COLUMBIA — Soledad O'Brien's mother, a black Cuban woman who married a white Australian man, was told by a friend, "Whatever you do, don't have kids. Biracial children will never fit in in this world."
O'Brien's parents eventually had six children, and their fifth child, now a world-renowned CNN anchor named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, spoke to a nearly full room Friday in Jesse Auditorium.
Introduced by Jamal Andress, a junior, as "a phenomenal woman who is making history every day," O'Brien told the audience that she wanted "to talk about leadership tonight."
She told the audience that even though she eventually anchored the CNN special, "Black in America," the station's 2008 election coverage and reported on Hurricane Katrina and the South Asian tsunamis, she started off working as an intern at an NBC affiliate pulling staples out of the wall.
With all of her work, O'Brien wanted to stress the fact that "diverse voices have value" and to talk to "people whose stories weren't told."
"To me, this diversity is really about leadership — having the confidence backed up by the hard data," O'Brien said.
Throughout her discussion, O'Brien used the example of Martin Luther King Jr. to illustrate what she thought the moral authority to lead and to serve meant.
"Remember, he wanted to be remembered as someone who loved people and wanted to save humanity," she said.
"To have honest conversations are the hardest conversations to have, and they will require real leadership," O'Brien said. "But ultimately, if your goal is to bring about real and tangible change, if your goal is for real racial reconciliation, it's going to require leadership in those kind of hard conversations people don't often want to have."
After O'Brien finished, the floor was opened up for questions from the audience. This included students from around the country visiting MU for the Big XII Conference on Black Student Government. They asked her how they could succeed in the industry and how she made it to where she is today.
Hard work was her answer. To illustrate that point, she told the audience that if they wanted to get far in the field, they would have to take any task given to them and run with it, whether it were getting their boss coffee or pulling staples out of the wall.
“I think she’s really great; I think that she does a good job of really getting at the story and being on location. She’s really relatable," said Amanda Gastler, chairwoman of the Department of Student Activities' Speakers Committee.
The Department of Student Activities helped bring O'Brien to the university in conjunction with the Big 12 Conference.
"The whole premise of the conference is in helping black student leaders to make changes on their campus, so it ties in really well to what we’re trying to do," said Lakeisha Williams, speaker’s chair for the Big 12 Conference.
"The way the conference typically works is that the individual selected will give a keynote speech during dinner but, because Soledad was a bigger name, we wanted to open it up to the entire campus," Williams said.