Right about now, I'm going to probably make a few Biblical scholars and homilists irate with my hackneyed musing about philanthropy. That's alright, because there are a few well-heeled members of the global giving community I want to nitpick, so maybe when all is said and done we'll be even-steven.
Take the well-known phrase "the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing" from the New Testament (Matthew 6:3), which reads in full, "But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." The message — that charity should be practiced without drawing undue attention to the charitable acts themselves — is plain and wise under ideal circumstances. But little in life is ever ideal.
For instance, the news media loves to present stories about celebrities making pilgrimages to and adopting babies from Third World countries as a sign of their willingness to provide opportunities ordinarily unavailable to those children. On the surface, though, these stories slap targets on the backs of the rich and famous, setting them up for scrutiny and public derision over acts that smack of mere grandstanding and political posturing.
For all the negative publicity, it would seem best that our celebs take Matthew's warning to heart. Yet there is a way to use the media's searing stare to truly highlight the significant impact of philanthropy and draw much-needed attention to issues, not on a global scale but right here at home.
At first, I bristled at the coverage of Angelina Jolie's numerous adoptions of children from outside the United States and then the birth of her own child with Brad Pitt in Africa.
I smirked right along with the pundits and comedians, joined the hallelujah chorus over Madonna's mishandling of her African adoption and waited — not all that long, mind you — for the next unsuspecting celebrity to wander into this trap.
Sure enough, Oprah Winfrey took the bait with her long-gestating girls school in South Africa. Borrowing a notion from Hilary Clinton's It Takes a Village book, Oprah didn't simply become a member of the village — she bought it outright. In her address at the school's opening, she promised the mothers that their daughters would become her children, too. How's that for a fairy godmother?
Now how can I take umbrage with that wonderful sentiment? I don't.
It's not Oprah's magnanimous words or the deed — or those of Angelina or Madonna or any other celebrity — that I'm calling into question. I'm arguing for more of it, actually. I just want America's disadvantaged to feel some of the love.
We shell out pie-in-the-sky dreams of idolatry and sports celebrity as the means of escaping our mean streets and harsh situations and spotlight on the ghetto fabulous catfights over Flava Flav when we need to invest in our own undernourished and impoverished resources.
Where's the network news coverage of the charter schools built and supported by the likes of Andre Agassi and David Robinson? When was the last time we heard about a celebrity adopting a 10- or 13-year-old from Over-the-Rhine or Avondale or South Central or North Philly? I'm not talking about Big Brothers-Big Sisters, a worthwhile program of course, but actually providing a family unit for a child.
During the coverage of the South African school opening events, Oprah was quizzed about some of the seeming excesses of her project and why she doesn't focus time, attention and resources here in the U.S. She nonchalantly pointed out that she does indeed support a number of charitable causes with educational directives in this country — for instance, A Better Chance (ABC) in Chicago, which matches up top candidates from low-income families with prep schools to increase their odds of achieving higher education goals.
Thousands of students have benefitted from this program since its inception more than 40 years ago. As a recipient of an ABC scholarship back in the day, I can't offer anything but praise and respect for Oprah's support.
But ABC no longer offers such financial support to deserving candidates, and the cost of attending private preparatory and boarding schools has increased at the same levels as colleges and universities. Those in the know and with the funds to send their children to such instiutions do so without much thought or concern. Yet there are scores of qualified kids languishing in mediocre schools or who have dropped out of the educational system completely due to the lack of attention and consideration.
Madonna has been recently quoted as saying that her decision to adopt a orphan from Africa was done to "save a life." While that's certainly true, there are orphans in our urban centers in need, too.
The fourth season of the HBO series The Wire captured the devastating reprecussions of the drug trade on the educational system and the streets of Baltimore. Children get left behind and are turned into dealers and killers or the next kingpins in the constantly revolving game of fleeting power and control.
We need to see more stories, more reminders of the problems and those attempting to offer solutions at home.
And we need celebrities. We need Oprah to address the good works she does here.
The left hand needs to know what the right is doing because maybe, just maybe, more hands — left and right, celebrity and non — will reach out to do more.
Let the giving start at home.
CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.