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Hey, Bravo: Try spotlighting social heroes instead of social climbers

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, August 5, 2010; B01

The most annoying thing about the new television show "Real Housewives of D.C." is that it represents a kind of honor for the parasitic social climbers featured on the program.

These women will reap financial and other benefits for participating in the binge of snobbery and pettiness that debuts at 9 p.m. Thursday on Bravo. Our society rewards people for appearing on five episodes of prime-time television, regardless of what put them there.

I wish it were different. Wouldn't it be fine if Bravo used its resources to produce a show that celebrated Washington area women whose good works and contributions to society actually merited having scenes from their lives broadcast to a national audience?

In that spirit, I hereby urge Bravo to do a follow-up show: "Really Deserving Housewives of D.C." My show would honor women who've devoted their lives to teaching poor children or helping victims of sexual abuse instead of jetting to Paris for dinner or overspending on champagne and chocolates at luxury hotels.

To help Bravo get started, I'm nominating three women to spotlight. All have careers that help society. All have been leaders for years in charitable and civic groups that have had real impact in our region. And they have husbands and children, too.

Let's start with Layli Miller-Muro of Falls Church. She gave up a lucrative career at the powerhouse law firm Arnold & Porter to become an advocate for women fleeing human-rights abuses abroad.

Reality television thrives on drama and conflict, and Miller-Muro's career offers plenty. In the mid-1990s, she helped call international attention to the horrors of female genital mutilation in Africa. She co-wrote a book on the subject and used her proceeds to create the Tahirih Justice Center, which provides free legal services to persecuted women.

Miller-Muro is now the center's executive director. It recently opened offices in Baltimore and Houston and has helped more than 10,000 women. In one recent case, it helped a Kenyan woman free herself from a Saudi family that for years had kept her as a servant against her will and not allowed her to visit her daughter.

Miller-Muro was skeptical of the TV show's premise that power in Washington derives from chatting up contacts at high-priced parties.

"My experience has never been that social life is what makes you powerful," she said. "Doing the work, and talking about the issues intelligently, makes people turn to you as an expert. The credibility, the influence comes from the legitimacy of your expertise, not because you happen to hobnob."

Deserving Housewife No. 2 is Artis Hampshire-Cowan, a senior vice president of Howard University. It takes 29 bullet points to list her philanthropic and civic jobs and awards. She's been a leader with the Prince George's Community Foundation, Girl Scouts and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. She even helped negotiate the deal that moved the Redskins to what's now Fedex Field in Landover.

At work, Hampshire-Cowan is overseeing a major expansion of Howard's biotech and other research programs in Beltsville. Otherwise, her top project is starting a science and math charter school for middle-school girls in Prince George's County. One of the goals is "closing the gap" for African American girls so they can compete with graduates of elite schools.

"We're going to teach them chess. We're going to teach them golf. They're going to study abroad," Hampshire-Cowan said.

Are you paying attention, Bravo? Those are skills and values that I know you understand.

Finally, the show could feature Viki Betancourt, manager of community outreach at the World Bank. She started a workplace philanthropic giving program there that now raises $1.4 million a year -- all of which is matched by the bank. The program hands out grants to 300 organizations ranging from Doctors Without Borders to the Latin American Youth Center.

After years of service on several charitable boards, Betancourt has recently cut back to spend more time mentoring young people. "Over the years, I've kind of lost touch with that, because you get kind of busy. That's where my passion comes from, and it's where I have the most fun," she said.

Given her distaste for the Bravo program, though, I don't think Betancourt would welcome having a video team follow her to meet a poor teenage girl she was mentoring. The show is "embarrassing," she said. "The women I know work and have lives and have families, and they don't have time to allow a TV into their lives."

So that's one reason it'll never happen. The very women with the character and standards we'd want to celebrate are too busy or modest to go on camera.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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