I was honoured with the chance to speak with David Cook, season 7 American Idol winner, about his trip to Ethiopia and Idol Gives Back. Also on the call was Elizabeth Gore, the Executive Director of Global Partnerships and Nothing but Nets for the United Nations Foundations. David was actually still in Ethiopia while he spoke with us.
His trip was to a school in Ethiopia, and he was there to draw attention to the need for funding for schooling for the young women of Africa. Schooling is what helps these women avoid becoming another statistic, just another sex slave, or another death to AIDS. The call was an eye opener and made me feel blessed to live in North America where I’ve always been valued not in spite of being a woman but celebrated for the strength that being a woman is. I dare you to read this interview and not be moved, not only by the plight but by David’s experiences and his determination to make a difference. Idol Gives Back will air on FOX on April 21st, at 8 pm, don’t miss this opportunity to give back to the world. Now onto the interview.
Opening remarks by Elizabeth Gore :
I am so excited to be here on behalf of the United Nations Foundation. We are a platform that connects people, ideas, and resources to the U.N. to help solve global problems. We are so excited to be featured on this year’s Idol Gives Back on April 21st. It makes sense because our entire role is to give the American public an entry point that even a $5 donation can save someone’s life, it can change the world, and it can solve problems.
We think that working with the U.N. is cool, but certainly not as cool as David Cook, and we are just so excited that he went to Ethiopia and is there as we speak seeing an issue that has been very important to the U.N. Foundation since we started – and that is girls. Adolescent girls are a huge priority to this organization and to the U.N., and the fact that 70% of the world’s out-of-school youth, and that’s about 130 million people, are girls shocks all of us every day. But we think that, thanks to Idol Gives Back and the viewers that are going to hopefully donate on the 21st, that they can actually help these girls solve global problems.
David- Before I get into it, I do want to make sure that I say thank you to not only the U.N., the U.N. Foundation, and Idol Gives Back, but specifically to Simon Fuller for offering the invitation. I have wanted to do this since I was on the show, and to be able to finally come out here and see firsthand what you see so often on television back home – this has been one of the most enlightening and fulfilling experiences I have been able to be a part of.
My experience here – I have been very present at the Biruh Tesfa School here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and I … speak candidly about what I have seen here, but obviously, I think everybody listening and everybody talking can agree that the situation here is not as great as it could be, but having said that, there is definitely a sense of hope and an amazing vibrancy here, especially with the young girls at this school. That is what is great about this initiative that the U.N. and the U.N. Foundation have put together, it really gives these girls a chance to – stastically I think only 20% of the girls in this country have any sense of education – and so seeing that and really realizing how that it is not just in Ethiopia, but how much of a widespread problem that is.
But on the flip of that, you see the millennial generation and just this massive opportunity for change that we have. As massive as that change is – as big of a picture as that is – it is something as simple as donating $2 to these girls, and it makes just a world of difference, and so I am extremely excited to continue to come home and to really drive home what I have seen here because it is something that needs immediate attention.
Let’s get to the interview portion.
I wanted to ask David in particular, were there particular exchanges with specific girls you met that really drove home on a personal level what donations could bring to them?
David- Sure. Well, I actually got a chance to meet two girls in particular. One was a seven-year-old girl named Magnus. Both of Magnus’s parents have passed away, and she has been at the school for seven months. I think, obviously given the circumstances – not having either one of her parents, she’s actually living with her aunt now – to meet this girl and, forgive me, whatever I say about this girl is not going to come across over the phone as well as it will if you were to ever meet this girl. She is one of the most vibrant, joyous girls that I think I’ve ever met. The girls at the school genuinely want to learn. They want to have that education. They want to have that opportunity, and that’s inspiring to see a seven-year-old girl want to build a better future for herself. I remember being seven years old, and I didn’t have that foresight. These girls are wise beyond their years, and both fortunately and unfortunately they’ve kind of had to be.
[Note from Me: His voice was raw with emotion and I have to say that he was excited to share his experiences.]
Elizabeth-I would add quickly that a simple $5 donation – some of these girls don’t have the money to even get school supplies, and they are required to have both a uniform as well as a notebook to go to school. So something we take for granted in the U.S. and such a small dollar amount can actually mean changing a girl’s life and allowing her to go to school.
David. I just wanted to ask what were your first impressions of Ethiopia, and what surprised you most about the country or the people?
David-I have to say I was completely shocked by this country in an extremely positive way. When you hear Africa, I immediately think impoverished and everything that goes with that. But I came here, and the people here are so amazingly sweet. They are such nice people, very accommodating and get that we are out here trying to help. The city itself, Addis Ababa, is beautiful – really lush, very green. It definitely has an infrastructure in place. I think it’s just a matter that they just need that kind of boost in the right direction.
