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Education

Lawrence O'Donnell supplies desks, transforms learning in Malawi

NBCUniversal

Schools and desks. For many people around the world, the idea that the two go together is simply obvious. However, for many students around the world, going to school and having a desk is the stuff of dreams.

This simple yet powerful problem drew msnbc host Lawrence O’Donnell of the show The Last Word, to spend a week of vacation researching this issue in Malawi back in 2010. In his words, he expected to go to Malawi and find out that “this problem is insolvable at the moment.” What he found instead was a solution to the problem, and a philanthropic cause that has been a major focus of his last five years.

His piece of the larger global solution was to found KIND, or Kids In Needs of Desks with the US Fund for UNICEF. This program has managed to double the number of kids with desks in Malawi.

I had the opportunity to sit down for a chat with Lawrence, and his story surprised me in a lot of ways. Here is a reduced transcript of our discussion. Note it has been edited for grammar and conciseness.

Brandon Blackburn-Dwyer (BBD): You have a wide background, from being an actor, to a news anchor to a political pundit and a philanthropist, why is philanthropy important to you?

Lawrence O’Donnell (LO): I don’t think of myself as a philanthropist. I’m just using the opportunity I have to do something of value. A few months before I started my show The Last Word on msnbc, a friend asked me “what are you going to do with this show?”  It really had not crossed my mind what I was going to do with the show. It had not crossed my mind.

It turns out she didn’t mean in the show, she meant what good was I going to do with the show beyond simply the 60 minutes of television. How was I going to make the show have some value or impact to the wider world.

That was really what set my mind working, and then I just stumbled into the problem of desks in African schools. It was something a teacher in Boston told me about.


"There is a certain appeal to something that is so focused and clear. Everyone one of us [in the developed world] has had a desk in class. We get it. And the deprivation of it is something we understand."


After hearing about it, it felt like something we could solve. The problem is simple to describe. Though not simple to solve, the simplicity of explaining the problem is appealing in terms of pushing people to fix it.

Prior to getting involved with this issue, I [had] average altruistic impulse, and gave to charity, but it was simply giving and filling a need with a check. There was no real thinking beyond the financial contribution. Which I think is incredibly valid. Most people don’t have time to do more than that, nor are they in a position to effectively do anything beyond financial contributions. Financial contributions are incredibly valuable and necessary, and everyone should feel good about doing that.

But what I realized is I was in a position to do much more than that, with the TV show. It wasn’t clear to me what I could do, but I knew I had to try.

BBD: Tell me about KIND, which means Kids in Need of Desks, how did you come up with this name?

LO: The name of the organization came from my daughter. She was in elementary school at the time I was putting the idea together. I told her about what I was planning on doing, and we played around with different words that could express what the idea was. She put together the final name.

BBD: That’s a great story. Now you said that a school teacher in the US told you about this problem of students needing desks in African nations, how did you go from this concept to actually putting together a program?

I had one week in the summer of 2010 where I could do whatever I wanted. I usually have scheduling limits on my travel but for once I had this opening. And I decided: I am going to go to those schools I’ve heard about in Africa and investigate this problem. So I scheduled this trip to Malawi, and we worked on it in the office, and Dana Haller at MSNBC helped me set up this trip.

What I believed by the time I left was that I would go to Malawi and I would come back with the story of “why we cannot get desks in African classrooms and why this problem is insolvable at the moment.” The research we did made it sound impossible to fix.

There aren’t furniture stores in Malawi, there aren’t school supply warehouses. It’s not like living in New Jersey and just driving up to a warehouse full of the supplies needed.


"No one was thinking about desks in schools in Africa, before we started doing this. And it’s not like I’ve started doing this and there is no room for you to do it."


I was there in Malawi, visiting the schools and seeing the problem. Then I was in the capital and I found this little hardware store with the help of my UNICEF contacts. Now you have to understand a hardware store in this city is a small place with a screwdriver and one hammer, etc. This one, like all the others was small and didn’t have very much inventory. But what I discovered in the back of that store was that the owner had built a classroom desk. The designs were very elementary and serviceable and he built it in the hope that someone would come along and order desks for schools.

