Shakira’s Colombian War

SILVANA PATERNOSTRO, writing for the Wall Street Journal, looks at Colombian singer Shakira’s advocacy work on behalf of the poor of her native Colombia and the Caribbean. Here are some excerpts, with the link to the full text below.

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.”

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.”

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