Elizabeth, because this show appeals to so many young people, tell us first of all how old are you and then also explain a little bit about what you meant about the 70% of kids who aren’t in school are girls. Go through that figure a little bit more for us.
Elizabeth-Sure. Well, I am young enough to still hopefully be considered a young enough person and old enough not to want to tell you my age. But it is amazing that adolescent girls in the United States , we think could actually have an impact on adolescent girls around the world, and we are previewing a campaign that will come out this summer to talk about that. But what I had talked about was that girls make up 70% of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth. So out of the children around the world who aren’t in school, the majority of them are young girls. That can be because they don’t have access to school, they can’t afford it, they don’t have the uniforms to go, or something, unfortunately, as simple as the fact that they have to go fetch water for 6 to 15 hours a day because they don’t have water holes nearby. So it’s an issue that is impacted by multiple interventions, but there are very simple solutions that we can find to change that figure and that number.
David, as a musician, obviously you want to turn your life experiences into music. Do you think that as awe-inspiring as this trip has been, will it find its way into the new music that you have been writing?
David-It would be really hard to fathom that it wouldn’t. I think anybody that isn’t completely self-absorbed, it’s impossible for them to come to this kind of a situation and not be moved by it and not be changed by it. To really drive home the fact that what these girls are dealing with – girls that don’t get an education here are immensely more likely to fall into the sex trade or into domestic servitude and then that opens it up to so many other different things. HIV is one of the main killers here. And so, to see that firsthand, I would almost say it’s a definite that I am going to bring that back, and it will find its way into my career path.
[Note from Me: It’s inspiring to see such a young guy so moved by the tragedy of others. If one ounce of the emotion he portrayed on this call comes across in his music we are all in for a treat.]
David. A quick question for you – we’ll spin off of that music question. Is music playing any part of your connection while you are there, A); and B) do they know who David Cook is?
David- 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 then they sang for us. It’s always cool to see music be this universal language, I guess. But I definitely had to win them over. They didn’t quite know what to do with the tall, tattooed white guy, I guess.
David,most of us have no idea what it would be like to live in or let alone travel to a third-world country. Can you tell us, now that you are there and are experiencing it, what is it about your travels that make you most thankful for what we have in North America?
David- That’s a tough question. Wow. I think, just having been out here for the short time, you immediately kind of appreciate the bubble that you have built for yourself, but also I feel kind of guilty for the bubble I’ve built for myself. This reality is so far removed from even what we see on TV. What the people here have to deal with on a daily basis is 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 are only as good as the people that we surround ourselves with, you take that on a global level, everybody is struggling right now, but we, as a country, are only as good as the countries that we surround ourselves with. It just becomes more imperative to reach out on an international level and a global level and really promote change. The people here need a helping hand, and I feel like we are in a great position to be able to give that to them.
[Note from Me: Deep and moving words. Very wise Mr. Cook.]
A lot of people, obviously I think, want to get involved but oftentimes they don’t really think beyond their own backyard. They wouldn’t necessarily want to leave America. So what was it about Ethiopia that made this appealing to you? Why did you want to go and spend time there and call attention to the plight there?
David- I think, specifically, to come out here and work with the Biruh Tesfa School and the initiative set up by the U.N. and the U.N. Foundation, I wanted to be involved with this program specifically because women are the backbone of society, in my opinion. Every family has a matriarch, and they are the glue that holds that family together. You have to give these girls a basis. You have to give them a platform with which to start from. I don’t think anybody can deny that education plays such an important role just across the board. And the fact that that’s not a right for these girls, but in a lot of cases it’s a privilege, that’s pretty abhorrent. So that was a major mitigating factor for me. That’s why I wanted to get involved.
[Note from Me: “Women are the backbone of society” Never have truer words been spoken.]
David. When you return, are you going to be performing on the Idol Gives Back special and what might you perform and what helped you choose those songs?
David- There’s been no discussion of a performance. I’m going to do everything within my power to be present because I do want to continue to really drive this point home of the help that’s needed out here. So I will definitely be involved in some facility, but as far a performance, I’m not 100% sure. Sorry, that’s a non-answer to your question.
Do you have any other plans for more activity with the U.N. or any other charitable trips in your immediate future?
I’ve been extremely moved by this trip such that I look forward to hopefully continuing this relationship. I will do everything that I can.
With American Idol reaching so many teenagers and this cause directly affecting young girls and young women, do you have any suggestions about what teenagers specifically can do to get involved and help?
Elizabeth- Sure. Step one is to just educate yourself. Go online. Read about these issues. Go to unfoundation.org and see where David went and why and what is happening there. But specifically, young people can take this information to their school and talk about it. They can get on Facebook and go to our page. They can tweet about it. UNF is our twitter account. Then they can donate. They can go to Idol Gives Back on April 21st, text in their donations, or they can go to unfoundation.org and donate there. So I think educate, donate, and get active. If something upsets them, then they can write their congressman and say “hey, what is our congressional support for this?” So there’s a lot of great ways to engage, and one voice can make an absolute difference in these issues.
