domingo, abril 04, 2010

579) Shakira on Early Education of Children - Wall Street Journal

Shakira’s Colombian War
The Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2010

The Latin pop star on why she’s spending millions on schools in her home country and beyond.

Los Angeles - Everyone knows Shakira as the hip-shaking siren of pop music. If you don’t know what I mean, go to YouTube and check out the music video for “Hips Don’t Lie.” The song, recorded with Wyclef Jean in 2006, topped the charts in 55 countries, including the U.S. Her latest song, “Gypsy,” is a similar tribute to her famous curves, only this time she gyrates for shirtless tennis god Rafael Nadal.

But Shakira—born Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll—is intent on making her advocacy work as well-known as her hips. Her cause? Educating impoverished children by building schools and community centers in some of the poorest neighborhoods in her native Colombia, and convincing other Latin American leaders to invest in early childhood education.

When I catch up with Shakira, she’s taking an afternoon break from her tight recording schedule in order to visit a charter school in East L.A. “I always had the intuition, even as a little child, that I was called for a big project,” says the singer, now 33-years-old, as we ride in the car. “I am sure that many children feel that way but they don’t have the environment that is conducive for them to exploit their potential to its fullest. I was lucky I had those things: caring, loving, educated parents and a good school.”

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Zina Saunders

That luck—combined with hard work—has allowed her to promote her causes at the highest levels. President Obama met with her last month in the Oval Office to get her advice on education for Latino children. In the past six months, she has addressed the Oxford Union, appeared in the opinion pages of the Economist, and was asked by the Brookings Institution to be the celebrity behind its proposal to create A Global Fund for Education, modeled after the Global Fund to Fight Malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS.

She knows about deprivation from her own upbringing in the extremely stratified city of Barranquilla, where I also grew up. Located on the Caribbean side of Colombia, nearly 50% of people in this port live under the poverty line. More than 43% of children do not have access to early education, and less than 20% have access to the Internet. What will happen to those who live in extreme poverty and receive no schooling is predictable in a country with a protracted civil conflict and an economy fueled by drug trafficking: “Being a militant or a drug trafficker are the only options.”

In 1996, Shakira started investing her own financial resources to reverse this trend. Her Barefoot Foundation began “very small, writing checks for orphanages.” At the time she was 18 and had her first hit in Latin America. That album was “Pies Descalzos,” after which her foundation was named. In those days, she was more of a rock-and-roll chick, a singer-songwriter with black hair, tight jeans and a guitar. Two years later, she had a bigger hit. “Where Are The Thieves?” sold a million copies. Armed with more caché and a heftier checkbook, she called Maria Emma Mejia, a former minister of education, to help her run Barefoot. “I was lucky that she said yes. I was only 20 years old. And she was so well-known.”

Shakira then moved to Miami, dyed her hair blond, and learned English—determined to conquer the U.S. market. In 2001 she came out with “Laundry Service,” her first English album, which sold 18 million copies. By 2006, she dominated the charts with her song about hips.

According to last year’s figures, Shakira has sold some 50 million records. She has won two Grammy awards and seven Latin Grammies. Two years ago, Forbes named her the fourth richest woman in music (after Madonna, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion). And she’s just been commissioned to write the official song for the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. Billions of people will watch her perform live on TV.

As for her foundation, what started as an effort to feed a few thousand refugees on the Pacific Coast has now matured into a full-fledged organization that provides high-quality education, nutrition and psychological support to poor and displaced children and their families in three different Colombian cities. These centers, known as mega-schools, serve more than 6,000 children and their families.

“Our projects have proven that if we get the parents interested it makes a huge difference,” she says. “We get them interested because the kids are receiving a meal, because they are happy, because they are playing. And that way they are being protected from joining the guerrillas or the paramilitary.”

Shakira’s latest contribution went to our hometown. In February 2009, the Barefoot Foundation inaugurated a $6 million K-12 mega-school. El colegio de Shakira, as it is known locally, gets only praise. A friend described it to me as an American institution, by which she meant state-of-the-art. The complex includes an auditorium, chemistry labs and even air conditioning. “Parents receive English classes and computer skills,” Shakira says, “and the entire neighborhood can play soccer there.” Families look for every possible way to move close to the school.

Is she doing the work of the government, I ask? “No,” she says emphatically, “We are proving a case. If we can do it then the government can do it.” Shakira’s foundation builds the schools but then donates them to the district to run. “Over time, the government increasingly assumes responsibility. That is essential.” The jury is still out on this model. Will local government agencies with a dismal record of management allow the schools to thrive? For now, Shakira can boast that this year’s graduating class at El colegio de Shakira received very high test scores on their college placement exams.

