Glamour Women of the Year 2002: Oral Lee Brown

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Glamour’s Women of the Year awards, we are delving back into our archives to highlight some of the incredible women we have honored over the last three decades.

In January, we’ve cast the spotlight on activism – and the incredible Oral Lee Brown. Today, when you think about activism, you might conjure up Greta Thunberg, for example – and a WOTY recipient in 2019 – or the #womensmarch or the powerful Black Lives Matter movement. But sometimes, the actions of one person alone, even in the smallest of communities, can leave an also indelible mark.

In our December 2002 issue, Oral Lee Brown was photographed with five of the kids she was putting through college. 

1987 was the year that Oral Lee Brown met an eight-year-old girl on the street in Oakland, California. The girl asked for a quarter – Oral Lee Brown responded with the question: why aren’t you in school? The little girl shrugged.

Unable to shake her encounter, the real estate agent made up her mind to help Oakland’s at-risk children. That year, she adopted an entire first-grade class at Brookfield Elementary School, promising to pay for their college education if they graduated high school.

Oral Lee Brown accepting a Minerva Award at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference 2010.Dr. Billy Ingram/Wire Image

She saved $10,000 a year from a $45,000 a year salary – and through careful investments and local fundraising events managed to grow her pot for the kids to over $1million dollars. 19 of the 23 children graduated. Oral Lee came through on her promise and sent them to college.

That was in 2002. Since then, she established the Oral Lee Brown Foundation, which has, to date, supported 136 students from low-income families. She offers mentoring, tutoring and financial bursaries and in 2005 established a Saturday school, where they could take children from all grades, rather than just first.

Oral Lee Brown at the 2002 Glamour Women of the Year Awards. Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

There have now been eight phases of her official first-graders’ program. Phase 5 kids graduated high school in 2017 and are now attending colleges, while the children in Phase 6, 7 and 8 are in high school, middle school and elementary school respectively. The actions of one woman sparked a movement that has continued to have an enormous impact on the long-term futures of some of the most at-risk children in Oakland, California.


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