Soledad O’Brien

Commencement Address at Agnes Scott College - May 11, 2013

Soledad O’Brien
May 11, 2013— Decatur, Georgia
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Good morning, graduates. It is such an honor to be part of the class of 2013, in a way.

I once sat where you sat. I know some you were out late last night, kind of just rolled here, probably five minutes before you were supposed to. Some of you have been preparing for this moment since the day you arrived on campus.

And for everybody here, this morning is the culmination of four years of hard work.

Today you're surrounded – look around – by the people who love you the most, love and support you, the people who really got you here. Your brothers and your sisters and your parents and your grandparents, whose sacrifices and whose constant belief you in your abilities has really helped you achieve.

To the parents who are here today: I know you're looking at your graduates here and you see your baby in the crowd, about to fly off to the real world. I have four children so I really know what the anticipation of this very moment is like.

So I wanna lay your fears to rest first, parents. They're not leaving. I'm not speaking metaphorically. Like literally, they are not leaving. These independent young people who like to pretend that they do not need you in their lives – they will move back with you, probably next year, if not the year after. I guarantee it.

I remember when I left home the first time. My parents knocked down the wall in my bedroom – cause we normally had wall that bordered my bedroom and their bedroom. I had no room to come back to. They put my stuff in boxes and put it in the attic. And I was back – twice. So fear not, parents, they are not really leaving you.

To our graduates: I know today in many ways must feel very bittersweet. I can see some of you sort of wistfully looking around. You're crying in the front row, right there, aren't you, yes. Cause it's the place where you've really grown up, where you've really become women. You've developed some deep friendships and very strong bonds. And I think in some ways you're probably worried – as I was many, many years ago – you might lose this connection to your alma mater. Your graduation, in a way, means saying good-bye to it all and everything you've known over the last four years.

Well, I'm going to put those fears to rest, too. You can stop crying. The University will be part of your life forever. The Alumni Association will hunt you down and find you. For those four of you who are joining the Peace Corps – who's going to the Congo? – they will find you there. Your mailings will reach you in the Congo. You could be an investment banker working 120 hours a week, to the point where your own mother cannot get you on the phone – the Alumni Association will track you down. They will ask you for money, I guarantee it.

And since it's graduation, we all know how it's supposed to work. I'm supposed to give some advice, you all should be dutifully nodding in your hands, and the only thing between your diplomas is me, right, so it's like, "Speed it up, lady."

But here is kind of the thing. I don't really give advice. A few years ago a woman's magazine asked me to tell them the best advice I've ever gotten from my mother. They were doing this Mother's Day special, and they said, "We're going to do a full page, you and your mom hugging – Best Advice I Ever Got."

Well, my mother is kind of a tough nut. She's an immigrant from Cuba, and so she doesn't have sort of warm and fuzzy advice. I said, "Listen, probably I shouldn't give you my mom's advice." They said, "No, no, you, your mom hugging, full-page, in our magazine." I said, "Okay, well, my mom's advice was most people are idiots." And the editor of the magazine – you could hear sort of this dead silence. She's like, "Well, we'll call you back." Click. That was it.

But I'll tell you, graduates, a lot of what she said was true. Literally. As you leave here, in many ways, over the next many years, you will be told all the things you cannot do, you cannot achieve and those things you absolutely positively will fail in. Please do not listen, because most people are idiots. And my mother would add, too, that if you listen to those naysayers, well then you're a bigger idiot.

My parents were my role models, frankly, in not listening to what people had to say. They got very good in ignoring people's advice. My mom and dad came to this country for their education. My mother is black and from Cuba, my father is white and from Australia. And they came to this country to go to school. They met at Johns Hopkins in 1958. And the way that they met was that they both went to daily Mass. My dad had a car but my mom used to walk. And my father would basically drive by my mom and hit on her; there's no nice way to put that. And he would roll down the window the car and say, "Would you like a ride?" and my mother would say, "No, thank you," because you don't take a ride from a man you don't know well – even if you're going to apparently sit next to him in Mass. And every day he would ask. And you know, there were no power windows back then, ladies – that was commitment you had to like [pantomiming rolling down a car window] lean in and wind down the window. And every day she'd shoot him down and say no. And then one day she said yes, she would like a ride.

And they made a date to go on a date, but every restaurant that they went to – because it was 1958 in Baltimore, Maryland – every restaurant they went together as a white man and a black woman, they would not serve them. They would not seek them. They would say to my father, "You can come in," but my mother could not come in and they certainly could not sit together. So my mother brought my father back to her apartment – she's an amazing cook of Cuban food – and she whipped up dinner. And my mother would tell this story to me and my three sisters, and her entire point was, "See, girls, if you could cook, you can get a man." I like to say, "I can't make it, but I can make it happen [holding hand to ear as if calling on phone], delivered to my door in about 20 minutes."

My parents decided to get married at the end of 1958, but interracial marriage was illegal in Maryland. And so they got in the car they drove to Washington, DC, and they got hitched, and then they drove back to Baltimore Lake, Maryland, and they lived illegally as a married couple. And when their "friends" – I use that term loosely – told them, "Whatever you do, don't have children, because biracial children will not have a place to fit in this world" – I'm number five of six. My parents were terrible listeners every step of the way.

And I think that's because they realize they didn't have to listen to others to pursue the lives that they really wanted to. They knew that they were on the right side of history and they knew that eventually history would catch up with them. In fact, in 1967, by the time my little brother was born, the sixth child, the Supreme Court would overturn the ban on interracial marriage.

