“You have to talk to each other all the time — as painful as it may be at times — about the issues and the biases that separate us,” journalist, documentarian and entrepreneur Soledad O’Brien told in-person and online audiences Monday at Pomona College’s Big Bridges Auditorium.
O’Brien addressed 7C students and staff, as well as members of the Claremont community, at the fifth annual Payton Distinguished Lectureship in honor of Pomona alum and civil rights icon John Payton’s life and work.
Titled “Civil Rights and a World of Possibilities,” O’Brien’s talk focused on the importance of anti-bias perspective in journalism, especially with the critical role that journalists play in maintaining democracy and holding institutions accountable to the people that they serve.
“If you want to solve a problem, if you need to figure out how to get to a consensus, you can’t be biased against anyone, or you will not create a good policy,” O’Brien said. “Bias limits the ability to confront real issues.”
O’Brien began the lecture by recounting the story of how her parents met in 1958 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a white Australian immigrant and her mother was a Black immigrant from Cuba who came to the United States as a teenager.
They were both Catholic and met at daily mass. On their first date, O’Brien recalled, “every restaurant … would say ‘Yes’ to my dad, ‘You can come in.’ They’d say ‘No’ to my mom.”
O’Brien’s parents eventually got married, but were forced to do so in Washington, D.C. because interracial marriage was illegal at that time in Maryland. Once, O’Brien asked her mom how she managed to raise O’Brien and five other kids in a state where their very existence was against the law, where she’d get spit on while walking down the street.
“She said, ‘We knew America was better than that,’ and I think it’s this that’s really framed a lot of journalism for me.”
“She said, ‘We knew America was better than that,’” O’Brien said, “and I think it’s this that’s really framed a lot of journalism for me.”
Her career in journalism was also motivated by a desire to tell honest, genuine stories of underrepresented people, she said. She recounted her time living in Oakland and working in a newsroom where the executives only printed stories about danger and crime, creating a sensationalized and biased perception of the area.
“I learned very fast [that] if you let others solely tell your story, frame your story and shape your story, there’s a pretty good chance you might not recognize yourself in your story at all,” she said.
O’Brien mentioned challenges in gaining executive support for these programs, recounting that she was once told, “‘don’t make it too Black.’”
“It’s called ‘Black in America!’” she laughed.
At the event, she showed a clip from “Black and Missing,” a four-part documentary series she helped create for HBO that follows the work of two sisters-in-law who lead the Black and Missing Foundation, which is aimed at spotlighting Black missing persons cases.
Responding to a question about how she was able to push for the series to be made, O’Brien said, “One of the things I really focused on was, regardless of what my subject was, it’s gonna be excellent and … I was responsible for that excellent part of it.”
She also gave practical advice for how to have conversations with people who have differing political views.
“When someone was saying something that felt, especially as a woman of color, like a bit of an attack … I would say ‘That is so interesting. Tell me why you feel that way,’” O’Brien said. “Number one, it gave you a little distance, but number two, it allowed you to just get more information from people to try to understand them a little bit better.”
However, she recognized the limits of talking to people if they’re not willing to engage in a respectful, thoughtful conversation.
If faced with someone who clearly doesn’t want to listen, O’Brien offered this piece of wisdom from her mother: “Say: ‘You know what? I’m gonna pray for you,’” drawing laughs and cheers from the audience.
When asked by an audience member about any times she had to face her own bias, O’Brien was quick to own up to a memorable experience in producing her documentary, “Beyond Bravery: The Women of 9/11.”
She remembered blowing off a pitch for coverage of the female heroes present at Ground Zero, believing that this type of coverage of women as rescuers already existed. When her colleagues pushed her to look at the record, however, she discovered the truth.
“They were right. I was a hundred percent wrong,” she said, going on further to thank them for making her realized her own “stupid arrogance.”
You need other people, other diverse voices, to push for things because your own gut is often wrong.
“It really … brought my own bias to bear,” she said. “And it really made me start talking a lot about bias. You need other people, other diverse voices, to push for things because your own gut is often wrong.”
O’Brien then encouraged her audience to challenge their own biases.
I find it really problematic when people think they don’t have bias at all … it scares me, because we all do.
“You can work around your bias. You can talk openly about your bias. You can actually say to people, my bias is this,” she said. “I find it really problematic when people think they don’t have bias at all … it scares me, because we all do.”
Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Tracy Arwari said she appreciated O’Brien’s transparency.
“It’s really difficult for anybody to be so reflective and so thoughtful about naming what either stands in their way or what they know they need to work through in order to achieve what it is that they want to achieve,” Arwari said. “And I think we could all do a better job of that regardless of what our job is.”
Kayla Hankins PO ’24 came to the talk to learn more about journalism from the perspective of a woman of color successful in the field.
Hankins said that she was surprised by the small ways in which O’Brien got to know communities, like “volunteering or stopping to have small conversations.”
“[Something] I’m going to take away from the talk is not being afraid to fall in love with and truly connect to the people you may interview and gather stories from,” Hankins said.
O’Brien ended her lecture by acknowledging current challenges and calling her audience to action.
“Anger and frustration and fear can be blinding. And sometimes the lack of options can be quite depressing,” she said. “I want to live in a world with possibilities and freedom, a place where we’re all included and respected and willing to dig into tough, uncomfortable conversations. I’ll pass along to you the lessons I’ve learned about how to get there. It takes a lot of work.”