Meeting Oprah Winfrey! Was This My “Aha” Moment?
Oprah on stage | Photo Cred: What Happened To You Conference | Supplied

I got to meet Oprah Winfrey. I sat across from her for almost 40 minutes, and it felt like I was chatting to an old friend. But what was my “aha’ moment?


Johannesburg, South Africa (04 August 2023) – It’s not every day that you open an email with a personal invitation to meet Oprah Winfrey. Well, crazier things have happened, but for me and my career… this was a biggie and one that doesn’t happen every day.

Out of all the journalists in South Africa, I was one of the fortunate four who had been invited to meet with Oprah and given the incredible opportunity to have a discussion “during lunch” with her.

That was all I was told. All I knew. And all that mattered.

I would later learn that Oprah and her team had put together an incredible conference in South Africa for teachers, educators and “charities working with children” to discuss and unpack trauma and how that impacts every single human being. You see, Oprah and renowned brain and trauma expert Dr Bruce D. Perry published a book in 2021 about trauma, resilience and healing called “What Happened to You”.

Their belief is that it’s not what’s wrong with you… it’s what happened to you.

What a powerful concept.

In the book, Oprah shares stories from her own past, her own trauma and her own healing. In conversation throughout the book, she and Dr Perry focus on understanding people, behaviour, and ourselves. It’s a subtle but profound shift in our approach to trauma, and it’s one that allows us to understand our past in order to clear a path to our future – opening the door to resilience and healing in a proven powerful way.

Meeting Oprah Winfrey! Was This My “Aha” Moment?
Look what we found under our seats!!! | Photo Cred: Brent Lindeque | Good Things Guy

I would also learn that her school in South Africa, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG), had made a shift to being a trauma-informed institution, which means they help the students understand trauma and its potential effects on individuals and communities and then using that knowledge, the team create supportive and healing environments. It involves recognising that many people have experienced trauma in their lives and that this trauma can impact their behaviour, thoughts, and emotions.

And once the OWLAG team created this environment of understanding and healing, the young ladies at the academy started to thrive.

I arrived at the conference not knowing any of this but sat bewildered in the second row from the front, learning about the Neurosequential Model for Education (NME), an incredible approach developed by Dr Perry which explains that we are not broken, confused, procrastinating or demotivated but rather dysregulated. When decision-making becomes too difficult for us, when our minds feel like they are moving a million times a minute and our thoughts are focusing on everything else except the task at hand, it is because we are dysregulated.

In a basic understanding of this complex concept… our brains literally believe that “we’re being chased by a lion”.

So we’re unable to do that task, write that email or “insert thing that you should be doing here”. Your brain is focusing on immediate threats as if you are in danger, needing to deal with that first before getting to what you actually need to do. And it all comes from our traumas. This is where regulation is so important – by regulating our nervous system, we can make better decisions without our past traumas being triggered.

“We all deal with trauma growing up and often we don’t realise that WHAT WE are dealing with is trauma… and then we develop really unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with those challenges. And that’s where we get it wrong. Our knee-jerk decision-making skills take us right back to our traumas,” Ms Gugulethu Ndebele, Executive Director of OWLAG, explains.

The conference panellists went into great depth about trauma and the NME concept. Their hopes? That South African educators would be able to take this back to their institutions, creating an environment of understanding and healing where their students can start to thrive.

“We all have generational trauma, especially as South Africans, and we pass this down to our children. But this ends here and now. We need to be planting seeds for new flowers and then help those flowers achieve great things in the future,” Ms Gugulethu Ndebele continued.

I sat in the audience thinking about my own trauma and my own healing. Understanding it and actively working towards dealing with it, is essential because it allows us to reclaim our emotional well-being, break free from the grips of past experiences, and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.

Was this my “Aha” moment?

Meeting Oprah Winfrey! Was This My “Aha” Moment?
Oprah on stage | Photo Cred: What Happened To You Conference | Supplied

As lunch approached, my phone pinged. It was one of the event organisers.

“Stay exactly where you are. The delegates will all be escorted out of the venue. Oprah will come back, we’ll reset the stage and the four of you will have an intimate round table discussion while everybody else goes to lunch.”

What? I was missing lunch? Just kidding… my lunch would be like food for the soul. An intimate meeting with Oprah.

I felt chills. Good chills. I was going to sit down with one of the world’s greatest storytellers. Gosh, I was excited. I had thought about this moment a lot since I got the email. Almost nine years ago, when I went viral for changing the NEKnomination into RAKnominations, the O-Magazine was one of the first global publications that featured me. Yes, I was on the front page of the Metro in London and featured on CNN and BBC and Australia Morning Live but the O-Magazine was the one that really got to me.

