It was a typical day at the O’Brien and Raymond residence when Soledad O’Brien welcomed Haute Living into the cozy, loft-style apartment in Manhattan that she shares with her husband and four children. During our one-on-one with the journalist, she gave us a glimpse of life in her shoes, juggling motherhood, a soaring career and a continued interest in philanthropy.
O’Brien’s career as a journalist has taken her to major networks like CNN and NBC and has placed her on the front lines of some of the most monumental moments in history. She reported first-hand on the London Underground attacks, the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina and the fatal Columbine shooting. O’Brien’s commitment to journalism has earned her an Emmy Award, two Peabody Awards and the honor of being named Journalist of the Year for 2010 by the National Association of Black Journalists.
Aside from these prestigious accreditations, it is O’Brien’s work outside of the newsroom that cemented her as a luminary with remarkable character. Through her reporting at CNN, O’Brien continuously drew inspiration from the young women she came into contact with, leading her to recognize a common thread between them.
The young women she met were bright and driven, but some were circumstantially ill-fated. Although they possessed the aptitude, desire and motivation to further their education and find success professionally, the financial burden of tuition kept them from achieving their dreams. O’Brien set out to bridge this gap by facilitating equal access to education to those in need.
It began with a young woman named Alexia. After Hurricane Katrina, O’Brien was introduced to Alexia, whose mother did not have the financial means to pay for her daughter’s school tuition. O’Brien knew that given the means, Alexia had the ability to be successful, and she and her husband decided to pay Alexia’s tuition bill. What began as a one-time occurrence spiraled into the Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation, which O’Brien formed with her husband Brad. The philosophy of the foundation was based on the idea of removing this element of financial contingency from underprivileged families, providing young women with the opportunity to obtain an education.
“Every single one of our scholarship students said [that] the minute someone invested in them, they started working harder and they got better grades, because they wanted to prove that it wasn’t a mistake,” O’Brien said. “Once you remove the financial burden off of the family, and you say it’s going to be taken care of, the students are really free to study. We saw that even more with our college students when I did Black in America.”
Just when the discussion turns to the significance of Black in America, her son eagerly asks her for a piece of candy. “You may have one, yes. From Halloween? You may have one. Erica has a treat for you.” Erica, who babysits twice a week for the O’Brien-Raymond family, is one of the many girls O’Brien has taken under her wing through the foundation. In her documentary Black in America, O’Brien met young mother Nya and was inspired by her story. After the documentary came out, O’Brien paid for Nya’s 18-month-old son’s daycare so Nya could attend school.
“She jumped at the chance,” O’Brien said. O’Brien followed her first much-lauded documentary with Black in American II, then Latino in America. But the eagerness she found in the young women she supported was the driving force behind the fledgling foundation. “[From then on,] we just kind of gathered girls,” O’Brien said, “young women who we felt had tremendous potential, but because of some circumstance in life were not in the position to pay, whether it was $1000 for tuition for community college or it was $10,000 at a private institution. It might as well have been $1 million dollars; they just didn’t have it.” In August, O’Brien and Raymond hosted the inaugural fundraiser for their foundation, an event titled “New Orleans in the Hamptons.” Notable guests included Star Jones, Russell Simmons, Pharrell Williams, CNN’s Alina Cho and Jason Binn and of course, the foundations’ scholars. A Miami reception followed in November. Still, O’Brien isn’t self-laudatory when it comes to her foundation.
“That’s what you do,” she said. “I spend my days covering stories where you can’t change what’s happened–Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, the Japanese tsunami. But we can change the outcome for these young women who have the potential to be great. I can help push things to go the right way.” For more information on the foundation, visit obrienraymondfoundation.org