Journalist Soledad O’Brien lectures on democracy and race

Journalist Soledad O'Brien spoke about race and democracy March 31 during the fourth annual “Delivering Democracy" lecture held by the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. (Celeste Rojas/DD)

Award winning journalist Soledad O’Brien gave a lecture and discussion on democracy and race Saturday.

O’Brien spoke during the fourth annual “Delivering Democracy” lecture held by Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. After the Q&A and a standing ovation, O’Brien was presented with the Award of Courage by Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director for Arizona State University Gammage.

O’Brien was welcomed to the stage at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church by a mixed crowd of ASU students, fellow journalists and admirers who came to hear her speak.

“I am so delighted that you are here,” Bishop Alexis A. Thomas, Senior Pastor of the church said as he welcomed the audience for the lecture.

O’Brien began the lecture discussing her career, from her beginnings doing coffee runs for her team to becoming bureau chief in Oakland for NBC affiliate KRON. Currently, she is an award-winning news anchor and the founder of Starfish Media Group.

O’Brien presented her background and described her parents’ experiences in a biracial marriage where they had to get married in another state and live illegally in their home state.

She said that people told her parents there was no space for biracial kids, and some people spit on them. O’Brien said the most important takeaway from these experiences was the message from her mother that “America is better than that.”

“There is no American look. We look like everything,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said people should always civilly engage with one another, not just in times of unhappiness. She said seeing a room with exclusively aging white legislators making policy is a worrisome picture and that diversity is needed so that our government can be as mixed as its people.

O’Brien highlighted the importance of giving a voice to those who do not have power. She referenced her own privilege to do so due to colorism, which is discrimination in which people are treated based on the social meanings attached to their skin color. In her case O’Brien indicated her lighter skin tone as an advantage even though she is of Cuban decent.

O’Brien also criticized the modern state of the news media, saying it has moved away from telling peoples’ stories and opted for news that gains the most publicity.

Discussion facilitator Chandra Crudup said many journalists from the Walter Cronkite School were in attendance. She encouraged them to gather the facts, to add data and research to their reporting and to always remember to tell peoples’ stories for compelling news.

O’Brien encouraged young people to graduate from college and to be a symbol that college is “do-able.” She said it is important to ask for mentorship and sponsorship and to prove the value of the work you’re doing.

“Just work hard all the time,” O’Brien said.

Abbigail Hopkins, an attendee who asked O’Brien a question about her career, said she agreed with her advice, both about being genuine and about getting scholarships to graduate college. Hopkins said she O’Brien’s words had driven her toward a career in journalism.

Contact the reporter at Celeste.Cruz.1@asu.edu.