Making a Difference: Soledad O’Brien

UPDATED: February 6, 2012
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2012

It all began with one girl in New Orleans. In 2005, while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as anchor and special correspondent for CNN, Soledad O’Brien learned of a young woman who didn’t have the money to attend one of the only schools still open, after the disaster had decimated much of the public school system. O’Brien and her husband Brad Raymond committed to personally provide a five-year scholarship that would allow the girl, Alexia, to complete middle and high school.

As O’Brien reported groundbreaking documentaries including Black in America and Latino in America, she continued to meet girls like Alexia—intelligent and driven students who were trying to succeed despite obstacles—in danger of falling through the cracks of society without a little financial help.

After years of covering America’s hard-hitting personal stories for a national audience, O’Brien and her husband formally incorporated into the Soledad O’Brien + Brad Raymond Foundation in 2011 to help these kids, one at a time.

Their needs are often startling in their simplicity. One student was in danger of not graduating from UCLA when the school raised its tuition. The gift of just $2,000 made the difference between a dropout and a success story. Another student was accepted into college but when her mother—who had deserted her after Katrina—refused to release her as a dependent, she couldn’t qualify for financial aid. The foundation offered her the assistance she needed.

A third young woman, Nya Buckley, 22, was interviewed by O’Brien for Black in America I in 2008. At the time, she wanted to attend college but couldn’t afford daycare for her son, though she was trying to save up by working as a cashier at Target. O’Brien stepped in and provided funds for daycare and tuition so Buckley could go to community college.

“I had my son when I was 17, so I never thought anything like this would happen to me,” Buckley says. “I still can’t put into words what this means to me, but I’m grateful every day. I asked, ‘What do I do to deserve this?’ and [O’Brien] said, ‘Just be yourself; be Nya.’ ” Buckley is now a junior at Lehman College in New York, studying child psychology.

There was never a question that O’Brien and Raymond, her husband since 1995, would embark on the foundation together. Nor was there any doubt that their focus would be education. O’Brien believes education is the great equalizer and the key to the American dream. It’s a formula that worked for her own family. Her Cuban-born mother was a teacher, and her Australian-born father was a professor. Together they raised six children who all went to Harvard. Through the foundation, O’Brien and Raymond feel they are teaching their children important lessons about the responsibility of privilege.

“My kids understand that not everyone gets high school and college paid for. I want them to understand how valuable that is,” she says. “My parents were foreigners who came to this country for opportunity and reached opportunity 10 times over, and then turned around and made sure other people had that opportunity. I can do a little bit of that and make sure my kids understand that’s their obligation.”

The foundation is a little unconventional in its approach. All the girls have connected with O’Brien directly or indirectly through her reporting. “I look for perseverance, for people who, in spite of everything, stuck it out,” O’Brien says. “These girls are so strong and so bright. We reward them because they are hard workers and good people.”

Unlike a traditional scholarship program, the foundation provides wrap-around service. “We don’t just say here’s money for a scholarship,” O’Brien says. “If you need a mentor, we find you a mentor. If you need a tutor, here’s a tutor…. We will surround you with women who have been successful. It is very hands-on and very individualized, which is why we keep it small.”

There are currently 10 girls progressing through their education cycle; the foundation hopes to have no more than 20 matriculating at one time. O’Brien keeps it small so she can be intimately involved in each scholarship recipient’s progress. She emails regularly with the students and even helped one girl move into her dorm. She shepherds their progress like a mother.

This family-like approach to giving distinguishes the foundation. Executive Director Rica Trigs explains: “When you meet Brad and Soledad, they bring you into their fold. They show you their life and that you are now a part of it.”

Trigs met O’Brien when the latter was in New Orleans promoting her book, The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities (Celebra Books) , and was overwhelmed by O’Brien’s passion. “I’ve seen people put their name to things, and they show up for the press events and the photo op, and that’s about it,” Trigs says. “It’s refreshing and a blessing to be part of something that’s so real with people who are so genuine.”

O’Brien and her husband have extremely demanding careers (Raymond is co-head of investment banking at Stifel Nicolaus Weisel), and they share the parenting of four young children. They are busy, which is why O’Brien says selecting the best people to run the daily operations of the foundation was vital to its success.

“We have a board that is stellar and an executive director who’s amazing, and that really is what is required,” she says. The bench of the board is deep. It includes O’Brien’s colleagues from CNN and board president (and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter) Irvin Mayfield, who brought his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to perform at the foundation’s inaugural fundraiser last summer.

In The Next Big Story, O’Brien explains that when she covers heartbreaking stories like Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, she sees the looters, who are only looking out for themselves, and those who sacrifice themselves to help others. With what seems like insatiable optimism, she refuses to be swept away by the drumbeat of negativity that can be pervasive in her own medium of TV news. She chooses to be a part of the solution.

“I can’t change what happened in Haiti; I can’t change what happened in Tokyo; I can’t change the Asian tsunami; and I certainly can’t change the impact of Katrina. But I can change the outcome,” she says. “And we, whoever joins me, can change the outcome for these young women.”