O’Brien is the daughter of immigrants, a black Cuban mother and an Irish Australian father who married in Washington, D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in Maryland. They settled in Long Island, New York, where Soledad was born, the fifth of six children, all Harvard graduates. “I have a different perspective than others on issues of race,” she says. “Sometimes a question that may seem offensive coming from another person, with me comes from a place of understanding, of struggling with identity.”
She brings that understanding to her work, whether covering a disaster or hosting a documentary, such as Latino in America, which aired in 2009. “Until she did that documentary, I don’t think Soledad even realized how passionate she is about the destiny of Latinos in this country,” says Arce, also the daughter of immigrants. “Soledad always considered herself a member of the community, but I’m not sure she knew how vital she is to Latinos, how much she can really do as far as telling their story.”
Her high-profile platform allows her to keep telling those stories and spotlighting the role of education, especially among underrepresented groups.
“I’m in an absolute panic over public education,” O’Brien says. “You can’t have a wide swath of the population struggling with education and expect the country is going to do well.”
Just because the cameras stop rolling doesn’t mean Soledad does. She and her husband, who is an investment banker, established the Soledad O’Brien and Bradley Raymond Foundation, which provides grants to needy students.
She learned of one potential recipient’s plight while filming the documentary Black in America in 2008. Young mother Nya Buckley, 20, was struggling. “I had no one I could talk to about the issues I was having at home,” says Buckley who plans to graduate with a 3.0 grade point average this fall. “Soledad’s now putting my son and me through school. Now I can call or e-mail Soledad and tell her about anything that’s on my mind or just to say ‘Hello.’”
And that’s exactly what O’Brien hopes her legacy will reflect. It’s not about having her name chiseled into buildings, she says, but about inspiring others and offering a helping hand, wherever that may be.
After working on Rescued, a documentary about Haiti’s orphanages that premiered in May 2010, then covering the earthquake, she knew her next step. This summer, she and daughter Sofia plan to volunteer at a Haitian orphanage. “This is to open her eyes,” O’Brien says. “I want my kids to have a giving spirit and understand we’re all linked.”
But when nothing seems connected—when catastrophe hits, chaos reigns, and home and children have to be left behind—then it’s her turn to get a helping hand.
That’s when her husband steps in. “The advice I always give people is get a partner who is supportive,” O’Brien says. “When one person is freaking out or is just overwhelmed or overworked, the other person doesn’t get to be. Only one person can freak out at a time.”
And today isn’t her turn.