MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell lifts kids in Malawi one desk at a time

When Lawrence O’Donnell isn’t giving the ‘Last Word’ on his MSNBC weeknight show, he’s trying to equip students in the southern African country of Malawi with desks and chairs.

O’Donnell enlisted in the support of MSNBC to raise funds for KIND: Kids in Need of Desks, a fundraising drive he started with the help of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF after spending a week in the capital city of Lilongwe last summer visiting schools and finding out what concerns teachers.

A former Boston public school teacher himself and a board of director of Codman Academy, O’Donnell said he learned first-hand the importance for students to reach eye-level with their instructors.

So far, O’Donnell managed to raise $1.7 million, enough for over 35,000 desks he says, since the drive started on Dec. 16, and he plans to give a follow up report when he travels there again this spring.

O’Donnell, who has a desk built in Malawi in his office, told theGrio who inspired him to choose Malawi, why his choice of charitable giving is more important to him than his 10pm show, and what President Obama should do on his upcoming trip to Africa.

theGrio: How did this initiative with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF happen?

Lawrence O’Donnell: Well, my trip to Malawi happened pretty much by accident when a friend of mine told me about her trip to Malawi visiting schools and discovering they didn’t have any desks or chairs, and the kids were stuck on the floor, and that was the teachers’ biggest complaint that they desperately wanted to solve that they had no hope in solving, and I just thought maybe there’s something I can do about that, and went there to try to figure out if there was something I can do about it, and I got lucky while I was there with the help of a UNICEF official who helped me find someone who can make desks and chairs for a school.

And I never wanted to report on my show about my trip to Malawi until I had a way of allowing the audience to have the reaction that I had when I heard about the problem, which is I think I can do something about this, and if I can, I have to. It took several months of negotiations and planning with UNICEF to set up this unique partnership with MSNBC and UNICEF that would allow us to direct contributions to a specific fund set up for us at UNICEF and administered by UNICEF to get these desks built and delivered to schools. And by the time we did that, it took about three months to do that. It then took me forever to try and write this 10-minute script that I would use to introduce the story and tell about my experience and then offer the audience a chance to do something.

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It was the hardest script I’ve ever written, including hour-long television drama scripts. Because the enormity of need in Africa is overwhelming, to try to talk about why this particular thing is the one thing you want to do in Africa is personal and hard to assign, not just for Africa but for American charitable living, and I realize that eventually there really isn’t an argument to make that says this is why you should do this, and so I never made that argument.

I simply put it out there that if you know what you’ve seen and heard moves you in this direction, and if you have something to give, here is how to do it. I never specifically asked people for money, because I think there’s a presumption in that, that says, I know what you should do with your money, both charitably and otherwise, and all the things that you’re being asked to do are less worthy than this thing that I’ve discovered, and that has become deeply important to me because of my personal experience with it.

Tell us more about this person who inspired you to choose Malawi.

Her name is Meg Campbell, and she runs a charter school in Boston, and my old neighborhood, which is a very high crime area, it’s become rougher than it was when I was there. It’s virtually an all black neighborhood, it’s an all-minority school, and I’m on the board of directors of that school. It’s a public school, but it has these creative elements to it that most public schools don’t, that in some ways mirror private schools.

She went to Malawi to visit her niece who was working as a doctor there for a year, and her two weeks there of course she would go there and visit schools, and at every school she went to, she would ask them what they would need, and they would always say the same thing—chairs. And you see the kids all sitting on the floor, it made a lot of sense. And of course in that level of deprivation, they never expected to get chairs, and teachers didn’t have chairs, and teachers stood for seven hours a day, and it wouldn’t occur to them to ask for chairs and desks.

I was a public school teacher in Boston after college for a while, and I don’t think you have to have been a teacher to know that every single element in a classroom is important to how this teaching session is going to work—the lighting is important, the lesson is important, the freshness of the air, the sound, the noise level—all these things are vitally important, but it never crosses an American teacher’s mind that the students are not physically placed correctly.

When you start thinking of economic development in Africa, having been in one of these classrooms, it becomes an even much more farfetched notion—why don’t economic possibilities get more traction in Africa, why can’t they advance this way or that way. It’s hard to see the capacity for these educational systems and these classrooms to deliver much more productive workers to these struggling African economies.
Does this charity support local manufacturing on the ground?

