Soledad O’Brien spoke at this morning’s Dillon Lecture Series. We all know her from her work on CNN, and it was great to see her in person.
Greg took photos from one place and me from another.
She spoke about diversity issues in a different way, weaving in stories from various places and people. She told a story about a relief worker in Africa puzzling over how to educate girls. At about eight years old, the girls became very valuable to their mothers at home, so they stopped sending them to school. The solution was to feed the girls at school, as well as give them food to take home. That shifted the paradigm and made it more valuable for them to go to school.
They also realized that when they educated boys they tended to leave the area. But when they educated girls they stayed behind and worked in the community. That, of course, meant their efforts reached further.
She talked quite a bit about her work in covering Katrina. As she put it, “Katrina blew in and illuminated a host of problems that had been unknown for years.”
She spoke about talking to the sheriff of St. Bernard Parish and asking him how much damage there was. His reply was, “roughly 100%.” They had two buildings that were not damaged in that community of about 70,000 people. When asked about the racial issues, he said it wasn’t racial, that it was socioeconomic. As he pointed out, 97% of his parish was white.
She said the moment she knew it was really, really bad was when they went to the convention center and saw a man sitting in a chair, dead from a gunshot. Three days later they were back to do another story and he was still there. She knew it was bad that no one had bothered to remove that man’s body.
That sheriff told her stories of how some of the men he thought were the bravest crumbled in the crisis, whereas others who seemed to meek rose to the challenge. He told about two drug dealers they had with them the day the storm hit. These men couldn’t swim, and had a long history of trouble with the law, but rescued numerous people. The sheriff hired them.
She spoke a bit about her family. Her mother is Cuban, her father Australian. They married in 1958 when interracial marriages were illegal in Maryland. So, they drove to DC to get married.
Soledad is the fifth of sixth children, and she said her mother always insisted to all of them to not ever let anyone else define who they were – racially or otherwise. She told them to, “Do what you want to do. If there are obstacles, go around them.”
She said at the luncheon that her parents had the attitude that education is something no one can ever take away from you. Soledad and her five siblings all graduated from Harvard.
She said her mother was very no nonsense and when Soledad was asked to be part of an article about what’s the best advice her mother ever gave her Soledad hesitated. The editors were talking to her about it and finally Soledad told them the best advice her mother ever gave her was, “Most people are idiots.” She said the editor said, “we’ll get back to you” and hung up. She said her mother’s attitude was always, “Dream, and do what you want to do.”
At the end of the luncheon today someone asked about memorable interviews and she said they were, “interviews were people said something.” She then summed up what I think everyone who has ever had the urge to be a journalist feels. “It’s when you get someone to speak the truth. Their truth. What their truth is.”
She was gracious enough to pose for a photo with Julie. Local hosts were taking Soledad on a tour of the Cosmosphere and the Kansas Underground Salt Museum later today. I’m glad she had an opportunity to enjoy the town a bit. She said she loves to travel.
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