Why Oprah Winfrey’s Speech Mattered

If you haven’t already, please take a few minutes to watch Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes last night.

There is a reason she touched so many people and may have further galvanized the resistance movement. It is worth taking a moment to understand how she did that.

Marshall Ganz teaches community organizing at Harvard. He learned his chops from working in both the civil rights movement in Mississippi and then with the farm workers in California. I first heard about Ganz as the organizer of Camp Obama in 2008. He suggests that the primary responsibility of any leader is to mobilize hope.

How do organizers master urgency to break through inertia? The difference in how individuals respond to urgency or anxiety (detected by the brain’s surveillance system) depends on the brain’s dispositional system, the second system in the brain, which runs from enthusiasm to depression, from hope to despair. When anxiety hits and you’re down in despair, then fear hits. You withdraw or strike out, neither of which helps to deal with the problem. But if you’re up in hope or enthusiasm, you’re more likely to ask questions and learn what you need to learn to deal with the unexpected.

Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.

In other presentations, I’ve heard Ganz talk about the two things that are necessary for a movement of change: a strategy and hope. The first tells us what to do, but the second tells us why it is important. Both are critical.

Last night Winfrey brought us together in hope. As Ganz describes, she did it by telling a story in three parts: (1) the story of self, (2) the story of us and (3) the story of now. Winfrey gave us a master class in how to communicate a story of hope based on all of them (just as Barack Obama did during his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention).

Winfrey began with a story of self when she talked about watching Sidney Poitier become the first black man to win an Academy Award. She explained what that moment meant to a little girl watching from the “cheap seats.”

That led to a story of us as she recounted how Poitier went on to be honored with the Cecil B. de Mille Award and said, “It is not lost on me that at this moment there are some little girls watching as I become the first Black woman to be given the same award.”

The story of us continued as Winfrey talked about how it is “the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.” Weighing in on the “Me Too” movement, she talked about “all of the women who endured because they had children to raise, bills to pay and dreams to pursue.” As an example, she made the connection between the stories of Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks.

Winfrey introduces the story of now by talking about how, for too long, women were not heard or believed when they told their truth to men in power. She declared, “their time is up!”

Winfrey closes by talking about all of the people she has portrayed and interviewed who overcame because they maintained hope in the darkest night. Circling back to all the young Oprah’s out there in the cheap seats last night, she proclaimed, “I want all the girls watching here now to know that a new day is on the horizon.”

I would venture to say that there are women and girls all over the globe (as well as men and boys who care about them) waking up this morning ready to craft the strategies that will be necessary to engage in changing their communities. That’s why Oprah’s speech mattered.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.