardships despite speed bumps in the road of life.
VIBE had the opportunity to speak with Brooks about her experience of traveling to Oprah’s academy, the importance of education, and how spotlighting the accomplishments of women of color is a dream come true.
VIBE: How does it feel knowing you started off your career working for The Oprah Winfrey Show, and years later, you interviewed Oprah for a FUSION special?
Kimberly Brooks: For me, it’s really crazy. When we were filming the piece, I kept telling everyone it’s definitely a full circle moment. When I think about starting as an assistant where she didn’t know my name and going through all of these experiences over a decade, and being able to sit back down, ten years later and not just talk to her but interview her… For everything that happened, on this journey, for me, this is something I still can’t wrap my mind around. It’s incredible and the fact that she was open, willing, and trusting of me to give the update on something that has been significant in her life, I feel so grateful. For me, this is a living, breathing story. This journey continues for all of us. As a woman of color, I am grateful for an opportunity to produce content about women of color accomplishing incredible things in this world.
What was it like traveling to Africa? What did you learn during your experience in the Motherland?
This was my fourth time being in South Africa. I think every trip is a little bit different. The very first time I went was when [Oprah] said yes. It was my first time having a passport, my first time out of the country [and] my first time on a first class flight. Everything in my mind was so hyper alert to everything and then I land in South Africa and strangely it feels like I’m just coming home. The second time, obviously, I felt more familiar. The third time, I was back for their high school graduation. Then when I returned for this documentary, you know, I don’t even really know how to articulate the feeling. I was just so full. I just had so much love in my heart because I was able to see some of the girls I haven’t seen in five years. Seeing that the bonds were still in tact just made me feel really good. South Africa feels like home to me now.
What advice did Ms. Winfrey give you during your first trip and during the making of the documentary?
Well, during the first trip, it’s interesting. She didn’t give [me] any advice. When she said yes to me going, I actually remember her assistant calling me up to her office and she just immediately got on a conference call with some of the administrators of the school, and she just started planning. She was like, ‘Do you have your passport?’ I [had] just received my express passport because I knew I was going to go, so I was able to tell her, ‘Yes, I have my passport.’ She just immediately started talking about what the plans were and she was like, ‘We’re going to be there in June and this is going to be happening.’ She didn’t really give any advice; I was just given the opportunity and thrown into the experience of just being able to be there and take it all in, and obviously meet the girls. Now, during the making of this documentary, when I had the first conversation with her, she was just going over the logistics of it and really just expressing that she was excited about it. I could tell she wanted it to turn out well which felt really good. Obviously when we were finished, she was able to see it and give her opinion and being a woman who has been in the industry 25 years. You know, of course, you value her opinion. She’s so brilliant and so smart. Just getting her feedback meant everything.
What are the five girls’ names? What colleges/universities did they graduate from?
So we have Mpumi, she just graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina and now she’s going on to get her Masters. Then you have Thando, she also went to Johnson C. Smith University and she’s working in Silver Spring, Md. at Discovery Communications. You have Debra, who went to Spelman College, and she’s also in Silver Spring working at Discovery Communications. You have Bongeka, who is an amazing young woman. They’re all amazing, but her story is ridiculous. She graduated from Spelman and now she’s at Oxford getting a Masters in Medical Anthropology. Then you have Charmain, who’s in South Africa. She started at the University of Cape Town. She took a couple years off, and now she’s going to be transferring to Wits University. I profile five girls, but there are nearly 400 girls that have gone through this academy, if you can wrap your head around that. Girls who thought they were never going to be able to go to college, didn’t know what the word “college” meant, and you have 400 of these girls that have already graduated from this academy. These five stories don’t give the full story, but it does give a snapshot of all their experiences. I think it’s incredible. I really do.
Did you find that there a was common theme behind the stories of all the girls’ life experiences?
Yeah, definitely. Oprah talks in the piece about how they did a study and showed by the time the girls got to the school, they’ve experienced six major traumas in their life. So you talk to any of the girls and they have some story of loss whether it’s their parents… A lot of the girls, in some cases they don’t know how their parents died. There’s this thing in South Africa that Bongeka was telling me: “People just kind of die.” Sometimes they know why. Sometimes they don’t. Many of them have had both parents or a parent and a grandparent that has passed away, or have experienced some sort of sexual abuse, violence, or drug abuse in their families. They all have similar stories. I think that strengthens the bond that they share. Not only are they all at this academy, but they all share similar backgrounds.
What advice have you personally given the girls over the years?
There’s one girl who I really wanted to be in the special and she wasn’t able to because of timing, and she’s one of the Academy graduates. I was talking to her recently because she’s coming to New York to finish her year up. One of the things that I’ve said to her, and one of the things I know she understands, is that ‘your success has nothing to do with what you externally accomplish, you’re great anyway,’ which is something Oprah has preached to them, too. I can say it because I really understand it. I’m not just saying it, speaking words to sound cliche or sound important. I really believe that because it’s been true in my own life. It’s how I feel about how we should operate in the world. You shouldn’t get caught up in titles and material things, making sure you have a certain amount of money. You can have goals, but don’t be so attached to those goals that you forget the fact that you’re still great just being who you are. I was just kind of stressing that point. When you’ve been through a lot, I think it’s easy to forget that you’re already great. A degree is just icing on the cake. You’re gonna finish school, but know that you’re still absolutely amazing whether you do or you don’t.
What are your thoughts on the importance of education?
Education is everything. It’s an outlet. It’s a way to get out of circumstances. It’s a way to level a playing field. It’s a way to escape from things you feel like you wouldn’t be able to get away from. Education in my own life has been important because I also grew up in a poor environment. My dad was sacrificing just to make sure we were okay. He always instilled the importance of education, striving to do the best that you can—whatever that looks like as long as you’re doing your best—using education to take you to the next level, and not stressing that education makes you who you are, but it really is an equalizer. It breaks cycles. It changes lives. When you don’t have access or exposure because of your circumstances, education breaks that wall down. I think it is of the utmost importance.