Yes, all of these desks are made in Malawi, and when I needed to get these desks, I was there for a week, and I needed to get them made very quickly, so I can deliver them to the store. I found a guy who can make them and he was very happy to make thirty of them in 48 hours, because he just hired more workers literally off the street who hang around his shop because they are experienced carpenters and they’re ready to work, and there’s work for them.

This money is all spent in Malawi’s economy, in the pockets of workers in Malawi who will make these desks, all of whom struggle to feed their families. The contributions first of all go into paying these workers in Malawi to make these desks, and the money goes into the homes of those workers and is feeding their families and their children, and then these desks are transported to schools where kids are now having this new educational experience for the first time in their lives.

How do you respond to those who say they can’t afford to contribute to this charity because it’s hard enough paying their own bills?

What I’ve been stunned by is that I’ve had unemployed people contribute to this fund. I’ve had people I know who make very little money, who if left to my judgment should not be making any charitable contributions, who have contributed to this fund. I would never ask them to. I will never say to anyone that contributing to this fund is more important than any other charitable contribution they might want to make. That is entirely their judgment to make.

Some might also say that there are many schoolteachers here in the U.S. who use their own money to pay for school supplies, and ask why not help them.

Help them. If anybody says I’d rather do that—I have $50 to give in charitable giving, and I’d rather do that than give one of these desks to an African schoolroom—that’s okay. Again, I won’t ask again, I won’t argue with you, I won’t make the case. You judge your own altruistic impulse and you let it take you where it takes you. There are plenty of people who want to donate their money to particular things that move them or that they feel are neglected by others and they want to move into that gap, and that’s fine, and we’ve been dealing with this forever, but to me, it’s the question of why should I give money to AIDS research instead of cancer research, and the answer is: just make your decision.

President Obama’s aides reportedly said the president would be traveling to Africa sometime soon. What type of involvement would you like to see on the part of the president?

President Bush made African development the higher priority than any previous American president, and I would love to see Barack Obama raise that beyond where President Bush was capable of taking it. It’s small change for what America, the American government, does with its money in the world, and its returns in terms of the American uplift in Africa are enormous in Africa, because the need is so great. I just think that we don’t do as much there as the goodness and decency of the American people is capable of, and so I would love to see him continue the Bush priority.

What obstacles, if any, do you think the president will face there?

The spending cuts chant applies to everything. The first place everyone wants to go is the first place that doesn’t harm any American voters, and so everyone thinks that there’s money in foreign aid, and if you can cut foreign aid, we’ll be fine. But, of course, there’s a tiny amount of money in foreign aid, you can cut the whole thing, and it won’t do anything to move you towards balancing the budget. And it’s a bad choice in the world of spending cuts, because it’s important to American interests around the world — economic as well as security interests — that the world grow and prosper, and that the underdeveloped countries become more developed, become more governable, more predictable, more reliable in every way, and there’s nothing in that kind of development that isn’t good for the United States from a selfish American perspective, including developing markets for our products, developing sources, cheaper materials for our economy to obtain, and helping with the overall stability of the world, because it’s instability and underdevelopment and primitive conditions in a place in which like Afghanistan and elsewhere, terrorism thrives.

I’m not saying that, that’s a risk in Africa, but I’m just parenthetically pointing out that economic development worldwide raises all of us at the same time. It’s impossible to improve economic development in Africa without benefiting the United States—it’s impossible to do, and so there’s a self-interest to this that is not understood. In general, it’s thought of as a charity exercise, which on the governmental level, it is not, and it should be.

Do you think the Wikileaks cables on the U.S. involvement in Africa will harm the president’s efforts to renew the U.S.’s partnership with Africa?

No, I think that everybody involved on every end of the Wikileaks memos are more sophisticated than that. They all know that there’s the stuff we say to each other in the room, there’s the stuff we say about each other after we leave the room, and they all have a rough idea of what that is. I think one of the interesting things about Wikileaks is relatively how unsurprising it all is, and I don’t think people will be nursing any wounds from that.

How does this charity align with your goals as an MSNBC host?

This gives doing the show a bigger meaning for me. Doing a show like this in and of itself is not enough for me. There has to be something more important in it then did we beat CNN tonight, especially since we beat CNN all the time, and so it’s no longer interesting. These shows that we do that review the day’s news—there are enough of them or enough of these shows on the air already before I got on the air.

I know the world doesn’t need this show. The fact that a lot of people want to watch it every night is good and helps the network and that’s a good thing, but I know that those kids I’ve met in Malawi need these desks and to be able to deliver that is far more important to me than to be able to get on the air and tell people what I think about this or that.