Reflecting on her time at Andover, Olivia Wilde ’02 recalled standing in George Washington Hall, gripping a rejection letter from New York University, and feeling lost as her life plans seemed to unravel. In retrospect, she realized it was that very rejection letter that allowed her to pursue her passion for acting and social justice.
“These curve balls, what feel like barriers, are the greatest gifts that you will encounter in your education and life. Because it’s after that when you realize that all the false adoration, the fame, the attention, all of that is totally meaningless. And that lets us step back, understand our values and do something that we are really proud of,” said Wilde in her presentation on Tuesday night in Cochran Chapel.
Wilde visited campus this week to talk about her participation in the Half the Sky movement and its documentary, titled “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”. She also spoke to the Abbot Global Seminar class, a Senior elective taught by Seth Bardo, Instructor in English, and Diane Moore, Instructor and Chair in Religion and Philosophy.
The documentary is based on a book of the same name by Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the “New York Times”, and fellow journalist Kristen Wudunn. Both are part of a movement to empower oppressed women worldwide, according to the Half the Sky website.
The documentary primarily profiles empowered women with economic freedom. The segment followed Kristof and Wilde as they interviewed women who had started businesses and microfinance initiatives in the slums of Kenya.
Wilde also worked extensively with the Shining Hope for Communities Foundation, which founded the Kibera School for Girls, the only free school for girls in the region, according to the Shining Hope for Communities website.
“It was just really moving to sit in on this class that was beautifully decorated—in the most dangerous place you can be in, really a dark place, they had an edible garden outside, and the kids were learning all about that. I mean, this is a place where nothing grows, so this is a really hopeful place,” said Wilde.
After talking to a young girl in the class, Wilde learned that she was a rape survivor at the age of five. The man who was known throughout the community to have committed the crime was never prosecuted, said Wilde.
She and Kristof later found the man who allegedly committed the rape.
“He denied it, but it made a difference that someone was holding him accountable, that people were focusing on him, that it was clear that it was not acceptable, that it wasn’t something that was completely going to disappear,” said Wilde.
“This one day of going to the school, meeting this little girl, understanding what she had gone through, the unbelievable obstacle of that culture of continued violence and not very many repercussions, it was a really heartbreaking, mind-blowing day, and those are the kinds of experiences that I have so often with this kind of work,” she continued.
Wilde’s interest in social justice developed early on, and was encouraged by her parents, who were journalists as well as activists. Her parents took her to rallies on subjects ranging from women’s rights to world peace. She also volunteered with her mother for organizations such as Meals on Wheels and other soup kitchens, according to Wilde.
“[They] raised us with a certain knowledge of the world, partly because of the work they did as journalists and exposure to their films. I remember being incredibly young, probably ten, and seeing my mother’s 60 minutes piece about famine in Somalia and understanding that there are problems in the world that I’m not sure other families expose their children to quite as young,” said Wilde.
This interest in social activism grew during Wilde’s time at Andover and became more firm during her Senior year.
“It was Senior year that I actually began starting to take myself seriously as someone who could have any sort of positive affect. Understanding that I could shape my own experience from the vast opportunity of Andover as opposed to being overwhelmed by it, I could take control and make it something that really inspired me and excited me,” said Wilde.
“That inspired me going forward to do the same with different parts of life, whether it was career or philanthropy—just understanding that you can make choices that carve out you experience in any of these things,” she continued.
“That’s something that I’d like to instill in all the students here who may have been affected by Half the Sky. Become empowered yourself and take yourself seriously as an activist, because you have an incredible amount of influence,” said Wilde.
After graduating from Andover, Wilde moved to Los Angeles to become an actress. She has since had success and starred in television shows such as “House, M.D.” and movies like “Tron” and “Cowboys & Aliens.”
In 2008, Wilde was invited to a gathering of members of the entertainment community in L.A., where she joined the organization Artists for Peace and Justice, a fundraising effort founded by Paul Haggis that encourages peace and social justice and addresses issues of poverty worldwide. Through this organization, Wilde met Father Rick Frechette, a doctor and a priest who runs a community organization in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.
Wilde has since remained active in Haiti, visiting frequently and supporting a free secondary school that the organization helped Frechette found after the Haitian earthquake of 2010. This was the first free secondary school in Haiti, according to Wilde.
“Just the individuals you meet who have really dedicated their life to this work are always so incredible, like Father Rick in Haiti and Jessica in Kenya or me in Calcutta. I think those people are the real agents for change that a project like Half the Sky is really focusing on to bring a sense of humanity to the process. It’s not just about statistics, and tackling these issues from afar, but learning about these people who have devoted their lives to them,” said Wilde.