Elizabeth Gore, the Executive director of global partnerships and Nothing But Nets for the United Nations Foundation, joined David Cook on a conference call today to talk about his experience in Africa for Idol Gives Back, over the past few days. Idol Gives Back airs on April 21.
David is in Ethiopia, visiting the United Nations’ Biruh Tesfa (Bright Future) Project to see firsthand how the UN Foundation is supporting the work of the UN to educate and empower girls. Right after the phone call today, David and his guitar player, Neal Tiemann were heading back to the States.
Gore reminded us that 70% of the world’s out-of-school youth are girls. “That shocks us every day, ” she said. She stressed that even the smallest donations can help girls, for instance, pay for school supplies.
In his opening remarks, David said that he has wanted to get involved with IGB ever since he was a contestant on Idol. “This has been one of the most enlightening experiences I’ve been able to be a part of, ” he said, “There’s definitely a sense of hope, and an amazing vibrancy here especially with the young girls at this school. That’s what’s great about his initiative that the UN Foundation put together, it gives these girls a chance. Statistically, only 20% of the girls in this country have any sense of education. Seeing that, and realizing how much of a widespread problem that is…the millennial generation has a massive opportunity for change.”
“Something as simple as donating two dollars to these girls could make a world of difference, ” David stressed, “I’m really excited to come home and drive home what I’ve seen here.”
Here’s a transcript of David’s remarks at the press conference today. Check it out, after the jump.
Were there any students in particular who inspired him? “One was a 7 year old girl named Mekdes. Both of Mekdes’ parents had passed away and she’s been at school for 7 months. I think obviously given the circumstances, not having either one of her parents, she’s living with her aunt now. To meet this girl..whatever I say about this girl is not going to come across over the phone, as well as if you were to meet this girl. She is one of the most vibrant and joyous girls I think I’ve ever met. The girls at this school genuinely want to learn. They want to have that education, they want to have that opportunity. It’s inspiring.—a 7 year old girl who wants to build a better future for herself. I remember being 7 years old, and I didn’t have that foresight. These girls are wise beyond their years. Unfortunately, they kind of have to be.”
What surprised him most about Ethiopia? “I was completely shocked by this country, in a completely positive way. When you hear ‘Africa’ I immediately think ‘impoverished’ and everything that goes with that, but the people here are so amazingly sweet, they are such nice people, very accommodating, get that we’re out here trying to help. “ David says the country is beautiful, “lush and green”. “They definitely have the structure in place, it’s just a matter of pushing in that direction.”
Will the experience find its way into the music he’s writing? “I think anybody who isn’t completely self-absorbed—it’s impossible to come into this situation and not be completely moved by it, or changed by it. To really drive home the fact of what these girls are dealing with, the girls who don’t receive an education here are eventually more likely to fall into the sex trade, or domestic servitude, and that opens it up to so many other things—HIV is one of the main killers here. To see that first hand, I would almost say it’s a definite, that I’m going to bring that back, and it will find its way into my career path.”
Did the girls know who he was? (laughter) “Very few people here know who I am. We had to explain to the little girls who I was and why I was there. But we did get a chance to play some music for them. My guitar player came out here with me, and they sang for us. It’s always cool to see that music is this universal language . They didn’t know quite what to do with the tall, tattooed white guy, I guess.”
What did the experience make him appreciate in his own life? “I think being out here for a short time, you immediately appreciate the bubble that you built for yourself, but you also—I feel kind of guilty for the bubble that I’ve built for myself. This reality is so far removed from even what we see on TV, what the people have to deal with here on a daily basis–it’s real, and it’s heavy and it’s something that truly deserves our attention. I’ve said that a lot in conjunction with this trip, if you take on this mantra that we’re only as good as the people that we surround ourselves with, you take that on a global level. Everyone is struggling right now, but we as a country are only as good as the countries we surround ourselves with, so it becomes more imperative to reach out on an international level and a global level to promote change. The people here need a helping hand and I feel like we’re in a great position to give that to them.”
Why did he want to become involved? “I wanted to be involved with this program specifically because woman are the backbone of society, in my opinion. Every family has a matriarch and they are the glue that holds that family together. So, you have to give these girls a basis, a platform from which to study from. I don’t think anybody can deny that education plays such an important role across the board. And the fact that that’s not a right for these girls, but in a lot of cases a privilege…that was a major mitigating factor for me. That’s why I wanted to get involved.
Will he perform on Idol gives back? “There’s been no discussion of a performance. I’m going to do everything in my power to be present, because I do want to continue to drive this point home …I will definitely be involved in some facility, but as far as a performance, I’m not 100% sure.”
Any other plans to work with the UN? “I’ve been extremely moved by this trip. I look forward to hopefully continuing this relationship. I’ll do everything that I can.”
After Gore answered a question about how US teenagers could help, David had a few more thoughts he wanted to add “I got a chance down here to play games with some of these girls. You watch a girl be a girl, you watch a child be a child, and that’s universal. A child being a child in Ethiopia is exactly the same as a child being a child in America. It’s easy to assume that the things that you surround yourself with and the things that surround you are reality. And while that may be your reality, it might not be somebody else’s. There are common themes, there are common threads. It’s been a huge learning experience for me to see these girls smile and laugh. It’s not that hard to help them, it’s not that hard to empathize, it’s not that hard to want to help.”
At this point, a reporter told David that she was “taken aback” by David’s answer. The massive problems in sub-Saharan Africa, including genital mutilation for girls, makes African girls’ problems completely different from girls in the US. “They really aren’t like American kids, there really isn’t that common ground.” She wanted to know what the UN Foundation was doing to address the genital mutilation problem. David was very diplomatic, and careful to restate his answer so he would not be misunderstood, or misquoted.
“I’m not suggesting that the struggles are the same, but what I am saying is that inherently, a child is a child is a child no matter where you are. Your circumstances could be obviously different. But to answer your question further, or more direct, it is a massive problem, and it’s one of the many problems here, I met this girl…while I was here. She’s 19 years old and she’s been in school for 5 years and she escaped from a rural area of the country on her own to escape early marriage and the sex trade—it is a massive problem. But I think it is on an individual level something we can deal with. It’s…donations, making time, it’s giving resources and it’s something that everybody can do.”
The reporter wanted to know why women were so devalued in this culture. David said the scope of the problem was large, and then allowed Gore to answer the question. One positive development: Ethiopia just outlawed child marriage. Girls are promised by their parents to marriages as early as the at the age of 5.
Near the end of the call, David had a cool anecdote about his season’s IGB, “I remember specifically on my season during Idol Gives Back, we all snuck up to the balcony, and got a chance to watch from the front of the house–Annie Lennox’s performance. And it was just on a piano, and in the background, they were showing images of children and it just—it tore me apart. To have that kind of visual moment, where everything kind of clicked, and you realize that my reality is not their reality, it really puts you in a position where you want to help. And from that point on , I was just champing on the bit to get involved with Idol Gives Back. This couldn’t have come at a better time.”
In his closing remarks, David said, “This has been an absolute honor to be asked and to be able to come out and be involved and really see this kind of basis for a really big change. It’s been really inspiring and educational, and something I definitely look forward to bringing back home.”
Annie Lennox singing “Many Rivers to Cross” on Idol Gives Back