To say that Soledad O’Brien cares about education is a vast understatement. As the child of educators, mother to a child with special needs and founder of The Starfish Foundation, the broadcast journalist has dedicated countless hours to the cause.
O’Brien recently hosted American Graduate Day, the kickoff event for American Graduate, a campaign to draw attention to the graduation rate and to celebrate the people who find real solutions to the challenges we face as a nation in keeping kids in school and helping them stay there until graduation. All this the award-winning journalist does alongside running her Starfish Foundation, an initiative dedicated to assisting and mentoring young impoverished women — particularly women of color — on their journey through college and beyond, heading up Starfish Media Group and parenting four kids.
Recently she took time to talk to SheKnows about her busy life, her passion for education and what she loves about motherhood.
More: 20 Inspiring women who are transforming the way kids learn
SheKnows: It’s clear that you care a lot about education. What first drew you to that?
Soledad O’Brien: I grew up in a family of educators — my dad was a professor, my mom was a high school grammar and French teacher — so certainly my entire life education was stressed as incredibly important. And I think especially for my parents, who are both immigrants, and when immigrants come to this country, they understand that education is something that no one can take from them. You might leave the country with absolutely nothing, but no one can take your education from you.
SK: Have you personally encountered any challenges when it comes to your own kids’ education?
SO: Well, you know I have a son who is hearing impaired. He’s been losing his hearing since he was 7 years old, when we first diagnosed him. Now he wears two hearing aids and is being evaluated as a candidate for cochlear implant. When you have a child who has special needs, you really start thinking about children across the board with special needs. If a teacher yells out, “Hey everybody, don’t forget we have a test on Thursday,” he can’t hear that.
I think we have to think about strategies that will help kids who have disabilities, because he’s a super-smart kid. He has a twin brother who is not hearing impaired. They’re exactly the same; you just have to make sure that he has access to the information. And there’s gotta be some accommodations for kids who are smart and excited to learn [but] that just have obstacles getting to the information.
SK: What’s your biggest challenge as a mother?
SO: You know, it’s so much fun. Honestly, the challenge about being a mom is when something goes wrong — someone’s sick, getting someone to doctor’s appointments. You know, it just becomes a little chaotic. But you know, 99 percent of the time, being a mom is just a lot of fun! Especially with the age. My kids are 11, 11, 13 and 14 — it’s such a fabulous age. They’re interesting little people.
You get to watch them grow and become their own people. Things are always going to be challenging. I come from a family of six kids — I knew that when I wanted a lot of kids that it was gonna be hard, you know? It’s a lot, and it can be challenging. But if you can sort of manage the logistics and laugh at the craziness and just not take everything so seriously when everyone is healthy and OK, which is usually our case, then it’s not so bad. We’re very lucky!
SK: What’s one thing you have to do for your kids every day?
SO: I try to connect with them by keeping them on the path, with their homework… just asking, “Do you need any help? Do you need some support?” They’ve got to do their own homework — now they kind of do their homework and come back to me if they have questions. Every day we check in just to see. “Did you have a good day? Just know that if you have any questions, we’re here to back you up.”
SK: You’ve spoken before about how important it is for us to be “champions” of education. How can we achieve that?
SO: The thing that keeps people from graduating is usually “death by a thousand paper cuts,” right? They don’t have the money that they can’t figure it out when their car breaks down. They’ve missed a day, they’ve missed a class… You know, it’s some kind of obstacle where you need a mentor to help navigate and strategize.
Kids who are middle class, socioeconomically, are surrounded by mentors. They have coaches, teachers, they have family friends, their parents have friends. They might have opportunities, they might have jobs that allow them to experience things that kids in poverty often don’t have. Sometimes they come from dysfunctional families. And when you come from a family where money’s a real challenge, then it might not be a priority to get you into a summer internship.
We make sure that our scholars… that it’s not just that they’re academically strong — which is very important — but that they understand all those things that make you a success through college and then onward into a career. How to advocate for yourself, how to ask the right questions, how to double-check your work, how to articulate yourself well, what to wear. All those things are soft skills. If you’ve never had a parent that worked in an office, how would you know what to wear to an office the first day?
SK: You’ve seen the effects of generational poverty firsthand. Is there a solution?
SO: There’s no way out of it other than education. There’s really no way to break that chain — other than winning the lottery. There’s no realistic way to end generational poverty other than to actually educate people so that they can get the jobs, so that people can be self-sufficient. And to be self-sufficient around careers — not just jobs, but careers.