All eyes were on world-renowned Journalist Soledad O’Brien as she spoke at Tennessee State University’s Honors Program Anniversary Luncheon on March 26. The luncheon honored Dr. McDonald Williams, the first Director of the Honors Program. After speaking at the luncheon in the Gentry Complex, O’Brien also spoke as the keynote speaker for the Honors Convocation in Kean Hall. The Convocation was held to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Honors Program. O’Brien delivered a personal speech entitled “Diversity: On TV, Behind the Scenes and In Our Lives.”
“I’m doing a whole Tennessee tour,” she told The Tennessee Tribune, noting that she will be speaking at every major college in Tennessee, including Middle Tennessee State University, Belmont University and a host of others. The night before speaking at TSU, she delivered her speech to a packed house at the Clement Auditorium at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN. Wearing her trademark ponytail and a gray dress, O’Brien talked about many topics including her life growing up, journalism, racism in America, and showed a brief clip from one of her documentaries about the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks.
O’ Brien became a familiar face to television viewers everywhere by anchoring “Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien” and “American Morning” on CNN in 2003. In 2011, she earned an Emmy for her reporting of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” Her coverage of Hurricane Katrina for CNN resulted in a George Foster Peabody Award for both her and the network. O’Brien’s “Black in America” series became one of CNN’s most well-received international programs.
She was named Journalist of The Year by the National Association of Black Journalists in 2010.
O’Brien’s book, “The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities,” recalls topics including her start in journalism and the struggles of growing up as a mixed race child. (There is a story in the book about Civil Rights Leader Jesse Jackson telling her that she ‘doesn’t count’ as an African-American). O’Brien’s parents were both immigrants – her mother was an Afro-Cuban and her father was an Irish Australian. The couple was denied marriage in Maryland so they got married in Washington, D.C. and then moved to St. James on Long Island’s North Shore. Even there, they couldn’t escape racism entirely. “My mom and two older sisters used to get spit on when they walked down the street,” she said. “Imagine that. This was the early 1970s. Racism has come a long way in America but we still have quite a way to go.”
O’Brien left CNN last year to begin her own company, Starfish Media Group. “I can now tell the stories that I want to tell,” she said, explaining that CNN’s recent coverage of beard transplants and pop star Justin Bieber’s arrest were not newsworthy. “If I were still there, that’s what I would be covering.” O’Brien is known for taking a different approach to her stories. “The most meaningful stories to me are the ones where you’ve got to understand the point. What is the meaning? When we were researching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s handwritten notes of his speeches for a documentary I produced, we saw where anger would lead to hope. He wanted to analyze how people rise back up when they’ve been kicked down.” With that hidden meaning, O’Brien’s “Black In America” special on King had quite an impact.
Another powerful story was the clip she showed the audience from a documentary she produced about a female police officer who saved several lives during 9/11 before losing her own when one of the Twin Towers collapsed. “There aren’t too many stories about women heroes,” she said. “Because it’s March, I’ve been covering a lot of stories about women.”
O’Brien also stretched the importance of legacy, explaining that even the small things that matter to people could go a long way. “Whether you’re a journalist or whatever you do, think about what matters in life. Think about what you can do to make the world a better place.”