I had spent almost every single afternoon of my childhood watching Oprah, and then her magazine featured me, and now I would be sitting with her, and interviewing her.

Who needs lunch?

We were called up on stage, and they seated me directly across from her, about a metre away. The event organiser explained that we had fifteen minutes to chat with her and would need to start by introducing ourselves. Oprah joked that we would get “Twenty Minutes” if we were really good. We all laughed and then took turns telling the “Queen of Talk” who we were.

When I greeted her, Oprah looked into my eyes and said, “You’re the Good Things Guy!!! You’re THE GUY who tells all the good stories about what is happening in South Africa! I love the Good Things Guy.”

Oprah knows my name!!! What? Maybe this was my “Aha” moment.

It was so flipping surreal and in the entire interview when she spoke to me, she really, really spoke to me. She looked deep into my eyes and spoke to my soul. Her presence is so big. We chatted about her past, where she’s been, what she’s been through, what she’s done and what she wants to leave behind.

She is such an incredible storyteller and sat like an old friend, regaling stories about her childhood.

Oprah’s early life was marked by significant challenges, including poverty, familial dysfunction, and emotional abuse. She was born to a single teenage mother in rural Mississippi and was raised by her grandmother for the first few years of her life. She speaks about her Grandmother with such love but explains that she remembers her laboriously doing all the household chores and knowing that she wanted more for her life.

“Inside my spirit, I knew that was not going to be my life. I wanted more for me. And God had his hand on me.”

Oprah also speaks openly about being sexually assaulted and keeping that “shame” hidden from the world. That was one of her traumas. She had just moved in with her father, who had explicitly stated that he would not allow “shame being brought on the family name” and that he “would rather see a daughter of his floating down the Cumberland River than coming home pregnant”. What her father did not know at the time was that she had been sexually assaulted and was actually pregnant. She had come home to her father seeking a safe haven and felt like she was now in a worse-off situation. Oprah’s first thoughts were of running away or suicide. If people found out that she was pregnant, she would be taken out of school. She would bring shame to her family. She was conflicted, scared and incredibly heartbroken. She was 14 years old at the time.

“Shame, I had brought shame on my entire family. That’s all I could think about. The baby was born prematurely and did not survive. My father told me that I had been given a second chance. But I still lived with that shame my whole life.”

Oprah and her family never told anyone about her pregnancy. She says that there were maybe three people who knew the story but they all kept that “shame” hidden.

“But in 1988, one of the tabloids got hold of the story. I sat in bed crying the whole weekend. I thought my life was over. I believed that when people found out what had happened to me, my life would be over.”

The Oprah Winfrey Show had already amassed a massive global following by then and the host was afraid that her “shame” would end her entire career. But nothing happened. When Monday rolled around, “absolutely nothing happened”. Yes, someone had told her story for her, but Oprah says that in the moment, she was able to own that story and that shame. And by owning her story, she was able to start her own journey of healing her trauma.

“After the tabloids got hold of the story, it released me from the shame and I was able to tell that story without fear. And by telling that story, I realised that thousands and thousands and thousands of other women had the same story as me. We received so many letters.”

“I learned from my own mistake of carrying my own shame, the power of owning your story, sharing your story… and helping others have the courage to do the same.”

And this is one of the gifts Oprah has given to the world – helping others have the courage to tell their stories, to see their traumas and start their own healing journey.

Meeting Oprah Winfrey! Was This My “Aha” Moment?
Sitting across from Oprah felt like I was chatting to an old friend | Photo Cred: Supplied

But how exactly does a school fit in? And why one in South Africa?

Oprah tells us that the idea for the school came to her during a visit to South Africa in 2000. She was deeply moved by the country and its people, particularly by the struggles faced by young girls in impoverished communities who lacked access to quality education and resources. Oprah had a long-standing friendship with Nelson Mandela, who was a global symbol of reconciliation and education, and who had also invited her to spend ten days with him.

“Ten days? Ten days with Nelson Mandela? I was maybe good for one dinner and lunch but what more could I say to him for ten whole days?” Oprah jokes.

She landed up accepting the offer and they spent ten glorious days together where their friendship blossomed.

“It was around about the twenty-sixth meal, or after that. We were sitting in his library reading the Sunday Times when I mentioned that I wanted to build a school. Madiba immediately got on the phone. And by that afternoon, we were in meetings with people to make it happen. That’s just the way Mandela was; he got stuff done.”

