Voyages Lecturer Soledad O達rien Encourages Uncomfortable Conversations | Beaufort County Now

Award-winning journalist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Soledad O達rien visited East Carolina University on Sept. 18 as the premier lecturer in the 2019-20 Voyages of Discovery Series. east carolina university, ECU, voyages lecturer, soledad o'brien, journalist, september 20, 2019
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Voyages Lecturer Soledad O達rien Encourages Uncomfortable Conversations

Publisher's note: The author of this post, Lacey L. Gray, is a contributor to ECU News Services.

Soledad O達rien, host of the Sunday morning syndicated political show 溺atter of Fact with Soledad O達rien, gave the premier lecture of the 2019-2020 ECU Voyages of Discovery Series on Sept. 18. | Photos: Rob Taylor Photography & Design

    Award-winning journalist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Soledad O'Brien visited East Carolina University on Sept. 18 as the premier lecturer in the 2019-20 Voyages of Discovery Series.

    Early in the day, O'Brien met with approximately 30 students who had the unique opportunity to talk with her informally. Later that evening, O'Brien spoke to an audience of hundreds of university and community members about journalistic diversity, serving the public, telling stories and addressing uncomfortable issues that people want to learn more about.

    "It is a great privilege for ECU to host Soledad O'Brien. She holds very high standards as a reporter, correspondent and anchor, and through her work, reminds us of the important role that a free press plays in our democracy," said Dr. Karin Zipf, professor of history, who introduced O'Brien at the evening event.

Prior to her evening lecture, O達rien joined friends of Harriot College at a special speaker痴 reception on the stage of Wright Auditorium.
    "Having O'Brien here tonight is particularly special for me," Zipf said. "As a little girl growing up in eastern North Carolina in the 1970s and '80s, I constantly heard the refrain that little girls could 'grow up to be whatever they wanted to be' and 'achieve the American Dream.'

    "In Rocky Mount, I didn't know any women who had done so, but every night I saw women journalists on screen, including Barbara Walters, Jessica Savitch, Diane Sawyer and the late Cokie Roberts. As it turns out, another little girl was also watching those same women anchor the news; Soledad O'Brien."

    Throughout the day, O'Brien asked her audiences, "What is the role of a journalist?" To which, people replied, "serving the public and providing information."

    This is what O'Brien saw as her calling, to serve and inform the public, but also tell diverse stories. She said the audience wants to understand the issues.

    O'Brien stated that her frustration with journalism today is that a lot of what the audience hears is sensationalized media, people arguing, not answering the questions and not participating in the uncomfortable conversations. As an example, she referred to political panels as wrestling matches.

    Contrary to sensationalism, stories that have done well for O'Brien on her Sunday morning syndicated political show, "Matter of Fact with Soledad O'Brien," she said, pertain to the topics of gerrymandering; knowing First Amendment rights, but also understanding that a boss can still fire people for something they say; hunger; homelessness; and how parents pay for their children's education.

    "Not everyone is going to agree on everything, but I don't think the entire world is divided left and right," O'Brien said. "There are lots of stories that we do where I couldn't tell you someone's political leanings because it is irrelevant to the story. They are trying to figure out how to pay for insulin for their kid. I don't care who they voted for. What they are trying to understand is a policy issue, and how to make that policy issue work for everyone who cares about that issue, regardless of their political leanings. I think this idea of politics as a sport is really not serving people."

    Over the years, O'Brien has covered tough stories, including the Southeast Asian tsunami, the Haiti earthquake and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

    "When I started, I confess, a lot of my time was spent just trying to figure it out," O'Brien said. Early on, she said she didn't always report on the person's story, but she put her head down, studied and learned her craft.

    "The first time I really began to figure it out was in covering Hurricane Katrina," O'Brien said as she described coming across a woman pushing a grocery cart with her children in it, not understanding where the busses were to take them away from the city; or encountering the people who had to cut their way through their attic roofs with axes, where they had retreated to escape from the rising water.

Prior to her evening lecture, O達rien joined friends of Harriot College at a special speaker痴 reception on the stage of Wright Auditorium.
    "To witness that as a reporter, it was really a turn for me," she said. "I remember thinking, this is not a story about a storm. If we cover the story that this is about a storm, we are missing the sociological elements. That understanding a story and reporting a story is about digging into history - where people are, who they are and their backstory. It wasn't just the facts but understanding [people] and trying to hear their voices as well."

    In discussing who she admired and who made an impact in her life, O'Brien talked about her parents, who both passed away earlier this year. Her parents were in an interracial relationship in Baltimore in 1958, when it was illegal in 16 states to get married. They traveled to Washington, D.C., to get married, and lived illegally as a married couple.

    O'Brien is the fifth of six children, and her younger brother was born in 1967, the same year the Supreme Court overturned the ban on interracial marriage.

    "My mom used to say, if you wait for people to get with what you're doing, you might be waiting a long time," O'Brien said. "Sometimes you just have to go do those things."

    She said the struggles her parents encountered - not being allowed into restaurants and being spit on in public - made her ask her mom how they did it.

    "She said, 'We knew America was better,' and what stuck with me was this idea that you have to be part of the making of 'better.' You have to opt in to making it better. None of us have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. It's only better if you jump in and work at making it better."

    This is what spurred O'Brien to dig into issues around race and class through her journalism and storytelling.

    "I knew there was an opportunity to push people into conversations - to use the platform to have uncomfortable conversations that we needed to have - that we still need to have.

    "American history is messy and complicated and sometimes ugly. In order to tell the story appropriately, you have to have truthful and honest conversations and include a lot of different voices,"
she said.

    O'Brien said we need to hold people accountable, make the discussions more relevant, elevate diverse voices, and believe that people and their points of view have value.

    To demonstrate this, in her conclusion, O'Brien showed a brief clip from her documentary "Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11," about six women who played vital roles as rescuers and first responders at ground zero.

    She said she took a different approach to the story because she wanted to "elevate humanity." Ultimately, human experience is what diversity and democracy is about, said O'Brien.

    "A well told story that elevates a different point of view will win," said O'Brien. "This mythology around fake drama and people arguing is just not true. It does not win. It does not inspire. It is not what people want.

    "I knew stories like that (the women of 9/11) were the ones I wanted to be known for. They move people, and those stories later go on and move policy. Not politics, but policy. Who serves us? Who serves the people? That, to me, is what it was all about."

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