People were ordering occasionally but it wasn’t happening enough to sustain a business. So I asked him if he could make me 30 of the student desks and one teacher’s desk and could he have it to me by Friday (it was Wednesday), and he said yes.

I asked him how he would do it, and he said he would go out to the main street outside his shop and get all of the skilled labor in the area who didn’t have jobs and give them work. He said, "I can get these produced because there is enough skilled labor here in need of work. I can fill 24 hour shifts."

He delivered the desks on time. The desks could fit 3 students each. I was able to take 30 desks and it transformed a room of 90 students. Kids went from sitting on the floor to a complete classroom. These were the first desks these kids had ever seen and the first desk many of the teachers had seen in a school.

In my visit to the schools earlier in that week, I found that kids didn’t even actively want the desks, or bring them up as a short term need because they just didn’t think it was possible.

When we were able to deliver the desks, one of the teachers said that the kids will think it’s like Christmas morning. And they did, they burst into song. The kids were so excited they pulled the desks out themselves and put them into the classroom. Many of the boys showing off for their classmates how strong they were.

And that was just done with the cash in my pocket. When I came back from my trip I wanted to keep it going.

Lawrence in Malawi.jpgImage: NBCUniversal

BBD: msnbc is partnering with you and UNICEF – USA. How can a news organizations get involved in philanthropy?

LO: It never crossed my mind that msnbc would be anything but supportive. And they were. And they weren’t the only ones.

When I wanted to start a larger program, I was unsure of how to do it. Originally I was going to just do it myself, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that wasn’t the way to go. That I needed a bigger infrastructure.


"If we think it is worth it to give a seat on a bus for a ten minute ride then to give a gift of a seat that a kid can sit in for 8 hours a day for years, is absolutely worth it."


UNICEF had been very helpful on my first trip to Malawi and helped in that first delivery of desks. They helped me find that hardware store. I was a little afraid of bureaucracy but they made it clear they could streamline their operations to tailor a very special approach to this project and they did.

It would be absolutely impossible to do this without UNICEF. They have a tremendous infrastructure in Malawi and they have access that I would never have. Without a group like this, I could not have succeeded.

For example, on my second trip to Malawi there was a fuel shortage, and cars were lined up for days to get fuel. If I had just arrived on my own, I would have been stuck in one of those lines for days, not using my time to deliver the desks. UNICEF was able to support and provide the transportation needed to get this done.

My goal on that trip was to get desks for the first three schools I’d gone to. UNICEF raised my hopes for the impact we could make. They connected me to the nationwide problem and were able to survey all of the schools, to find the schools most in need.

Since then, UNICEF has helped in ways beyond their local expertise. They have been able to process all of the millions of dollars that people donated. This is important because people can trust in their system and feel secure in their involvement with KIND in part because of UNICEF’s involvement.

BBD: In terms of your show, The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, have you been able to live up to your friend's question and tie your audience to your passion for KIND?

LO: When I first talked about this on my show, I didn’t have any great expectation in terms of what would happen with donations. I just remembered the way I felt when I first heard about this need. And I wanted to give the audience that same opportunity. So all I did was basically present “what I did on my summer vacation.” And what I did was go to Malawi and deliver some desks to schools.

I let the story speak for itself and offered the audience a way to respond through donating if they felt like I did.

UNICEF got the single biggest burst of donations in a 24-hour period they’d ever had for something like this. And it continued for that first month and into the year.


"If enough people supply enough energy over enough time any big problem can be solved."


Since then, we spend about 3-4 weeks a year trying to raise money on the show, actively trying to raise money for KIND, right around the holidays. And that first year I watched the contributions come in by the hundreds of thousands of dollars and rocket up over a million rather quickly and I was just astounded by it. That was more than I had ever dreamed of.

BBD: The KIND Campaign focuses on giving students desks—it’s in the name—but your campaign materials also focus on the wider education funding shortfall around the world, particularly with girls, so is there a broader funding or educational attainment goal for KIND?

I think one of the challenges with these kinds of programs is [how] to keep them focused, and keep the issue describable and graspable. There is a certain appeal to something that is so focused and clear. Everyone one of us [in the developed world] has had a desk in class. We get it. And the deprivation of it is something we understand.


