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My Interview With Soledad O'Brien: On Career, Motherhood and More

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When I met Soledad O'Brien for the first time in August at Blogher in New York City, I was truly intrigued. She is the CNN anchor we watch daily cover hurricanes, disasters, and important news. Yet, when you speak to her in person, she has this other side. This aura to her. A sweet, fun-loving, and exceptionally charming side. To top it off, she's a mom of four children. I loved her essence, and so I asked her for an interview. Her response, "I will never forget Women On The Fence. You have my word, I will give you an interview."

And so here we are. Soledad was on her day off when we chatted. She was leaving the gym, and en route to do some errands as a multi-tasking career mom. Just a regular gal trying to fit it all in.

Without further ado, I give you my interview with the brilliant and charismatic, Soledad O'Brien.

Soledad, as a long-time fan and follower of your career, it gives me great pleasure to interview you here on WomenOnTheFence.com. As a mother of four children, what is your secret to balancing the requirements of your career (travel, late nights, etc.) with the demands of raising a family?

I don't know that balance is a word I use. I think it's more about prioritizing. Sometimes my work falls first. During a hurricane or a tsunami, for example, my job comes first during these particular times. If it's the first week of school, my children come first, and I'm all about binders, labeling and hearing about new teachers. For me, it's all about prioritizing your life in the right way. Not about balance.

It's also about support and relying on good people at work and at home. My husband, my in-laws, sometimes a babysitter, sometimes one of the college girls -- these are people that are extremely supportive and that I reply on. I'm aggressive about help at home, and I try not to drive myself crazy.

I think the key to being a working mom, is to have a sense of humor about things. I always say, "Both of us can't be losing our shit at the same time." Yup, when I'm in crazy work mode, my husband comes to the rescue. And when he's insanely busy, I make sure to be there for him. It's not good for the well-being of our family when we're both "losin' it" at the same time. We support each other, and that's important.

So it the end, it's not about balance, in my opinion, it's about prioritizing.

While reporting on Hurricane Katrina, you witnessed unspeakable tragedy and human suffering. What did this experience teach you about the resiliency of the human spirit? What do you know as truth about hardships in life?

What I've learned, is that hardships provide wonderful lessons for people. While you're going through it, it's difficult to understand why. But it makes people better and stronger when they come through on the other end. It's a long and tough process though. People sometimes think that suffering is heroic, or they glorify suffering, but when you're going through it, it feels anything but heroic.

Look at Hurricane Katrina seven years later. The people there are tougher now. I think after you have experience any hardship, when you've lost everything that is valuable in your life, you appreciate what IS valuable in life. That experience makes you tougher, more resilient. If you can make it through to the other side, you will be so much stronger. That I know.

Your parents were forced to marry in another state because interracial marriage was illegal -- how has this intimate knowledge of the human rights struggles faced by many Americans impacted your work and your worldview? Also, as a woman of Afro-Cuban, European, and Australian descent, did you experience challenges growing up due to your mixed background?

My parents always talked about our background. It wasn't something that was repressed or not discussed. I grew up in the North Shore of Long Island in a predominantly white community. We were one of the only black families in town. But my parents talked to us about their challenges, and I think that was a good thing.

It must have resonated for me, because to this day, in my work, I am always interested in telling the stories of people whose stories have gone under the radar -- stories of people who would otherwise be forgotten. My parent's story was easy to forget -- a middle class family, suburbia, etc. But where they came from is part of history, and I think these stories are important.

What are some of the things that you wish you knew at 20?

Geez, I'm so glad to be done my twenties! I've learned so much over the years, and I'd have a lot to say to my 20-year-old self. At 20, I wish I'd known that hard work pays off. Had I known this, I wouldn't have stressed so much. Investment in good people, a good boyfriend, a loyal friend, always pays off. Having good people around you is the key to a happy life.

And that means INVESTING in good people too. Investing in good people pays off. I would have said "no" more often. I no longer say yes to everything and everyone. Learning to say no, comes with practice, age, experience, and wisdom.

There is a quote by Maya Angelou that I love, "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time." I think we often talk ourselves into people or situations. We con ourselves into believing they aren't what they show us, that they are better. Now I go with my gut. I'm more objective. If something feels off, I walk away.

You have interviewed many fascinating people, and experienced tremendous moments as a reporter and journalist. Is there a favorite interview, moment or highlight in your career?

I have met and interviewed so many great interesting people. I would have to say, covering Katrina or natural disasters, they have been the highlight of my career. I feel a special sense of duty and responsibility to be there. Not everybody can be there, so you go there, show up and try and do the best job you can.

Also doing Black in America -- and turning that into successful a series. We are going into our sixth year. I am proud of that show.

For a woman looking to break out into the media, what piece of advice would you give her?

I think it's important to learn how to express yourself, and not just verbally. Today to break into media, you need to have a lot of skills. People talk about skill-sets, "What is your skill-set?" Today, you need to learn ALL the skills to stay relevant. You need more than just a prayer. You need to diversify those skills -- so for me, I thought my personal skill-set was my biggest attribute. But today, I write, I do documentaries, breaking news, I edit, shoot, write for the blog, etc... You need a lot of skills.

The good news is, there are lots of great opportunities to get those skills. So my advice would be, to diversify your skill-set and constantly work on that skill-set. I give speeches, I write those speeches, I'm on Twitter, I try to have a presence everywhere I can. That's what you need today.

In your work with the Foundation, you speak about the 'starfish' story. What other valuable life lessons have you received in unexpected ways and places? Can you also shed a little light on your mission with the Soledad O'Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation.

At the Soledad O'Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation, we provide young women with a bridge between obstacles and opportunity, by giving them the resources to overcome barriers and reach their highest potential. In my work and philanthropy, I wanted to make a difference and have an impact. I want my foundation change a life, to make an impact. I want "her" stories to matter and that is why I strive to do a good job.

As for the Starfish story -- this is how I feel. I wanted to make a difference. I had met many young women whose life plans had been stagnated by terrible disasters, compounded by generational poverty, some were just down on their luck. If I could help ONE of them, do my part, and maybe launch a successful young woman into a brighter future. Then they could go off into the world and help others.

What I know in life, is you need a lot of prayer... and a lot of hustle (laughing). Both strategies together, make for a great plan.

When you look to the future, what does the future look like for Soledad O'Brien?

I've been so lucky. I've enjoyed my life. It feels crazy busy at times, for sure. When I look to the future, I'd like to be less crazy busy. The kids are getting older, more independent. The girls run off, the boys need more help. I'd like it to be not so frenetic -- maybe more "me time" would be nice. I'd like the future to hold more time for myself and my husband.

I like to ask my interviewees, what are the top three things on your Bucket List, since I like to inspire my readers to dream, write it down, and then move to action.

It's not so much a Bucket List, but maybe rather a to-do plan.
  1. I'd love to be fluent in Spanish.
  2. I'd love to learn how to dance really well. It's hard to find the time. I'd love to be able to go out and enjoy, and dance!
  3. Travel around the world without it being for work, rather for pleasure. I'd love to spend the winter somewhere -- perhaps live in another country and spend half of the year experiencing something else.
That's about it!

Soledad O'Brien is an American broadcast journalist. She is the anchor of CNN's morning news program Starting Point, a wife, an activist, and mother of four children.

I'd love your feedback. Did you learn anything new, possibly about yourself in this interview? Do you agree with Soledad that it's about prioritizing, not about balance?