The planning and development of OWLAG took several years, involving extensive research, fundraising efforts, and collaboration with educational experts. The school’s mission was to provide underprivileged girls with a world-class education, empowering them to become leaders and make a positive impact in their communities and the world. Oprah wanted to give these young South Africans an opportunity to be “seen”.

“I grew up with nothing. But one Christmas, a group of nuns gave my family food and presents. I will never forget that moment… being seen, being validated and being held safely… when I had never felt that before. You never forget that feeling and all I want to do is give that feeling to other girls in South Africa. To help them see themselves.”

On the 2nd of January 2007, the school officially opened its doors in Henley-on-Klip, South Africa. Oprah was deeply involved in the school’s establishment, and she personally selected the first group of girls to attend. Sixteen years later and with the introduction of becoming a trauma-informed NME institution, OWLAG not only continues to thrive, providing opportunities and transforming the lives of young women, embodying the vision shared by Oprah and inspired by the wisdom and compassion of Nelson Mandela but really does change the course of history for students who matriculate from the academy.

Oprah tells us stories of previously-disadvantaged young South Africans – some who had never read a book – who came to OWLAG and have gone on to study medicine, law, business relations and everything else in between in universities all over the world. Women who will now pass on that torch to their families and communities.

I asked her if she knew the impact the school would have on the almost nine-hundred students that have passed through the corridors of the academy and she simply says, yes!

“I did have an idea that there would be a bigger impact because when I spoke to Madiba about the idea of building a school, I wasn’t just talking out of my head. I had been in the country travelling around and had seen the struggle of women. I had seen that there was something in the heart and character of the women and if we could corral that, if we could show these women the possibility for themselves, then we could change their destinies. I know that so much of the poverty mindset is not knowing what is possible but if we could expose them to what is possible for themselves, you get to show the person how to dream for themselves. And then they do.”

Oprah then starts to talk about a bigger impact, about how the young learners were becoming teachers and taking these skills and the trauma-informed concept back to their families and communities. It’s a ripple effect of positive change. This is exactly why Oprah believes that the conference and the trauma-informed work that OWLAG is passing on to the rest of South Africa is so important.

The team want to train other South African educators to deal better with trauma, so that children in our country can truly thrive.

“It is incumbent on the teachers to see themselves, to deal with their own traumas and to heal. We work on ourselves first – we know we have to heal in order to share that healing with others. And then you offer it, in the most generous of spirits to everyone around you.”

“It’s like Maya Angelou said, when we know better, we do better and we learn, we teach.”

When asked if Oprah had a favourite teacher, she smiles from ear to ear and tells us about Mrs Duncan, her 4th-grade teacher. A teacher that made her feel safe, that helped with her traumas and above anything else, simply just saw her.

“She saw me. She just saw ME! And there’s a funny story, you can go back and watch the tapes but we did a show where Mrs Duncan was invited as a guest and you know when you’re young, your teachers don’t have names, they’re just Mrs Duncan and I was reading the prompter and all of a sudden I see her name and I was like, her name is Mary, Mrs Duncan is Mary!!! And then I started crying in front of everyone.”

“But it was Mrs Duncan. That was the first person who told me I was smart, she encouraged me, she told me I was pretty and she saw me.”

You can watch that clip below:

The event organiser stops us there and tells us that we’ve been chatting for almost forty minutes, so she is going to have to pull Oprah away.

I guess we must have been really good then.

We stood up, hugged and then took all the selfies. Oprah is a great storyteller – with many stories to tell – but she’s also incredibly kind and so warm. Her heart is as big as her name. Spending that amount of time with someone who has done so much good in her life was unreal.

In those almost forty minutes, I must have had 400 “aha” moments but it was something she said when she opened the conference. She was retelling a story of a conversation she had with Maya Angelou many years ago about this school and her legacy.

She asked her if this was it. Would this school be her legacy? Maya replied that a legacy is not one thing. It’s everything.

“You have no idea what your legacy will be. Because your legacy is not one thing. It’s everything. Your legacy is every life you touch. You are building your legacy every single day… in every conversation, every moment. In everything you do.”

Yes, that was my “Aha” moment.

Our legacy is in everything we do. And Oprah, who knows my name, is undoubtedly leaving an incredible legacy on this entire world.

Meeting Oprah Winfrey! Was This My “Aha” Moment?
My “aha” moment with Oprah | Photo Cred: Brent Lindeque | Good Things Guy

Sources: Brent Lindeque | Good Things Guy 
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About the Author

Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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