Soledad O’Brien: Bringing Diverse America to Light

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It’s 11 in the morning in New York City when I meet Soledad O’Brien at her office in the Time Warner Center, overlooking Central Park. O’Brien, 45, has already shed the on-air makeup and the yellow dress she wore earlier on her show, Starting Point on CNN, and has opted for a low-key look: a black turtleneck, black form-fitting jeans, black flat winter boots, and her hair propped in a ponytail. Even in these muted clothes, O’Brien looks radiant and flawless, and I can’t imagine there was ever a time she felt unattractive—but there was, as she wrote in her memoir, The Next Big Story.

O’Brien’s success hasn’t been about pageantry or good looks, though it doesn’t hurt to have been named one of People magazine’s Most Beautiful in 2001. Her journalism career is marked by bringing us smart, well-reported stories that confront tough questions, even if they sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. “I was pre-med in college, dropped out, and decided to dig into people’s lives, because there are people who work hard and do heroic things,” O’Brien says. “There are also terrible and tough stories out there. I want to illuminate those stories.” Her office is riddled with memorabilia of a distinguished career—among the items is an Emmy she received for her coverage of Haiti after the earthquake and a gun she got from the sheriff of St. Bernard’s Parish, a thank-you gift for being one of the first reporters to dive into the chaos left by Hurricane Katrina.

O’Brien’s career has been largely shaped by her childhood. She was born to an Australian-Irish father and a Cuban mother of African descent, who fell in love at a time when it was illegal to eat with—much less marry—someone of a different race. Her tan skin and hair made her different from her classmates and neighbors in Long Island, New York, where she grew up. It wasn’t always easy, but her parents’ story and how they raised six children inspired her to pursue a career in journalism. Today O’Brien is proudly claimed by the Irish, black, and Hispanic communities. In 2010, the National Association of Black Journalists named O’Brien Journalist of the Year. She also received the 2009 Medallion of Excellence for Leadership and Community Service Award from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and was named among Irish America magazine’s Top 100 Irish-Americans.

Illuminating tough stories and making diverse stories relevant are trademarks of the Harvard grad’s career. (O’Brien returned to college to finish her remaining classes while pregnant with her daughter, Sofia, and graduated in 2000.)

In 2007, O’Brien launched the In America series on CNN, starting with “Black in America,” followed by “Latino in America,” and “Muslims in America.” “People are fascinated with race,” O’Brien says. “However, white people are fearful of coming across as racist, and blacks are fearful of being labeled constant complainers. It’s a discussion rife with stereotypes, but [the program] was a way to let us discuss race.”

The series was an honest representation of what groups of people face—failures and triumphs—living in the United States, not just about perpetuating stereotypes. For example, in the second installment of “Black in America,” we encounter Tony Rand, at the time a Democratic senator from North Carolina, and we watch as he meets black relatives at a family reunion. In the fourth installment, we are introduced to blacks who are making things happen in Silicon Valley. With “Latino in America,” O’Brien shows the sad reality that children are held in immigration detention centers, but we also meet Marlen Esparza, a Mexican-American boxer who, before she became a cover girl, competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics, becoming the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic medal for boxing. These stories of diverse Americans are undoubtedly different from the ones we usually see on the news.

O’Brien continues to show similar complexities on Starting Point. For example, she recently had as guests Romeo Santos, a Dominican-American singer, who spoke about his efforts to increase the number of Hispanic voters and educate them in a Voto Latino campaign, and singer Ledisi, who talked about her music and beauty.

O’Brien’s success hasn’t just given her the opportunity to tell unique stories and the power to give a platform to interesting people. She’s also in a position to help those who otherwise would not make it. While covering Hurricane Katrina, O’Brien met Alexia Wilson, who couldn’t afford to attend one of the few schools open in the area. O’Brien and her husband, Brad Raymond, committed to fund Wilson’s education for five years. Then in 2010, they started the Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation to help young girls financially so they can accomplish their goals. “I can’t change the stories, but I can change the outcome,” O’Brien says. The foundation’s first star-studded event in 2011 raised $300,000.

During our interview, O’Brien lights up as she tells me about Tierra Moore, a young woman from Los Angeles with a compelling survival story. Moore’s stepfather tried to kill her and her mother in a fire, but a neighbor helped them escape. They were left without a home, Moore’s tuition at UCLA increased, and her mother had just taken a pay cut. Things looked dire, but Moore was so determined to graduate that she commuted for six hours to and from school and still held two jobs to help the family and pay for school. With the help of O’Brien-Raymond scholarship funds, Moore was able to focus on her education and graduate. “Without help from the foundation, I would not have been able to study abroad in France or even graduate on time, if at all,” Moore says. She finished school with two majors—political science and global studies—and a minor in geography. Now that Moore has her eyes set on Harvard Law School, O’Brien has introduced her to Cecilia O’Brien (her sister), a Harvard Law graduate and patent attorney. Cecilia helped guide Moore through the application process. The scholarship also included a stipend for travel to visit campuses during the search.

O’Brien also tells me about an impressive girl she met while filming “Latino in America.” Maria Arqueta, a young Guatemalan, crossed the Rio Grande using the inner tube of a car tire with the help of a coyote. She got caught and lived in a detention center in Miami, but her mother was more interested in a boyfriend than in Arqueta, who became a ward of the state. When O’Brien met Arqueta to film the documentary, she was struck by Arqueta’s desire to succeed despite all this. Arqueta wanted to complete college and go on to become a pediatrician. As O’Brien followed her story, Arqueta went before a judge, who granted her a visa. O’Brien stepped in to make sure Arqueta had funds and mentors to help her achieve her dreams.

For O’Brien, efforts to help others aren’t isolated acts of kindness and they aren’t done for positive public relations. In The Next Big Story, O’Brien writes about the mentors she’s had along the way who have helped her navigate the male-dominated media industry. O’Brien knows all too well how important mentors are.

When it comes to women and power, O’Brien says we face a huge conflict and that it’s a balancing act that’s “hard to navigate.” Because O’Brien’s mother was tenacious and secure, it’s no surprise that the O’Brien children were too.

“I grew up thinking that being aggressive was a positive thing,” O’Brien says. One day she was stunned and thrown off course during a meeting when a manager called her aggressive and, O’Brien realized, “clearly meant it as something negative.” It was a verbal offense that brought O’Brien to tears after the encounter. Because of that, O’Brien made a vow: “I never go to a meeting without an agenda. As a woman, it’s important not to get sidetracked by someone.”

O’Brien thinks it’s also important not to sidetrack her career by chasing job titles. “I learned to stop looking for the next job with the nice title,” O’Brien says. “It could lead to work that’s not interesting. Instead, I look for the next assignment. What story am I going to tell next? I choose what stories I tell.”

This approach allows her to enjoy the ride. “I want people to think I fought very hard to get diverse voices on camera,” she says. “It’s where I’ve put most of my energy.” DW

Life, Work, and Community

•  Soledad O’Brien and Bradley Raymond have four children, including a set of twins.

•  All of her siblings went to Harvard.

•  She co-anchored American Morning from 2003 to 2007.

•  In November 2008, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health awarded her the Goodermote Humanitarian Award for her efforts while reporting on the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

•  In 2004, she was included in People en Español’s 50 Most Beautiful.

•  In 2007, O’Brien was awarded the NAACP President’s Award.

•  She is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, which named her the Journalist of the Year 2010, and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She is a member of the board of directors of the After-School Corporation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding educational opportunities for all students. She also serves on the board of directors of The Harlem School of the Arts.

Jenny Mero is a frequent contributor to DW.

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