Soledad O’Brien

Commencement Address at Spelman College - May 18, 2014

Soledad O’Brien
May 18, 2014— Atlanta, Georgia
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Good afternoon. It is an honor to be with the Class of 2014 on such a special and important day. I look out on you, graduates, and you embody for me my own hopes and dreams for my two young daughters, for our future. You're smart, you're accomplished, you're amazing.

In the audience today among the graduates is a young woman whom I have known since she was in high school, and I am so proud that she is graduating today. But I'm doubly proud that she is a graduate of Spelman College. I am so proud of the woman that you have become, Terry.

Like all of us, she has struggled and she has prevailed. Like all of us, she's made some crazy choices at times. And like all of us, she has grown from those choices. But what she does not know and what you all do not quite know is that you have done it. It's your grit. It's your resilience. It was your refusal to give up. It was you picking yourselves up when you fell. Today is a day that we celebrate you.

You are surrounded by those who love you best and who in some ways are very responsible for getting you so far – your parents, your grandparents and your siblings and your friends. It's because of them and their love and support and their pushing at times that you are now positioned so well for the futures that you're facing.

And to the grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles – I know that you are looking at these scholars. You're looking at your baby about to graduate. I know the feeling of this day approaching. I have four children myself, so I know what it feels like. Your baby is leaving the nest. They're off to their real lives.

But today I want to lay your fears to rest. They are not really leaving you and I'm not speaking metaphorically. Like literally, they're not leaving you. If they're not already living at home, they're going to be home again with their laundry, with their friends, with their stuff. They are literally not leaving. Between now and I'm gonna guess age 40, those darling children will be moving home about three times into their old bedrooms.

For you students who feel today may be the end of an era, a day that you say goodbye to a community that has nurtured you, the friends that you've had now for years, saying goodbye to your alma mater, let me again lay your fears to rest. You're not. Spelman will keep track of you forever. It's called the Alumni Association, and if you look at page 4 in your program, they'll be addressing you later this morning. Have you not seen how much President Tatum tweets? She will at you on Twitter, and if you get a really good job she's gonna send you a barrage of emails about fundraisers. Because you are about to be alums. You have jobs. You have actual money that doesn't belong to your parents. This means that you can be potential donors.

Those of you go on to investment banking where you will work a hundred and twenty hours a week as new analysts to the point where your own mothers will not be able to get you on the phone, Spelman's alumni association will track you down. For those of you who joined the Peace Corps in the remotest parts of the globe, the Spelman alumni association will track you down. Even if there is no service by cell in the village that you're living in – trust me on this.

Now you know how commencement is supposed to work. I am the speaker so I will stand up here and spout all kinds of brilliance for you, and you should nod and soak it all in. But truly, I tend not to give very much advice and I'll tell you why.

Many years ago I was asked by a women's magazine if I would tell them the best advice my mother ever gave to me, and I said, "I think that's a really bad idea," because my mother is kind of a tough-nut mom. She's not a warm-and-fuzzy mom. She's sort of hardcore mom. And so I said, "Let's not do that," and they said, "No, no, this would be a great idea. You'll have a picture of you and your mom hugging the first half of the page and then the bottom half will be the best advice my mom ever gave me." I said, "Okay, well, my mother's best advice was most people are idiots." The editor on the phone said, "Yeah, I don't think we can use that. I'll call you back." Never heard from her again.

But it was true. It was the best advice, because you will find that many people will tell you and spend their lives telling you what you cannot do, what you should not do, what you never will be able to accomplish. They'll tell you why your ideas will not work, why you will fail when you try something you haven't done before. And my mother's point was they're idiots and you shouldn't listen. And I think my mother would be in a position to know.