Two years ago, Shakira showed up in El Salvador at the annual meeting of Latin American presidents. Word was that all the leaders cared about was getting their picture taken with the star. At the next one in 2009, Shakira fared better in promoting her cause. Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Panama, Argentina and Mexico signed up to work with ALAS—a foundation started by Shakira and her fiancée to combat poverty—to bolster early childhood education in their countries. Neither Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez nor any of the governments that support him were interested.

Today, Shakira’s focus is on how to help Latino children in the U.S. So after a long night at Serenity Studios—“wrote a song yesterday”—and five hours of sleep, she is ready to learn about the charter school on Skid Row where most of the children are both Latino and homeless or semi-homeless. They live in cars, garages, shelters, or squat many families to a room.

As the Escalade speeds down Sixth Street, Shakira changes the conversation from her work in Latin America. “If the fastest growing population in this country is Latino, that means we are the future of this country,” she says in pretty fluent English. “And, we have proven we have talent,” she pauses and winks. “Now we need the tools to succeed.” She reminds me that Latinos account for the highest number of high-school dropouts.

Shakira stops talking for a moment and looks out at the street. “I lived here for a few months when I was eight,” she says. “It was a turning point in my life. My mom and I came. My father went bankrupt, so he sent us to a friend’s house in Orange County. For me it was sort of a vacation, eating American candy, while my dad was going through hell.”

When she returned to Colombia, everything she knew of her comfortable home was gone: the two cars, the furniture, even the air-conditioning units. “I remember the holes in the wall,” she says making a square with her fingers. “The color TV became black and white. I was so upset, frustrated, pissed at my parents. I couldn’t believe their incompetence,” she ends with a laugh intended to explain how immature her attitude was.

To show her some perspective, her parents took her to a park. “I saw homeless kids, with bare feet, smelling glue. It left such a mark in my mind. I realized that I could still attend school. I still had a loving family,” she says leaning forward.

“I made a promise to myself. I knew then that I wanted to be part of the solution, for those kids, for myself and for my parents. I made a commitment to succeed,” she says. “I did not want to spend the rest of my life not being able to ride in a nice car.” Her tiny manicured hand pats the beige leather seat.

The nuns at her school—the ones who encouraged her to belly dance at school performances—also taught her “social awareness.” Every Friday her class was taken to one of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Barranquilla. “The conditions to teach these kids were not viable for learning. They were barefoot, half naked, hungry, hot. There was no way these kids were going to learn—not even a vowel,” she says, still frustrated. “What really struck me was the state of the schools. How can you get them to focus if they are not even in a classroom?” El colegio de Shakira stands right on the spot where the nuns took her.

“I don’t know if the children will recognize me,” she says as the car pulls into the school’s parking lot. She removes the heavy rhinestone earrings in the form of lightning rods that have been weighing down her ears. “But if they do and I hug them, I can hurt them with these.”

With the only visible sign of rock glamour off, Shakira steps out of the car in a dark plaid shirt and jeans (no makeup) and becomes almost shy as she says hello to the three women standing outside the school’s door. For the next hour, she is all ears as the women explain how they run their school. A few children ask for autographs. Beth, a round-faced eight-year-old, approaches. Shakira happily gives her a hug, with no earrings to get in the way.

Why children and education? Why displaced communities? She responds, “Because I see myself in those children. It’s the same thing that happened to me—at a worse scale.”

As the car enters Beverly Hills, I pose my last questions: How do you get Latin American presidents to listen about bringing up babies and day care? The short answer is by being Shakira. The longer one: “ALAS created a Secretariat for Early Childhood Development and together we mobilize to get them to upscale and expand their programs. The World Bank just announced a $300 million credit line to finance some of these programs. We’ve gathered the most important experts working in this area to put together a manual to bring to the next summit.” She will do that at the next Ibero-American Summit to take place in Argentina in November. President Cristina Kirchner has given her an “extraordinary commitment” to make early childhood development a central topic of discussion.

And what will you tell them in Argentina?

“We just want to make it easy on the governments so that they don’t have an excuse not to do it. Here, sirs, we got the credit. We got the money. We have the best experts. We got technical support. We got recommendations. Now, get the freaking job done.”

Ms. Paternostro is the author of “My Colombian War: A Journey Through the Country I Left Behind” (Holt, 2007).

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