Alumna Kim Brooks hosts documentary about Oprah’s academy in South Africa
January 12, 2017
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Kim Brooks knows that anything is possible. Now she just needs to convince everyone else.
Brooks (Communication ’05) spreads this message in “O Girls,” a one-hour television special following the journeys of five graduates of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. The special will air Jan. 15 on the Fusion network, where Brooks is a correspondent and on-air host.
When Brooks came to Northwestern, she thought she would pursue the pre-med track. But as she found herself surrounded by many creative minds, Brooks said she realized she wanted to pursue a career in television.
Communication sciences and disorders Prof. Charles Larson, who taught Brooks and worked with her in a laboratory, said he isn’t surprised she decided to pursue television because she has a bright personality and adventurous spirit.
“She (is) an amazing young woman, very gregarious, always a sparkle in her eyes,” Larson said.
Brooks said she has always set her sights high, and after graduating from college she set her sights high by applying to work for the Oprah Winfrey Show. Brooks landed a job there and stayed for one year, but she said Oprah has remained an important part of her life due to an impulsive decision she made while chatting with Oprah’s makeup artist at the time.
While Brooks with working at the show, Oprah had just opened the leadership academy, and after seeing the documentary about its creation, Brooks said she knew she wanted to be a part of it. With the makeup artist’s encouragement, Brooks wrote Oprah a letter saying she had always envisioned their paths crossing and would love to visit the academy. Brooks didn’t think much of it and doubted there would be a response, she said.
Then Oprah said yes.
“When someone of her stature said yes to this little idea, it immediately made me think that anything was possible in the world,” Brooks said. “It changed my life in that way, just allowing me to know that I can strive as high as my mind will allow.”
Soon, Brooks was leaving the country for the first time, losing her luggage along the way and meeting Oprah in South Africa wearing a dirty hoodie. But seeing the students for the first time instantly made things better, Brooks said.
“They were running up to me, we were smiling and they were waving at me and teaching me their dances and their phrases,” Brooks said. “It was just like an immediate bond, like I had known them for a really long time.”
Brooks maintained relationships with these students and has been back to South Africa three times since.
Mark Lima, vice president of news and supervisor of one-hour specials at Fusion, said in an email that he noticed the rich potential the story of the academy and the girls held. Knowing Brooks’ relationship with Oprah and the students, he suggested that she do a feature on the journeys of academy graduates, Brooks said.
The result, “O Girls,” features five graduates from the academy’s first class and follows their lives since they graduated, highlighting the power of education and the notion that women can do “amazing” things when empowered, Brooks said.
One of these girls is Bongeka Zuma, who grew up in a South African village where women are forbidden from speaking, Brooks said.
“She’s never heard her mother’s voice, never seen her father’s face, because women are supposed to bow down to the men,” Brooks said. “She doesn’t really have a voice in her community, and by the time she started the academy, she had never read a book.”
After graduating from the academy, Zuma became salutatorian of her class at Spelman College in Atlanta and now studies at the University of Oxford.
She is just one out of hundreds of students hand-picked by Oprah to attend the academy.
“When you hear (Bongeka’s) words, when you hear what she’s gone through and you’re only getting a little piece of it, you will immediately recognize that you can do anything,” Brooks said. “There’s strength, there’s power in these stories, and I think people are going to feel it.”
As much as Oprah’s green-lighting her involvement in the project inspired Brooks, she said the students at the academy in South Africa have also had a profound impact on her outlook.
“They get life,” she said. “They understand the important things about what we’re supposed to extract from our journey on this earth and being around that, being in that space where they learned all of these good nuggets from Oprah, there’s no way I can’t be reinspired by all of that.”