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Sunday, February 9,2014

Award-winning journalist to host talk on being black in America

By Jim Phillips

Photo Caption: Soledad O’Brien is bringing her ‘Black in America’ tour to Ohio University.

Famed TV journalist Soledad O'Brien is coming to Ohio University, and she wants to have a serious talk about race.

Her aim in visiting on Thursday, Feb. 20, O'Brien said in a phone interview last week, is "to open up a conversation… I don't think people have to agree. It's not about agreement."

Athens will be the only Ohio stop on a multi-city speaking tour for the journalist, who chairs her own media company, Starfish Media Group, and has worked as an anchor and correspondent for CNN, HBO and Al Jazeera America.

It's also part of the latest installment of her acclaimed "Black in America" ongoing documentary series on CNN, which has examined multiple issues affecting black people in this country, including education, family life, economic challenges and defining racial identity.

Sponsored by the Scripps College of Communication, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and the School of Communication Studies, the event will take place in the fourth-floor Baker University Center ballroom. It is free and open to the public.

O'Brien said the plan is to open up with a 45-minute multi-media presentation, followed by a panel discussion, and finally to open the forum up to public discussion. The word "conversation" came up frequently in O'Brien's comments, as she stressed that her "Black in America" project is not about providing definitive answers, but about prompting people to wrestle with hard questions collectively.

The documentary series has garnered both lavish praise and pointed criticism, with one skeptic suggesting of the original two-part program that it was trying to do far too much in too limited a format.

O'Brien readily conceded the point that the first "Black in America" took on a very large topic in a medium not always noted for its comprehensive approach. "Yep - I completely agree," she said. "That's one of the reasons we wanted to continue the documentary series."

She added that "in a way, it's overly hopeful" to imagine you can deal with as big an issue as the situation of blacks in America in even a series of TV documentaries.

The impact of the series, however, seems undeniable. "It's been crazy," O'Brien marveled. The most gratifying thing to see, she said, has been how many people seem to have been inspired by the program to take action on a personal and social level.

She cited the example of a conversation she had with an official from Echoing Green, a global non-profit that provides funding for "social entrepreneurship" projects, and says its mission is "to unleash next-generation talent to solve the world's biggest problems." O'Brien said the official told her that a significant percentage of those applying for Echoing Green grant funding have indicated that the "Black in America" series "was what influenced them to go into social entrepreneurship."

When she heard that, she added, "I was completely stunned. It really made me kind of tear up. It really was overwhelming."

As the show has progressed, O'Brien said, she has been repeatedly impressed "to meet people who don't have a lot of resources, or even a lot of experience, who really dug in to understand these issues. I'm just amazed at the number of people you bump into who have really made this their life's work."

On the issue of defining racial identity, O'Brien - whose full name is María de la Soledad Teresa O'Brien, and whose parents were immigrants to the United States from Cuba and Australia - said she takes a personal interest.

"I have a dog in this fight," she acknowledged. "I just find it really interesting."

Robert Stewart, director of the Scripps School, said that when he learned from colleague Justice Hill that OU might be able to bring O'Brien to campus for a town-hall conversation, he saw it as a great opportunity to bring faculty and students into a discussion of a topic - diversity - that is a focus of much attention at OU, and is extremely important for future journalists to understand.

"My feeling is, I'm going to get the name of the school up front and center any time there's a chance to talk about diversity… and communicate to our students, 'You really need to be thinking about this,'" he explained.

Stewart said Friday the panelists for the event had not yet been chosen. He said OU will provide a list of potential candidates - including university President Roderick McDavis, and journalist alum Clarence Page - but that O'Brien's people "have their own names, too."

He added that O'Brien's visit will be neither the beginning nor the end of the discussion of diversity at OU.

"Whether this one thing has deep, long-lasting, life-changing impact… when this is over, we're not done either," he noted. "We'll have to work to keep having this conversation."

And to hear O'Brien tell it, that's exactly the outcome she wants to see.

"It's a conversation," she reiterated. "There is no right or wrong answer. We want to open up this conversation, supported by research, and evidence, and storytelling."


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