“He was definitely an aware guy,” Manuela Testolini says of her onetime husband, Prince. “From his earliest music, he was talking about social change and telling people not to be complacent.”
Soon after the musician’s death was announced last April, reports of the artist’s philanthropic endeavors began to spread. CNN commentator Van Jones revealed that Prince had been involved in organizations like Green for All, which create green jobs for disadvantaged people and sent money to the family of Trayvon Martin. Testolini, who was married to the artist from 2001 to 2006, called him a “fierce philanthropist” in a statement at the time.
She’s since help build two schools in his name in Malawi via her In a Perfect World organization. The second school started classes this week. During their marriage, he spent as much time on philanthropy as making music, Testolini tells Rolling Stone. “He went with how the spirit moved him each day,” she says.
Prince first met Testolini at a time when she was consulting with organizations, helping to find funding and support for them. One was a women’s shelter in Tornoto that was in danger of closing. She had been contacting philanthropic organizations to help save it and the first to respond was the artist’s organization, Love 4 One Another. “They saved the day,” she says.
She subsequently worked on various one-off projects for Love 4 One Another, and in 2000, she accepted a full-time position at there. “They were doing projects ranging from building community gardens to helping domestic shelters,” she recalls. “I wasn’t aware at the time, but when Prince would visit different cities for a concert, he would have work going on to complement the places he visited.”
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The organization eventually hired her and she began finding funding for shelters and transitional housing for families corresponding to the musician’s tour stops. If Prince had a Philadelphia show in the middle of winter, his organization would do a coat drive or a food drive nearby. “You can imagine calling a food bank, saying, ‘You need to come here tomorrow with lots of trucks to pick up bins and bins of food,'” she says with a laugh. “It was a very effective, quick food drive and an easy way to make an impact. It was mobilizing people who were already interested and giving them a little way to impact their community.”
Prince encouraged those who worked at Love 4 One Another to concentrate on whatever they felt needed the most attention; some people worked on the environment, while others focused on homelessness. Testolini worked with kids and youths. As a result, she recalls many late nights connecting with people like Michael Eric Dyson, Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West to discuss the state of the world.
It was while working at Love 4 One Another that she saw how passionate the artist was about helping other people. “He wanted to be a catalyst for other people,” she says. “He would see a family on TV that was having trouble – they didn’t have health insurance and had trouble meeting the needs of a sick child – and instead of saying, ‘Wow, that’s really sad,’ he would leave a note on my desk saying, ‘Call this TV station and find out where these people are so we can help them.’ It was ongoing.”
“He really wanted to wake people up,” she says. “He wanted to make sure they were active.”
Prince was concerned that his celebrity would overshadow his generosity, so he asked the organization to not mention him. “It made it about cause, rather than about Prince,” Testolini says.
He’d occasionally break his anonymity, inviting some families he’d help to one of his concerts and giving them the VIP treatment. It was a way for him to connect with people his organization was helping, even if he wasn’t involved personally. “I remember doing one project in Maryland where an elementary school had been abandoned and turned into a family shelter,” Testolini says. “It was a bunch of families living in classrooms with no furniture, mothers with babies, but no changing stations; they were using lockers as closets.
“So we furnished this huge facility, buying wardrobes and things for them, trying to make their lives easier,” she adds. “But the bonus was, he said, ‘Send a bus to pick them up; we’re gong to bring them to the show.’ And he would say, ‘Show me where they are in the crowd,’ so he could acknowledge them and put faces to the experience.”
One cause Prince wanted to draw people’s attentions to was children in need, working with his organization to help foster care children and abuse-treatment facilities get attention. If Love 4 One Another was working with transitional housing, for instance, he would ensure the place was equipped with beds, food and toilet paper and have Love 4 One Another hold an arts festival for the children to help them feel like they have a voice. “These are children and families who are in a state of flux, and it gives them something positive to focus on,” says Testolini, who has continued to hold arts festivals for children with In a Perfect World. “It’s interesting to get kids talking and the arts are a safe way to do that.”