My parents are both immigrants to this country. They met in 1958. My father is white and from Australia. My mother is black and from Cuba. And they met because they both attended daily mass. My mom would walk but my father had a car, and he would drive up next to my mom and basically hit on her as they were going to church. I know, I know. He used to wind down the window of his car and ask her would she like a ride. And remember, in 1958 there were no power windows, right? Had to lean in and commit. Every day, every day he would say, "Would you like a ride?" And every day she would say, "No, thank you," because as she told me and my sisters, you don't take a ride from a man you don't know well, even if later you'll be sitting next to him in church. Every day: "Would you like a ride?" Every day she said, "No, thank you."

And then one day she said, "Yes, I'll take a ride." And they made a date in the car to go on a date that night. And that night every single restaurant they went to in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1958 turned them away because my mother's black and my father's white. And they said to my father, "You can come in," and they'd say to my mother, "But you certainly can't come in and you absolutely cannot come in together." And so my mother, eventually, after being turned away from every restaurant, took my father back to her apartment and made him an amazing meal of Cuban food, because she's a fabulous cook. And he would share that story with me and my three sisters and my two brothers, and the entire point was, "See, girls, if you could cook, you could get a man."

I like to say – I can't cook at all – and so I like to say I can't make it but I could make it happen, delivered in 20 minutes or less.

My parents decided at the end of 1958 that they would get married, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in the state where they lived – Maryland – and in 16 other states in the nation. And so they drove to Washington, DC, and they got hitched, and then they drove back to Baltimore and lived illegally as a married couple. And when their friends said, "Whatever you do, don't have children because biracial kids will not fit in this world."

I'm number five of six. My parents were terrible listeners every single step of the way. And from that I have learned, do not listen to other people's take on the life you should lead.

My parents were excellent role models in not listening, and so I will not give you any advice today, but I will tell you what I have seen.

I see that we live in interesting times. There is a black family in the White House and yet the poorest people in this nation are people of color. Women have more opportunities than ever before – more power, more political clout – and yet we are still paid less. And recent books and articles admonish us to be confident, darn it, and don't call me bossy – it's hurtful – and ratchet down those hopes and dreams because you can't have it all.

People have declared racism is dead but a new poll of millennial shows that many think we are living in a post-racial America, but all around me I see vestiges of wage and opportunity inequality in the stories that I do every day. The wage gap, the education gap, the opportunity gap.

Donald Sterling and his Clippers are leading the newscast with all the crazy racist stuff that he was spouting. But if you want to talk about systemic racism, everybody rolls their eyes. They're not that interested.

We live in some interesting times.

But here's what you need to know. It's simple. Carve your own way. Don't listen to conventional wisdom. Listen to yourself – your dreams – and don't let other people's vision of what is possible or what is true sway you from what you can do. Because by not listening, you can figure out what your heart is telling you to do.

When I was a student, I was studying English and American literature and I was pre-med. But then I realized that telling stories was my passion and I switched and I started working at a local TV station. It kind of worked out. Now I travel the globe telling stories.

For me, not taking advice means that I would ignore those people who said I'm not black enough to do a documentary series called Black in America. It meant I would ignore the guy who told me in a job interview that I should change my name because Soledad is a name that people would not be able to understand. My full name is María de la Soledad Teresa Marquetti O'Brien, which – my parents will appreciate that you cheered for that – you know, and for those of you who don't speak Spanish, loosely translated, that's the Virgin Mary. And so when I was asked to change my name I figured that would be risking being struck dead by lightning on the way home. So I said no.

Not taking advice meant that I would ignore the helpful people who told me moms shouldn't travel. It was 2005. The southeast Asian tsunami had struck the day after Christmas and I had just had my twin boys, and a young woman on the CNN assignment desk called me to ask if I would go to Thailand to cover the tsunami. Or actually she called to make sure I wouldn't go. She said, "I know you're a new mom." I had four children under four. She said, "I know you're not going to want to travel but I had to call just to cross you off the list of people that I'm asking." I was like, "I have four children under four. Put me on a flight to Thailand! That sounds amazing! Are you kidding me?"

So graduates, you, too, will laugh when someone tells you what women cannot and won't and should not do. You will carve your own way.