"The idea of where and how to get involved will come to you as you move through this world and think about ideas that you think work and ideas that you think don’t work."


The description of the need then is really simple and motivating. If we broaden it out to a larger, less tangible goal, into something that is harder to impact and would include experimentation, you are then asking people to engage in something that may or may not work.

When I say “you can give us some money and we can build desks using local labor in Malawi, and get the desk into a school the next day” that is something that people can hold onto and get involved in.

The larger impact of a desk is admittedly not as clear. Some of those kids won’t improve because they got a desk. But some of them will. We don’t always know how this will change the student’s lives, but we also know that it is in-and-of-itself worth it, even without a fully trackable broader educational outcome.

If you want to look at it as an analogy: we believe in western society that giving up a seat on a bus to someone who needs it is worth it. If we can do that, we can understand that giving a student a seat in a school is worth it.

If we think it is worth it to give a seat on a bus for a ten minute ride then to give a gift of a seat that a kid can sit in for 8 hours a day for years, is absolutely worth it.

Because this activity occurs within the setting of education, we have a right to hope that magic will happen. The right to hope that it will improve the line of sight of a student, maybe it will engage that student more. And magic will happen where a student will go from distracted to a committed learner. In the educational setting everything is possible. And maybe somewhere in that classroom is the next Nelson Mandela or the next nurse or the next doctor.


"As you move through the world, keep your eyes open. Try to move through the world. Try to travel, to see different places…To see what life is like all around you. To see what life is like for others."


And if you see the way these kids are cramped and crowded on the floor, it is a very congenial group, but they are tired after a long day of sitting on the floor. They are writing on each other’s backs, on their knees.

When you suddenly present them with this new [literal] platform for education, this new little stage to perform, we don’t know what the limits are.

BBD: What advice do you have for individuals, who want to follow in your footsteps and make positive change in the world?

LO: Keep your eyes open. As you move through the world, keep your eyes open. Try to move through the world. Try to travel, to see different places.  To see Africa, Asia, South America. To get out there even within your own country. To see what life is like all around you. To see what life is like for others.

And don’t force it. The idea of where and how to get involved will come to you as you move through this world and think about ideas that you think work and ideas that you think don’t work.

Be critical about it. Look at charitable endeavors that are and are not working as well as others. Think about it in efficiency terms. Think about it in terms of an idea meeting its expectations.

But absolutely know that there is so much out there to do. There is a massive amount of need in the world that is addressable through people who can help. They just have to close the gap between where those needs are and where they are.

So many of these needs are invisible. No one was thinking about desks in schools in Africa, before we started doing this. And it’s not like I’ve started doing this and [now] there is no room for you to do it. We’ve concentrated our efforts to Malawi and people ask us all the time “when will you expand your efforts beyond Malawi.”

I always say “probably not in my lifetime.” When we started, 1 in 5 students in Malawi had a desk. We are now over 8 million dollars and a few years into this project and now it’s 2 in 5 students sit at desks in their classrooms.


"When you suddenly present [students] with this new platform for education, this new little stage to perform, we don’t know what the limits are."


We’ve doubled it. If we keep this up at this pace, it will only take 80 years for all students in Malawi to sit at desks. And that’s one country. So if the idea for us is let’s finish Malawi before we move somewhere else, that’s going to take a long time.

This idea is huge. What I’m doing with desks in African schools, I hope hundreds and hundreds of others and other organizations can take up. If they do it as energetically as we have we will still all be at it for many years to come.

It may seem impossible to see the day when all students in Africa will have desks. But we need to keep working, and there is so much for energetic people to be doing. So do it.

If enough people supply enough energy over enough time any big problem can be solved. This has happened throughout history and it will keep happening.


Talking with Lawrence I was struck by how passionate and how focused he is. His advice about individuals finding ways to make an impact is important for everyone. There are problems in the world that are difficult, that may even seem impossible to solve within our lifetimes, but if everyone keeps working, keeps finding ways to help our fellow man then all of these problems can be overcome.

I look forward to seeing more from Lawrence O’Donnell and KIND. If you are interested in getting involved, click here to find out more information.