Nov. 16, hundreds of people filled the Commonwealth Auditorium to listen to Soledad O’Brien speak. O’Brien, an award-winning journalist, was named the College of William and Mary’s Hunter B. Andrews Distinguished Fellow in American Politics. Her lecture was also a part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first African-American residential students.
She began her lecture by acknowledging Janet Brown Strafer ’71, Karen Ely ’71 and Lynn Briley ’71 — the first three African-American residential students — who were in attendance.
“I hope that you three understand how important your story is for everyone here,” O’Brien said. “How the fact that your story was told and continues to be told and celebrated is so meaningful and important, especially to the students who are here at this university.”
She encouraged students to speak with the three women about their experiences.
Throughout the lecture, O’Brien talked about her career as a journalist. O’Brien began working in television news as a production assistant for WBZTV in Boston, Massachusetts. She joked that her first job in television news was removing staples from bulletin boards on all three floors of the WBZTV station. O’Brien wasn’t bothered by the busy work; she was happy to be part of the team. Her time in Boston, she said, taught her about the power of storytelling.
“It’s clear that the power was in leveraging certain voices and certain perspectives,” O’Brien said. “The power was in the hands of the producers, who would decide not just what stories would make air, but the point of view, how we would cover them. They would decide how much time people got, whose narrative was elevated, whose story would be left out altogether.”
In 1993, O’Brien began working as an on-air reporter for a local television news station in San Francisco, California. Eventually she worked her way up to chief bureau reporter for the station in Oakland, California. While working in Oakland, O’Brien covered stories that she said were staples of local news. She later came to realize that there was something missing in her coverage.
“Mostly my stories lacked context,” O’Brien said. “Poor people were just poor. Women who drowned their children were just crazy. We didn’t dig into understanding people, and I’m ashamed to say I did not try to understand people’s perspectives.”
She recalled a time when she and her team camped outside of a family’s home on Christmas morning. A boy who lived at the house had shot his sister with the BB gun he had received for Christmas that morning. O’Brien and her team were sent to get a live shot for the 11 o’clock morning news. The mother came outside to ask the camera crews to leave, but no one moved.
“We wouldn’t let her story get in the way of a good headline — ‘A Christmas Tragedy’ — and I am ashamed,” O’Brien said. “We didn’t try to understand anything about this woman or her life. We were covering a dramatic headline.”
Working in Oakland taught O’Brien a lot about the importance of nuanced reporting. She recalled a time when an accident in Marin, California, forced people from the wealthier parts of the San Francisco Bay Area to commute through Oakland, a city known for its high crime rates. Several executive and senior producers came to work complaining about the dangerous drive without realizing that there were people in the room who lived and worked in Oakland.
Their obtuseness reminded O’Brien that if you let somebody tell your story through their lens, you shouldn’t be surprised if it lacks complexity.
“If you let somebody tell your story, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t even recognize yourself in that story,” O’Brien said. “So I am all about taking back your voice and telling your own story. And in this political environment, I think it is essential even if you’re exhausted, even if you’re tired. Never stop insisting that you have a story to tell that matters.”
Her advice resonated with several audience members like Mikayla Sherman ’18.
“I loved how she emphasized that we have to tell our own story,” Sherman said. “I know that wasn’t her entire talk, but the part that stood out to me the most was if you don’t tell your own story for yourself, it can get twisted.”
Following her own advice, O’Brien shared her own family’s story with the audience. O’Brien’s mother is black and Cuban, and her father is white and Australian. Their romance began at John Hopkins University in the late 1950s, a time period in which restaurants would not serve them together on their first date. They married in Washington, D.C., and illegally lived together in Maryland because interracial marriage was banned in the state. Friends advised them not to have children, but they didn’t listen.
O’Brien recalled asking her mother what it was like to raise her older siblings in the 1960s. Her mother told her that sometimes people in the streets would spit on them.
“She said something that I think has always shaped the way I thought about reporting,” O’Brien said. “She said, she calls me Lovey, so she said, ‘Well you know Lovey, we knew America was better than that.’ And I always loved that line because to me it meant, it felt like she was saying we would be part of helping America get to where it needed to be.”
O’Brien has carried her commitment to telling nuanced stories with her throughout her entire career, but she acknowledges that it is a difficult goal to achieve. Throughout the lecture, she showed clips from three documentaries that she produced: “Black in America,” “Black and Blue” and “Beyond Bravery: the Women in 9/11.” She used each documentary as an example of the importance of telling nuanced stories.
Throughout the lecture, O’Brien touched on issues of race, gender and poverty. She emphasized the importance of having conversations about those issues, even if they are uncomfortable.
After the lecture, the audience had the opportunity to ask O’Brien questions. One student, who is an aspiring journalist, asked O’Brien for advice on having a conversation about a controversial topic with a person who is very close-minded. O’Brien told the student that the trick is to keep that person talking by telling them that what they had said was very interesting. She said the key is to listen to them and try to understand why they feel the way that they feel.
O’Brien’s advice to the student stuck with other members of the audience, like Aliyah Wooten ’18. Wooten appreciated that O’Brien encouraged the audience to listen to people who held opposing views.
“I think that element is missing from a lot of the conversations that we’re having,” Wooten said. “And I think the campus could benefit from taking that approach, especially when dealing with a lot of the issues we’re facing here.”