Soledad O’Brien is a good person to have in your corner.
For the past decade or so, the former CNN anchor turned Starfish Media Group CEO has, through her Starfish Foundation, not only provided college educations for young women from low-income families, but wraparound services that include everything from tutoring, counseling, and mentoring to crashing at O’Brien’s Manhattan apartment (which one gal is currently doing while she completes a summer internship, since the rent is too damn high).
There are a total of 25 scholars that the newswoman-philanthropist has guided through the halls of higher education, and O’Brien has each of their photos proudly displayed on one of the walls of her office in the Flatiron District, where we’re seated today. The initiative began in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with Alexia, who’s been funded since the 7th grade and just graduated college. As we take in this giant wall of faces, O’Brien rattles off each of their bios—which she knows by heart—including their majors, family situations, and hobbies. Several of the young women are single mothers, and 23 of the 25 students are people of color.
“We’re very hands-on, which is why it’s small,” says O’Brien with a grin. “We’ll do PowHERful conferences in seven cities this year where we have about 300 girls per city who come and do a daylong seminar with our scholars. We teach them how to get an internship, Finance 101, what’s the best way to be successful. For girls who are the first in their family to go to college, they don’t know what to do when they get their first failing grade, but it’s solvable. Everything is learnable and everyone can bounce back.”
Quite unexpectedly, O’Brien’s passion has collided with history. Last night, Hillary Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States—the first woman from a major political party to do so. And the news comes just as many of these women are graduating college.
“It’s so interesting to me how the history-making part of this election has been completely drowned out by the crazy of the ramped-up rhetoric around immigrants and non-immigrants. It’s almost like, oh yeah, Hillary’s the first woman,” she says.
“I think what’s happened with the Trump coverage—due to the media’s obsession with Trump which is highly correlated to ratings—you follow everything he’s doing, so the Hillary Clinton-woman-becomes-the-nominee narrative is very secondary,” O’Brien continues. “And even among the populace, it’s not the main conversation whereas in 2008, it was the main conversation. People were having deep, reflective conversations about what it means for an African American to be president.”
O’Brien, who is of half Australian-Irish and half Afro-Cuban descent, is in the midst of hosting her I Am Latino In America tour—an extension of her CNN documentary Latino In America which brings together celebrities, business leaders, and academics for a series of talks about “the Latino voice, vote, and economic power.” And, while she says she’s been careful to not make the talks a “political diatribe,” they do briefly touch on the phenomenon that is Donald J. Trump—from his presidential announcement in June, where he branded undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and drug dealers, to his recent comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, whom Trump says isn’t fit to handle his Trump University case due to his Mexican heritage (Curiel is an American from a blue-collar family in Indiana).
“It’s in many ways a new low, as one Republican congressman called it,” she says of Trump’s crusade against Curiel. “I interviewed Reince Preibus about the 2012 GOP autopsy, and the whole thing was about how they were going to focus on Latinos more and show that they care. I occasionally just tweet Reince Preibus quotes from the 2012 GOP autopsy.”
Indeed, O’Brien believes that Trump is going to have a hard time in the general election against Clinton given his low numbers among Latino voters—a demo that has played a considerable role in shaping the outcomes of the last three presidential elections.
“You cannot win an election without the Latino vote,” says O’Brien. “There are just not enough angry white people. If you look at the negatives among Latino voters with Trump, there’s just too much.”
She shakes her head. “This is so late in the game. He’s been saying this type of thing before, and people—journalists included—have been very loathe to call him out on [his] racism.”
I play devil’s advocate with O’Brien, asking whether Trump’s demagoguery and xenophobia will ultimately force America to confront its racist underbelly. She remains unconvinced.
“I think he’s given new energy to white nationalists,” she says. “If you look at polling of Trump’s supporters, a bunch of them say slavery shouldn’t have been ended or that the South should have won the Civil War. What’s happened is he’s given great support—both tacit and subtle—to white nationalists who have been desperate for someone to glom onto.
“I don’t think there’s a silver lining here,” adds O’Brien. “This won’t be a teachable moment. It’s going to fan the flames of people who think, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people like me who also feel like people of color are problematic in this country, and we should get together and try and turn the tide.’”
O’Brien also feels that Clinton, the former first lady, senator from the state of New York, and secretary of state has been not only more heavily scrutinized but is also held to a higher standard than male candidates of elections past—including the real-estate tycoon and ex-reality show host she’s running against.
“If you look at the criticism around Hillary Clinton, there’s so much focus on her look, and her voice, and her outfit, right? Which are clearly areas that are female,” she says. “But nobody’s mentioned Donald Trump’s expensive suits, or the color, or the tie.”
She pauses, selecting her words with care. “There’s this rap on Hillary Clinton that she’s ‘unfit,’ but I think that’s insane. I don’t think you can imagine someone with a better resume, and someone whose entire resume has been built towards this. So, it fits the cliché of, ‘If you’re a woman, make sure your resume is the best in the history of forever or you’re going to have a hard time.’”
Our talk eventually turns back to those 25 faces on the wall, and the fact that these young women will, quite serendipitously, be entering the “real world” just as a woman is on the cusp of ascending to the highest office in the land—a whole 96 years after women in this country earned the right to vote. The very thought of that makes O’Brien smile.
“Millennials just don’t even understand the history of what it took to get to this historic moment,” she says with a light chuckle. “It’s both frustrating that they don’t understand and it’s kind of sweet that they don’t understand, because I think it opens up a lot of opportunities when you don’t think of things in terms of holy crap, that’s so hard, and look at it in terms of well she did it, I can do it.”