Tag Archive: WVU Festival of Ideas


“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality,” Dante.

Soledad O'Brien

This college town, Morgantown, WV (the college, WVU) sometimes surprises you. Tonight was the continuation of the WVU Festival Ideas, the same program when I went to see Byron Pitts a couple weeks ago.

The woman pictured above, Soledad O’Brien, is an anchor and special correspondent for CNN: Special Investigation.

Prelude: Her Roots

Her mother is black and Cuban and her father, white and Australian. She has five siblings and they’ve all attended school at Harvard, herself included. Her mother and father were in Baltimore, Md in the 60s and weren’t allowed to openly date. They were advised to not get married. (At the time it was illegal to marry outside of one’s race.) They tied the knot in DC, and lived illegally. They were advised to not have children, so they had a half a basketball team.

I. Race and Racism

This background has probably fed into her fascination with race and race issues. (She did the two-part series Black in America and the follow-up Latino in America on CNN.) One idea she touched on was, does race and racism still exist in modern-day society?

“A ‘post-racial’, America. It literally does not make sense,” she said, “Alright Black people, we’re living in a post-racial world now, you’re not black anymore. It’s just stupid.”

I agreed with her whole-heartedly. I contend people, who feel there is not race issue in America, probably don’t directly deal with it. They are unable to look outside of their social constructs to see what’s happening in other folks lives.

Sure, the neighborhood white pointy hat brigade ain’t coming over with their welcoming committee of nooses and burning crosses (at least not as often), but those robes still hang in closets. They’re just in the boardroom instead of on your porch. It’s a subverted racism more economic-based than just overt racism.

II. Economic Justice

She discussed how Martin Luther King Jr. talked about economic justice, and how this one of the points in his “I Have A Dream” speech that isn’t closely examined.

“The (Negro) has come to our nation’s capitol to cash a check.” The check isn’t for monies, it’s a check for freedom and equality. She discussed that part of economic justice starts with equality in education, and how despite what people may think, when there’s a high drop-out/illiteracy rate in one racial group, it effects everyone.

III. Frustration with News As Sound-bites and Useless Entertainment

She spoke long and hard about Dr. King. She sound frustrated when talking about the watered-down version of the sound-bites that people have made King’s speeches into. In fact, she preached against sound bites in general, preferring documentaries and having the time to tease out and craft a story. She said that’s why she got into journalism: the love of the story. She spoke disparagingly about how news programs give bits of useless info sandwiched between fluff. I found this a bit ironic, I mean, she does work for one of the sound-bite command centers.

IV. Dangerous Unselfishness

The Dante quote above her photo was the opposite of what she was trying to get across to the standing-room only crowd. During the question and answer session, a woman with steel-gray curls stood and said she often feels as though she is powerless, and how can she change that? O’Brien started talking about mobilizing, getting together with your neighbor, your friends, people who have like-ideas and not just “whine about it and forget about it.” It’s the power of the grassroots. Get enough voices together making noise, you will be heard. Throughout her talk, she talked about how the way to make change is *again quoting Dr. King* is to exhibit “dangerous unselfishness.” Recognizing that your part is small piece of the greater good.

V. Closing

The most interesting part of the night for me, was when a slight Asian young lady stood with her question. Three questions actually, the first one being could she ask three questions?  The question that I found the most enlightening was, “In 10 words or less, how would you define diversity?” She said she wanted it in less than 10 words so she could understand the answer.

And like many journalist when presented the opportunity, O’Brien waxed poetic excited to talk about one her passions. However, her 23,000 + word answer could be melded down to this phrase:

“Open up the table to more voices.”

Give everyone an opportunity to tell their story. Hear all the voices. And add your voice to the mix.

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Make A Goal And Rock It Out

I’ve been chasing thoughts about changing direction. What would make me happiest- despite how it may seem impractical, impossible or implausible. Through crazy snow, I wasn’t able to write about my thoughts like I wanted to. So, I’m going to take the time today.

Last week, a friend and I went to the WVU Festival of Ideas kickoff. Byron Pitts is the contributor to 60 Minutes and chief national correspondent for The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. He directed his speech mainly to the younger, first generation college students in the audience. But I think we can all pick up what he was laying down.

Byron Pitts

He spoke of his stutter and how he couldn’t read up to 12 years old. Young Pitts had the gall to decide he would be a journalist. Not only a journalist, but this man wanted to work at 60 Minutes. What?! Who?!

That would be like me saying I’m the next great mathematician & I can’t give a tip without using a calculator. (FYI, Math and I broke up in high school when he tried to have a threesome with me, numbers and letters.)

He asked the audience to show the hands of the folks who had faced struggles in their life. I glanced through the crowd. I wanted to meet those lucky few with their hands down. (How’s that working out for ya? Could you tell me about this charmed existence?) Pitts talked freely about struggles.

A doctor tried to diagnose him to being “mentally retarded.” One of his professors told him to just quit: telling he was unfit to attend Ohio-Wesleyan University. Then there were the other issues he was facing: trying to break into a predominantly white field, being poor from Baltimore etc…etc…list like these are never short.

He used self-determination and having a clear goal as a way to get to his goal of being on 60 Minutes. At 48, he has achieved that. But this is all discussed in his novel, “Step Out on Nothing.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t record his talk at the Festival of Ideas. However, here is a clip from him doing a reading at Harlem’s Hue-Man Bookstore:

He writes under the premise that people helped him along the way without having any real cause to do so:  a professor at the school, who took him under her wing, a roommate, who gave him words of the day to build up his vocab, etc…etc…because a list like this is never short.

But I disagree with him. If someone has that much passion, that much cahones, that much inner strength to get from being that stutterer kid being made fun of to 60 Minutes, those people could see it. In his eyes, his work ethic and heard it in his stuttered speak that grew less pronounced as he grew older–but hasn’t disappeared. You can see when someone has that something extra.

I’m convinced that everyone has that little extra, that spark, that mad genius, the capacity to pursue a goal with conviction. Living an eco-friendly life, raising children, finding a new clean source of energy, painting, work at being the best damn bricklayer on your crew. Whatever it is, don’t talk about it, be about it.

It’s kind of like watching Man v Food. He looks at the goal of gorging himself with ridiculous amounts of food. He plans a way to do that and then he tries like hell to shove it all down his gullet. If he doesn’t succeed this time, there’s always the next one. Take small steps toward your ultimate goal.

2010 is the year to make it happen, because if not now, then when?