David- And really, one of the things that I want to add to that question is that I got a chance while I was out here to actually play games with some of these girls. You watch a girl being a girl. You watch a child being a child, and that’s universal. A child being a child in Ethiopia is the exact same thing as a child being a child in America. I say that in this sense – I think it’s easy to assume that the things that you surround yourself with and the things that surround you is reality, and while that may be your reality, it may not be somebody else’s. But there are common themes. There are common threads, and it has been a huge learning experience for me. You see these girls smile and laugh, and you realize very quickly that it’s not that hard to help them, it’s not that hard to empathize, and it’s not that hard to want to help. I think that maybe just looking at this problem just a little bit differently would be a huge inroad.
[Note from Me: I get what he’s saying. It’s amazing you never have to teach a child to play, or something as simple as jumping in a puddle seems to be wired into them. Playing is a natural instinct in children, it’s unfortunate that due to the horrible tradtions (mentioned in the next question by my fellow journalist), the poverty and the tragedies that these young girls face, sometimes their childhood is taken from them.]
In Sub-Saharan Africa and Ethiopia in particular and Somalia obviously, female genital mutilation is a huge problem – over 75% of the girls there suffer this. So they really aren’t like American kids. There really isn’t that common ground in what you just said in that they want to play and have fun. This is a huge problem. How can your efforts combat this tradition?
David- I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be misquoted in any stretch. I’m not suggesting that the struggles are the same. But what I am saying is inherently a child is a child no matter where you are. Your circumstances could be obviously different. But to answer your question further or more directly, it is a massive problem, and it is one of many problems here. I met this girl … while I was here. She is 19 years old. She has been in the school for five years. She actually escaped from a rural area of the country on her own to escape early marriage and sex trade. So, yes, it is a massive problem, but it is something that I think, on an individual level, we can do with a small donation, taking time, giving resources, and it’s something that everybody can do.
[Note from Me: I congratulate David on his ability to field questions and his honest answers. He’s right. Although there are so many differences the basic wiring of a child remains the same. Hopefully with enough support we’ll be able to allow children all over the world the same priviledges we have here.]
Why do you think women are so devalued in this culture?
David- I’m not sure I can answer that question. I don’t know. It’s a large scope kind of thing that I don’t know that I’ve wrapped my head around fully.
Elizabeth- I think a big part of a lot of these cultures is that there is a history of women, and specifically girls, not rising to the top and getting the resources and the support they need. As David just said, the majority of girls in Ethiopia are actually promised to marriage before they are 18 and actually by five years old. Even though … and these other things are a large-scale issue, they are things that are being tackled. In Ethiopia, the good news is that they just outlawed child marriage, which is really exciting.
I want to actually agree with David that children everywhere in the world really do just want to play and have a safe place to learn, live, and thrive. That’s what these programs that the U.N. Foundation and the U.N. are providing and trying to give these individuals, so actually, I completely agree with you, David, that children are very similar, but these kids just happen to have the negative geographic birthplace of being in places where they are not valued. But we are getting there, and I think people are making a difference and changing to where they are going to be valued in the future.
David, you said at the beginning that this is something that you always wanted to do. Could you kind of tell us emotionally what went through your mind when you were there as one of the contestants when they did the Idol Gives Back and what did that stir up in you, and how did that kind of make you always go just go further with this.
David- Thank you for that question. I actually remember specifically, on my season when we did Idol Gives Back, that we all snuck up to the balcony and got a chance to watch, from the front of the house, Annie Lennox’s performance. It was just her on the piano, and in the background, they were showing images of children, and it just tore me apart. I think to have that kind of visual moment when everything kind of clicks and you realize that my reality is not their reality, it really puts you in a position where you want to help, and so from that point on I was just kind of chomping at the bit to get involved with Idol Gives Back. This couldn’t have come at a better time.
That’s all for the questions, let’s look at closing remarks:
Elizabeth- Well, we at the U.N. foundation are just so thankful to Idol Gives Back, Simon Fuller, and David Cook for taking the time to really learn about these programs. We truly believe that working with the U.N. is cool, and that anyone can literally give back and make change. We hope people will learn more at unfoundation.org.
Bottom-line again just to reiterate what I said at the beginning. This has been an absolute honour to even 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 definitely something I look forward to bringing back home. Thank you to everybody involved.
I was touched by the candid discussion of his own feelings, and I feel a large sense of appreciation for being a woman in North America. Guilt is also there, for the fact that not all women know what it’s like to be honoured and valued. Perhaps with programs like Idol Gives Back and people like David Cook and Elizabeth Gore, someday they will.