And when my mother would tell me stories about how people would spit on them as they walked down the street – my parents and two of their children, in Baltimore – and I would say to her, "How did you take that?" she said, "Lovey" – she called me Lovey – "Lovey, we knew America was better than that." And she knew that her focus had to be on making America better than that. And she stopped taking advice and stopped being diverted to other issues, and focused on the things that really mattered to her.

Back when I sat where you sit today, I wanted to know from the commencement speaker – will I have a job, will I have a career, will I be successful? I gotta tell you – those are completely the wrong questions. Yes, yes, yes, you will – all those things. The question, though, is what can I contribute to a better understanding of my fellow man.

You need advice, except maybe advice to not take advice that's silly. But you do need to seek out and listen to other people and try to hear them, literally hear them.

I've made a career out of it, and it's been very rewarding. Mostly because I think when you seek to listen, only then can you make a real impact.

And remember, even as you're calculating your student loan debt and your first apartment debt and discover what FICA is in your paycheck, your real debt is to your fellow man.

And how do you seek to understand each other – in our differences, in our similarities – to make the world better for everybody. Because you have an opportunity to be a role model to those who look like you and those who look nothing like you.

I became a reporter because I wanted to tell stories about people like my mother and father. I wanted to ask tough questions. I wanted to understand people's lives and their perspectives. And I think sometimes people think my job is about interviewing famous people or political pundits, and is not. I think my job is to understand people – understand the lives they lead, the choices they've made, their dreams, their goals, their hopes, their fears. I think that's what I do.

When I started reporting documentaries like Black in America and Latino in America and Muslim in America, I did coal miners in West Virginia and women who were rescue workers at Ground Zero and documentaries on post-Katrina New Orleans and Haiti – all those things taught me a really important lesson, which is we have a shared humanity, we actually all want the same thing.

And people would give me advice – "Don't do that. Go for the big story." Why talk about a subset of people, whether it's Muslims or women or African-Americans or coal miners. I felt by telling those individual stories, by giving a voice to that history, by digging into those particular conversations, we could reveal more about America. To give some perspective so people would understand each other better. Peering through walls, in a way, so we could see at the end of it all we're actually very much the same.

And if we start with understanding that our dreams are really everybody's dreams, we have a better understanding that we're part of a bigger whole, and not divided by political labels and gender and race and class and religion. We're really made stronger as a nation because what binds us, in spite of all those differences that we have – and those differences can be explored and celebrated and examined and sometimes, yes, shouted about – it's okay.

But understanding people by hearing their stories that you've never heard before is the first step, I think, in building bridges over those walls.

America is better than that, is what my mother said. And that's true.

The best thing about my job – and as you commence, graduates, into a new beginning, can be the thing about this phase of your lives – my best and most important stories have come from people whose names we'll never remember because they are stories of the American dream. And regardless of the job that you're starting, the next step but you're taking, you too can work to understand people where they are.

And if you think you're leaving here and you're done with learning, you're not. Here's what you've learned here. You've succeeded in learning how to learn. And to make a life, not just a living, requires learning what it means to be responsible other human beings.

Last month I was in Haiti. I worked as a volunteer with my daughters in an orphanage, and that orphanage was a focus of a documentary that I did in the wake of Haiti's earthquake. Tent cities would pop up overnight. Literally, there'd be 10,000 people the next morning, 20,000 people by the end of the day, 35,000 people would be camped out in a park right outside my window. And trucks would roll by, and you'd think, "Wow, that is so weird. That truck looks like it's full of – oh my god, it's full of bodies of people" who had died in the earthquake. It was horrible, hard. And yet the place was full of hope. People would get up in the morning and sweep their tent city.

I was telling the story of missionaries who were working to save some of the 450,000 orphans at an orphanage, and after wandering the grounds for a while we opened up the back a box truck and inside were 25 infants, all swaddled, and they were dying because they had this terrible cycle. They were dehydrated. They'd feed them milk and rice mush, which you can't feed a baby. They'd get sick, they'd get dehydrated, et cetera, et cetera. And I said to the missionary, whose story I was doing, "How do you do this? How do you continue to work when there is no light at the end of the tunnel? How do you work to save lives and make change with so much sadness around you and failure at every turn? How do you do that?" And she said to me, "Well, Soledad, it's really the starfish story." I said, "I don't know what that is. What's the starfish story?" "The starfish story – you know? A boy is walking along the beach and the tide's gone out and all these starfish have been beached on the sand, and so the boy starts picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean. And a man comes up to him and says, 'What are you doing? This beach goes on for miles. There are literally millions of starfish on the beach. This is a complete waste of your time.' And the kid picks up a starvation says, 'Well, I guess it matters to this one,' and he chucks it in.

I love that story because I felt is a metaphor not just for that documentary but, of course, for our lives on a shared planet. The solution can only come when we each focus on our own little corner and are joined by enough people in their corners so we can actually make change and have progress.

Dante said. "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality." There's nothing worse than doing nothing and saying nothing when your voice is needed. There's nothing worse than that.

So as you head out into the world – into new jobs, into new life experiences – don't maintain that neutrality. Pursue excellence and break down walls and push through barriers to really try to understand people. People you don't know, and even those people who you think you know but you don't know.

Seek to know so that you can understand communities other than your own, because ultimately we're in this together. And to make America even greater than that is going to require a certain curiosity about each other and accountability, frankly, to each other.

But it is that which will bring you satisfaction in your life that has no measure, because it is that that will improve the world for everyone.

Congratulations, graduates.

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