In York, Soledad O’Brien talks race, women in business and navigating uncomfortable conversations

Soledad O'Brien - (Photo / Submitted)

Emmy award-winning reporter Soledad O’Brien has elevated the voices of the disenfranchised and underserved throughout her career. Recently, she assisted in the elevation of York County’s voices with a talk at York College.

O’Brien’s talk, “Facing History: Why Real Stories of Real People Matter in the Public Record,” kicked of the college’s yearlong series, York’s Hidden Figures. The series celebrates the contributions of communities of color and other underserved populations, according to Dominic F. DelliCarpini, dean of the college’s Center for Community Engagement.

During the talk, O’Brien touched on her experiences on breaking news all over the world – from Haitian orphanages following a massive earthquake, Hurricane Katrina to the BP Gulf Coast oil spill and the Southeast Asian tsunami. Her documentary series, “Black in America,” and “Latino in America” are among CNN’s most successful domestic and international series.

O’Brien is also the founder and CEO of Starfish Media Group, a multi-platform media production and distribution company that aims to uncover and produce stories that take a challenging look at the often divisive issues of race, class, wealth, poverty and opportunity, through personal stories. Starfish Media Group has 11 employees. 

With an extensive background in dealing with race relations in her reporting, we sat down with O’Brien to hear her perspective as it pertains to York County.

CPBJ: What does reputation of race do to a community and can it be changed?  

O’BRIEN: Unfortunately, we see these instances all the time. To me, it’s a very good indication of something I’ve long known, which is: these issues around race are complicated and difficult to ferret out and this idea of a ‘Kumbaya’ are not realistically going to happen unless people have some kind of courage to dig into some of these challenges. It’s one of the reasons why I’m giving this talk today. A big part of the journalism I’ve done is to really look into how we’ve gotten where we are. Sometimes news media doesn’t tell the whole historical story. And sometimes that’s because you have x-amount of space or x-amount of time, but it’s a real challenge. People don’t just end up where they are. There’s all kinds of historical reasons why we end up where we are.

CPBJ: How do you navigate complicated and unpleasant conversations?

O’BRIEN: Those things require some leadership. And when people stop talking about race, that means ‘it’s all good,’ but it’s clearly not. To me, it’s always an example of what I already knew: if you don’t have some kind of navigation through these uncomfortable conversations, you’re never going to end it. 

It’s scary to dig into conversations about race and how people feel. Until you really dig into that and have real conversations, I don’t think you’re really going to solve anything.

CPBJ: How do we start to solve these problems around racial bias?

O’BRIEN: You have to have the guts to ask the difficult questions and do the math.  

I was just having a conversation about this the other day where I was talking about a big, multinational business and I had been interviewing the CEO and I just kept saying to him: ‘If we weren’t talking about why women of color were leaving your business and we were talking about how 70 percent of your refrigerators were failing, you would want to solve that problem.’

CPBJ: What did you learn after producing “Black in America” and “Latino in America”?

O’BRIEN: What I learned is that people are really all the same. That’s the beauty of life and especially of being American. We all have these universal experiences. What you learn is people rooting for their kids to succeed is a universal experience. People losing their jobs or their holds on where they are in the middle class is a universal experience, so why not take the opportunity to elevate some of those stories?

CPBJAs a journalist, what kind of responsibility do you have to reporting?

O’BRIEN: I feel a tremendous pressure to get it right because often, with stories about minorities – and I would include women in minorities on this – you get one chance. If your panel on women in business sucks, you will never do it again. And everyone will be like, ‘yeah, no one likes women in business,’ regardless of what your data says. And so, there’s this pressure and I want to win. It’s to win in terms of critical acclaim, and I want people to say stories about women are interesting. 

CPBJ: Is York County and its communities much different than other communities?

O’BRIEN: I think York is pretty typical of a lot of communities. Regardless of whether a community is liberal, progressive, or conservative, if it’s a red state or a blue state, you have seen online where these things happen in every single corner. People are inherently biased. We know that and I don’t think we have enough conversations about racial bias.

Emily Thurlow
​Emily Thurlow covers York County​ for the Central Penn Business Journal. Have a tip? Drop her a line at ethurlow@cpbj.com.

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