4:47 p.m., Sept. 19, 2008----Diverse skills, experiences and backgrounds are the best ingredients for solutions to the most pressing problems today, Soledad O'Brien, anchor and special correspondent for CNN: Special Investigations Unit, said when she delivered the keynote speech during the opening ceremony for the University of Delaware's ninth annual Latino Heritage on Thursday evening, Sept. 18.
O'Brien, who was introduced by UD President Patrick Harker, said the 2008 U.S. presidential race is an illustration of how times have changed and urged the audience of more than 400 in the Clayton Hall auditorium to seize the moment and speak up and promote diversity.
“Things are changing; we've seen it in this election cycle. Not only is the McCain-Palin ticket diverse, the Obama-Biden ticket is diverse.” O'Brien said. “This is an opportunity to change the thinking. This is an opportunity to change the paradigm of what used to be to what we can expect to get....History will be made in this election cycle.”
O'Brien said the current climate is a sharp contrast from her own experiences years ago when she was denied jobs because she was either not black enough or her refusal to change her name, which was considered “tricky.”
O'Brien said her mother, a black Cuban who in 1958 had to marry a white Australian in Washington, D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in Baltimore, taught her children to persevere and to always find solutions around the obstacles that they would encounter in life.
Such determination, O'Brien said, was demonstrated by her elder sister, Estela, who fought against all odds as she was constantly urged to abandon physics as a major at Harvard because women and minorities were not expected to do well in such an academic field, and eventually earned a master's degree in astrophysics, as well as doctor of medicine and doctor of philosophy degrees and became an eye surgeon.
Using examples from incidents she encountered while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, O'Brien said that the good news is that the United States is certainly a nation of tackling problems.
She spoke about Deomonte Love, a 6-year-old boy who, when found walking along a highway with his younger siblings and other toddlers after being rescued from New Orleans, responded to a question about who was in charge of them by confidently stating “I'm in charge.”
“If one little boy can accomplish that in a disaster; land on the [highway], get all the kids to hold hands and wait until they find a grownup to get them to safety, then what can we do? What can we do?”
O'Brien said the transition into a knowledge economy requires the convergence of not just the highest measure of intelligence, but a rich mix of input from people of different backgrounds.
Citing the example of her diverse CNN team that produced the landmark series, CNN Presents: Black in America, a sweeping CNN on-air and digital initiative breaking new ground in revealing the current state of black America 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., O'Brien said the series was enriched by the diversity in her team.
“High ability and high diversity gets you a bunch of smart people with very different experiences who can all add to the discussion,” she said.
Quoting Dante Alighieri, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality." O'Brien said that there is nothing worse than doing nothing and saying nothing at times when one's voice needs to be heard.
“The time is now,” O'Brien said. “The opportunity is now to have your voice heard....We have so many big issues we need to solve....They are not going to be solved by one smart person leading the way. These are problems that are going to be solved by everyone bringing their diversity to the table and throwing highly thoughtful and intelligent and wide-ranging solutions together. All of us, in our diversity, bringing solutions to the table. That is what's critical.”
O'Brien, who drew a standing ovation, also was honored by Newark Mayor Vance A. Funk III with a plaque naming her mayor of Newark for the day.
O'Brien reports hour-long documentaries throughout the year and files in-depth series on the most important ongoing and breaking news stories for all major CNN programs. She also covers political news as part of CNN's "Best Political Team on Television."
O'Brien joined CNN in July 2003 as the co-anchor of the network's flagship morning program, American Morning, and distinguished herself by reporting from the scene on the transformational stories that broke on her watch. Her efforts following Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Phuket, Thailand, have earned her many awards and critical acclaim.
Before she joined CNN, O'Brien worked at NBC News, where she had anchored the network's Weekend Today since July 1999. During that time, she contributed reports for the weekday Today Show and weekend editions of NBC Nightly News and covered such notable stories as John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash and school shootings in Colorado and Oregon. In 2003, she covered the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and later anchored NBC's weekend coverage of the war in Iraq. Additionally, in 1998, she traveled to Cuba to cover the historic visit by Pope John Paul II.
O'Brien earned a bachelor's degree in English and American literature from Harvard University. She is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Article by Martin A. Mbugua