International Women’s Day: Soledad O’Brien Talks Life and Leadership

This post is way overdue. It  should have been posted two weeks ago during Black History Month, but since today is International Women’s Day, it still fits.

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CNN news correspondent and award-winning journalist, Soledad O’Brien delivered a keynote address at the University of Memphis to share her message of resilience and inspiration with students and the community.

Born to an Australian father and an African-American and Cuban mother, O’Brien is known most for her focus on racial identity and the untold stories of people of her heritage through her documentaries, Black in America I & II and Latino in America. Her most recent work, Pictures Don’t Lie, investigated Memphis-based Civil Rights photographer, who was revealed as a FBI informant after his death.

Dropping out of Harvard University’s pre-med program to take a job removing staples from the newsroom bulletin board, O’Brien recognized her affinity for journalism early on, and though excelling in medical studies, decided to choose passion over pay. She shared the secret to her success, advice for young journalists and what made her feel the dirtiest in her career.

“Stop listening to the noise around

you about how the (journalism) business is doing.”

How African-Americans can remain unbroken

According to O’Brien, leadership and staying resilient can keep African-Americans thriving. To live the life Dr. King spoke of his vision in his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, we must take the initiative and create leadership opportunities, big or small, for ourselves and others.

“Leadership is a mindset Dr. King taught us — that if no one else, then it’s me,” O’Brien said. She also referred to a  quote by Dante Ali, “The hottest places in hell are held for those who, in times of moral crisis, remain in neutrality.”

How her racial identity helped to shape her career

O’Brien’s mother often told her, “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not Black, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not Latino.” She shared that she was passed up for two positions early on in her journalism career for the same reason: her race. Once, a managing editor told her there was only one opening for an African-American, but she wouldn’t spot well on camera because of her fair complexion. In another instance, she was wasn’t told she wasn’t a good fit and there were concerns that viewers would have trouble pronouncing her name. Those incidences influenced her wanting to have candid conversations to understand how others viewed racial identity.

On self-discovery and pivotal moments

“I had no passion for medical school,” O’Brien said. “I felt very fortunate  to recognize that not having a passion for something is really bad. I was always unafraid to step out on faith on work on it.”

Her advice for  journalists

“Stop listening to the noise around you about how the business is doing. The industry is always changing and shifting.”

On her experience reporting on Pictures Don’t Lie in Memphis

It was fascinating,” she said. “The Withers family was completely open to us. It was a lot of nuance…..to really talk about what happened. To me, a successful documentary through those grey areas. We want to dig in that and make people thing about time that’s passed.”

On social media’s impact on journalism

Though she agrees that social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter have helped to change the means and speed of reporting, the rules of real journalism will always stand. “You have to check your facts, you have to be fair,” she said. “The basic tenets of journalism stays the same.”

Today, no matter where you are, celebrate your accomplishements and the promise of where you’re destined to go.

Happy International Women’s Day!!