Testolini says Prince also was interested in issues empowering women, which he evinced with his music. “He surrounded himself with powerful women in his band,” she says. “He knew that he had the power and the chance to make an impact by leading by example.” She took a cue from seeing how he operated his band and got his charity involved in an empowerment conference for young girls in Minneapolis. At the time, Prince told her he’d written “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” “as an empowerment song to women everywhere,” so he gave the girls who attended a box set version of the song with different remixes and allowed them to use it on their website. “If you know Prince, he doesn’t license his music often,” Testolini says.
Prince also focused on the plight of his fellow musicians, immersing himself in the Artist Empowerment Coalition with his lawyer, Londell McMillan. “It was about getting artists together and talking about what ways they can empower each other and what things they can do to change the industry to make it more favorable to musicians, artists and writers,” Testolini says. She also recalls that Prince supported his band, helping family members of the musicians who were in need and paying for funerals when needed.
Testolini remembers Prince as an excellent and logical problem-solver. If she had an issue setting up a charity, he would say, “In a perfect world, what would you do?” It gave her confidence.
“He knew that he had the power and the chance to make an impact by leading by example.”
“People would say, ‘I want to do something about this, but this other thing is stopping me,’ and he’d just knock them down,” she says with a laugh. “‘That’s not really an obstacle. You can get past that.’ And he would push you to get it done. For me, I’d say, ‘I want to see change in communities,’ and he would pin me down to lay that out: ‘What is it you want to change?’ ‘I want kids to have a voice.’ ‘OK, well what does that mean?’ And it would come down to, ‘Well, in a perfect world, we have the youth ambassador program and we teach kids how to be of service to the community despite their circumstances.'”
Eventually, these conversations led to Prince encouraging Testolini to form her own organization, In a Perfect World, that helps provide education and platforms for artistic expression to at-risk youth around the world. “It was just about me being able to own something,” she says. “He always encouraged people to do their own projects, and mine was In a Perfect World.” In addition to providing her with the seed money to get the organization started, he helped her pick the name and logo.
A year later, in 2006, Testolini and Prince divorced amicably. When asked about whether or not they kept in touch on charitable works after the divorce, she says, “I don’t want to bring up the divorce, so I’m just going to stick on the charity subject.” (Testolini is now married to singer-songwriter Eric Benét.)
Testolini says that she’s since incorporated much of what she learned from working on Prince’s organization into In a Perfect World. She pushes females to the forefront, ensuring that the schools she builds abroad have balanced gender enrollment so that girls aren’t at home doing domestic duties. In the U.S., she continues to support the same young women’s empowerment conferences that she worked on while at Love 4 One Another. She also followed Prince’s lead with In a Perfect World by covering its overhead herself so that donations go directly to its outreach programs. “I believe this is the kind of organization Prince would have approved of and continued to be proud of,” she says.
In November 2015, Testolini was in Haiti, visiting some of her organization’s schools, when she realized that it was working with Prince on Love 4 One Another that had put her on her current path. She felt immense gratitude and decided that she wanted to do something tangible to honor her ex. She built a school in his name; something, she says, he’d always hoped to do himself.
She announced plans for the school the next month and hoped he would pick the location, but she was unable to connect with him. She eventually settled on the African country of Malawi as the place for the school. “I wanted to do something that would connect with music, and Malawi has this rich culture of music and dancers,” she says. “The need is great in all of the countries we work in, but Malawi is deep in the heart of Africa and rich in culture. I thought it was a perfect place to do it.”
After Prince died in April 2016, Testolini says the urge to honor the artist grew more important. Her organization made a donation in his name to MusiCares, an organization that helps musicians in need, and she put her attention on the school. Groups of his fans reached out to In a Perfect World offering to send money to build a second school. “The fans’ support was a wonderful and beautiful surprise for us,” she says. In October, she helped inaugurate the first school and broke ground on the second. Prince’s brother Omarr Baker was present for the event. “There were a lot of tears and emotions involved,” Testolini says.
As the school begins classes this week, Testolini believes that raising awareness to philanthropy in his name is something that would make him happy. “He really wanted to wake people up,” she says. “He wanted to make sure they were active.”