Journalist discusses diversity, King’s legacy

HENRIETTA — Soledad O’Brien said that she strives to live out the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. every day as she tells the stories of people in America that might not otherwise be told.

"The common themes in the many documentaries I do is, ‘I don’t want to live like,’" she said. "I don’t want to live in a box I’ve been put in. I refuse to live in that box. … We’re powerful in our diversity. We need to make sure we’re leveraging that power because it’s that power that can make everything better."

Diversity has been the focus of a series of programs she has produced and anchored, including "Black in America" and "Latino in America." A former news anchor with CNN, O’Brien now owns Starfish Media Group that is producing documentaries for several networks. She also has won awards for her reporting, including an Emmy Award.

O’Brien served as the keynote speaker for the 2015 "Expressions of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Legacy" event held Jan. 29 at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Gordon Field House.

"We’re here to honor a person who led the most profound social-justice movement in American history … who changed the lives of millions of people he would never come to know," said RIT President Bill Destler.

The event included performances from Eastman School of Music graduates, violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins and pianist Craig Ketter, and champion slam poets Dominique Christina and Denice Frohman.

"While Richard Strauss might not have imagined someone like me playing his music, fortunately for me, Dr. King did," Hall-Tompkins said prior to her performance.

Unfortunately, America continues to grapple with some of the issues he fought for, about fairness and justice for all humanity, O’Brien said.

"Today, the focus is not Birmingham but Ferguson," she said. "What’s missing is we don’t always hear each other. … His (King’s) ultimate message was very clear. We don’t need to guess. This is not a fight about slavery. This is not about the civil rights movement. This is a fight about being true to a promise, a promise that was made in the very words of our Founding Fathers that they wrote and Dr. King referenced in many of his brilliant speeches and letters."

He was standing up for the American dream, O’Brien said.

"What are you willing to stand up for?" she said to the audience. "How do we imbue humanity into the conflicts that seem at times so intractable? … How do we bring him and dignity back to our lives and the lives of others?"

Born Maria de Soledad Teresa Marchetti O’Brien, she was destined to talk about and fight about diversity, O’Brien remarked. Her mother was Afro-Cuban from Havana and her father was Australian. They married in 1958 in Washington, D.C., when interracial marriage was still illegal in Maryland, where they were students at Johns Hopkins University.

O’Brien was one of six children, who didn’t learn to speak Spanish well because her mother didn’t want them to stand out more than they already did, she said.

"For me, a lot of that (diversity) fight has been a fight against being stuck in a box, a box of other people’s expectations about who you are, what you can do and what you’re capable of doing," she said. "As a journalist, I’ve tried to tell stories that bring a sense of the differences we bring, … our diversity of experiences, economic diversity, diversity of thought. So when we think about diversity, we really think about the value of that."

King’s writings offer insight into what he was thinking throughout his journey, said O’Brien. She studied his letters, speeches and private books housed at Morehouse College in Atlanta for a 2007 documentary, "Words that Changed the Nation."

"He was trying to wash away the stain of racism," she said. "His words come from a man who was inspired by a moment. He wanted to examine: How do you rise up when you have been kicked down?"

Among his quotes, O’Brien found: "After one discovers what he is called to do, he should set out to do it with all the power he has in his system. Do it as if God almighty has ordained you in this particular moment in history."

"Every time I read that paragraph, I think, ‘He’s talking to us,’" she noted. "What is the thing? Go do it."

O’Brien’s talk raised points that were timely and relevant, said Tabita Torres, a senior relationship manager and coordinator for the Latino Leadership Development Program.

"So many people in our community … are dealing with high rates of poverty and discrimination and the struggles of everyday people," she added.

Sady Fischer, a local diversity consultant, also could relate to O’Brien’s experiences as someone who is never "enough" of anything — not black or Hispanic enough, she said. Her mother also never taught her to speak Spanish, she added.

"It was inspirational, emotional," she said of O’Brien’s talk. "The part that hit me was about not being afraid of who we are, to not let other people’s perceptions influence me."

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