Oprah Winfrey’s name has been buzzing (alongside #TimesUp) this week with speculation flying wildly from all corners about a
potential run for president in 2020. I did not watch the Golden Globes but I did watch a video of Oprah’s acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille award and there is no doubt that she energized the room of celebs as well as many of the millions watching from home or catching the video clips. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fN5HV79_8B8 I was an avid watcher of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" for decades. From my high school days all the way through my first six years of motherhood, Oprah was there. Her final episode aired when my oldest son was 6 and I was in what would be the final year of my seven-year stint as a stay-at-home mom. I relied on Oprah. (And Curious George!)
A Champion For Education
One of the things I most appreciated—and continue to appreciate—about Oprah is the focus she has always placed on education and her willingness to say that we need to do something differently. She never shied away from the controversy of charter schools or teacher tenure because she cared about kids (and common sense) more than the senseless squabbling of adults. I can’t ever remember her reflecting on her life story without citing education as the reason for it all. For Oprah, education is freedom. It is her passion. It is
THE THING that she decided would allow her to make the biggest long-term difference with her philanthropic dollars. And let’s remember, it was teachers on stage and in the audience the day she shocked the world and gave
every single one of them a car.
Presidential candidates rarely talk about education because experts and pundits (and voters!) tell them that
Americans don’t vote on education issues. It’s maddening, I know. But Oprah could change that. At the height of her show, she talked with brutal honesty about the gut-wrenching statistics that surround this country’s Black boys and young men. She celebrated the broken cycles of poverty and dependency as well as the liberty that only education can provide. She spent 26 years on her set being inspired by phenomenal educators and sharing that inspiration with all of us. We met some of the boldest, most courageous and hardest-working educators on her show. I remember running out to buy their books (these were the pre-Amazon days) after seeing them on the show. But perhaps more than anything, Oprah celebrated people who believed in children—all children. Because she believes that children rise to the expectations set for them. And she knows that children are capable of amazing things even when they are poor and Black like she was, sitting on the linoleum floor and watching Sydney Poitier win the Oscar in 1964.
Oprah Introduced Me To…
Ron Clark Clark is an educator who has worked with low-income students in rural North Carolina and New York City and
founded the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EvHVkRhb5k
Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin Feinberg and Levin co-founded the KIPP network of charter schools. More than 87 percent of KIPP students come from low-income families. To date, more than 90 percent of the KIPPsters graduated high school and more than 80 percent have gone to college. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6LkxMyPzmM
Michelle Rhee Rhee is a former educator and advocate for education reform. She was chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools from 2007 to 2010. She founded the nonprofit Students First. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPsqO17f6Lw
Geoffrey Canada Since 1990, Canada has been the president of the
Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York, an organization that states its goal is to increase high school and college graduation rates. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWg3baKLBEk
The truth is that as I look back now I realize that Oprah Winfrey played a part in my own journey from teacher to mom to school committee member to education advocate. She helped me to see the disparity in resources, facilities and expectations around race and income. She introduced me to the high school valedictorian who
struggled to pass her classes during her freshman year of college. More recently, she helped me to understand the tremendous courage of
Malala Yousafzai, who risked everything so that girls around the world may become educated. I miss Oprah. I have no idea if any of the hysteria over her potential presidential candidacy in 2020 is legitimate or complete fantasy. But I do know that if she were to decide to run for president, she’d be my best hope—ever—for a presidential candidate who will speak truth to power when it comes to educating America’s children. Especially the children who we, as a nation, have failed for so long.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...