Here is what I know. Bad things sometimes happen, and they continue to happen until good people get in the way. And I've seen this time and time again on every single story that I have covered. Be that good person who gets in the way. Decide what you want to be. And I'm not talking about a job. I'm talking about the kind of person you want to be. It is up to you and no one else.

I spent my first year after college answering phones and removing staples from walls, but my dream was to tell stories of people whose stories weren't often told, people like my mom and many folks in this audience. People who are on the cusp of amazing things that they can be brave and committed to what life can be, unfettered from the expectations of others if they're truly, truly unafraid.

And what I've seen in my career, whether it's covering tsunamis in Asia or Hurricane Katrina or New Orleans or earthquakes in Haiti, is that pretty much we all want the same thing. We're much more alike than we are different. You need to break through walls that you think exist between people who don't look like you and don't act like you, because those walls do not have to exist.

You need to seek to understand why people act like they do and why people do what they do. Seek to know people where they are. You don't always have to agree, but having conversations is the only way to bridge the distance in understanding each other.

Not taking advice means you can choose to stand up for people who need your voice and you'll have that chance, unfortunately, every day to say this is not okay. Or you can choose to walk by and avert your eyes when you see an injustice big or small, but be that person who stops at the risk of voicing an unpopular position. Say this is not okay, this is not okay because America is better than that.

You have a great education – really one of the best that money can buy – and that means that you have an obligation, because not everyone has been given the chance that you got. And that obligation is to use the power that you have been given to help others who have not been quite so lucky, to use your voice in defense of others who cannot speak for themselves.

People can be mean and unfair at times, but far more people are good and they're generous and they're helpful and they're hopeful and they struggle and they dream and they juggle and they screw up at times and they recover, because they, too, are trying to figure out their way.

And that means that you need to lead with an open heart and a forgiving heart, and that means that you're going to have that little heart stomped on a few more times that you probably like, but if you go where passion and that heart leads you, I guarantee you you will have incredible experiences.

I have.

Invest your heart and your soul in ideas and people that maybe other people don't care about or don't even see the value in. Not doing those things does not make you clever, it makes you cynical. And being cynical when you are young is obnoxious and it's boring and it's not clever when you've come this far and worked so hard to have a great education that has positioned you to do so many things.

In 1958, my mother and father were living as a married couple in Baltimore, Maryland, and my mother would tell me the story of how people would spit on them as they walked down the street together. And I said to her, "Oh my goodness, how did you deal with that? Was that like?" And she said, "Oh, lovey.." – she calls me lovey – "Oh, lovey, we knew America was better than that and we knew we could be part of making it better." That's what that was about.

She knew that if you were knocked off your path any time someone spit on you – literally or metaphorically – you might not get where you're trying to go. Because her dream was the American dream that she would realize, coming out of poverty and Cuba and seeing all of her six children graduate from college and all of her grandchildren on the path to college.

So please, as my mother would advise you if she were sitting here right now, she would say, "Please do not listen to idiots. Figure out your dream and be brave enough to go and live it." Otherwise, as a friend told me the other day, someone will hire you to help them with their dream and that doesn't sound quite as fulfilling does it?

Today, you begin some new and amazing things and also a lot of mundane crap, too. Yes, you need to learn how to change the paper in a fax machine. I strongly suggest that you learn to fetch a good cup of coffee.

But don't let people kill your joy. You'll find them. They will glom onto your shoe like gum.

And so I would advise that starting today, you remove people from your life who make you feel bad about who you are and what you want to be, who make you question where you are headed and where you are going. Don't let people steal your joy from life, because they will try. You have your lives ahead of you to do well and do good in this world, and to be great and to be good in this world, and to find greatness in others and goodness in others, because it is all around us, I promise you.

Tomorrow will be a day of big questions. Who do you want to be? What you want to stand for?

You have been positioned, Spellman class of 2014, to do great things. But if you do them in the service of others, you will discover that selflessness is ultimately what makes you great.

Congratulations and good luck.

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