GlobalGrind had the honor of sitting down with CNN’s award winning journalist, Soledad O’Brien as she prepares to host, along with her husband Brad Raymond, their first fundraising event, ‘New Orleans in the Hamptons’ on August 12, 2011.
The Soledad O’Brien and Brad Raymond Foundation is dedicated to giving gifted young women new opportunities for achievement by supplying them with the tools they need to ensure a brighter future.
Many young women from across the country often face obstacles in their communities that they cannot step away from, that’s where Soledad steps in.
A voice for under-served communities, Soledad has been providing help to disadvantaged young women who lack the basic resources to achieve their goals.
Check out our conversation with Soledad and see what she’s doing to help!
Your benefit is coming up, how long have you and your husband been awarding scholarships to young women, how did it all start?
We have been giving fellowships, financial grants for daycare, really since Hurricane Katrina, and we kind of started from there.
A woman who is my best friend and the godmother of my children came to me and said that there was this girl who needs a scholarship. It was right after the hurricane and kids were trying to go back to school, but the schools weren’t really back.
So she was able to secure a spot for young women named Alexia Wilson, she was going to the 8th grade. But she said, we need someone to underwrite her scholarship; will you and Brad be able to that?
And I said to Brad, you know, we have four kids, he said, of course we can do that! But the truth is, we knew there was a phonetic need.
We knew she wasn’t a stellar student, she wasn’t an A, but because all the A students had opportunities for scholarships and she wasn’t even an F, because even the bottom students had opportunities.
But because it was New Orleans, we had to commit to five years of scholarships, because she was starting the 8th grade. And we did it. It was amazing.
We felt immediately that we were changing someone’s life. It wasn’t that hard and it wasn’t that much money. I think that was our first effort and than after that, we did similar things.
Was Alexa’s story the one that you remember the most, or is there another one that you just can’t forget?
Whew! There are so many. The thing is, we have a lot of girls from New Orleans, so there is Terry Segway.
So Terry pretty much spent her entire life from nine years old sleeping on couches of friends and cousins. And she said, no one ever told me I had to go to school, but I like going to school because it was some sort of sanity and l like the structure.
Everyone thought she was stupid and wasn’t going to make it through elementary school but pretty much self-directed; every two months she would have to go to someone else’s couch.
In spite of that, she ended up with a 3.7 GPA in New Orleans from a public high school. Applied to and got into Southern University. Her only issue was how am I going to pay for this? She went to her mom, if you can emancipate me, since you already abandoned already, I can probably get financial aid.
Her mom said, nah, nah I can’t do that. So she couldn’t get financial aid, well, really good financial aid. So she came to us, needing thousands and thousands of dollars for college and to me that is a sure thing. A girl who been sleeping couches manage to get a 3.7. She is just so inspiring. With all of our girls we hook them up with a mentor. And in Terry’s case, there’s a woman named Dean Perry. And she is Dean at Southern and I met her at an event. So I said I got a girl, who is about to start at Southern.
She’s really strict and really great and she became her mentor and really Terry’s surrogate mother and Terry says now I came into this with no mother at all, but I really felt that I had so many people that really love me and pushing me to move forward and supporting and making very investment to be successful.
One, we found that everyone needed the money because clearly cash was critical. But the other part of it, is someone else has expectations of your success, of course, I am going to give you money.
I think you can be successful. I don’t think I would pay college tuition for a girl in college that I wouldn’t think would finish or wasn’t going to succeed. So they start to meet your expectations! They realize, wow, if you’re paying for my tuition, then I must be worthy of having my tuition paid.
And they all can say, I knew I had to work hard because I didn’t want to lose my scholarship. I knew I had to work hard, because I wanted to prove that I was a good choice. So our girls, we literally pick people for the most part, you know C’s. It was never about who has the best grades or great grades to get into Harvard. It was about whom, for a community college would be a big step and all of our girls end up being great students. Because suddenly they are like, ‘Wow! I am worthy of this scholarship and I am going to show you much I can succeed.’
Why only women?
I think there is such a need for underwriting, for young men as well no question. We support some other schools, where we underwrite some tuition that goes to young men.
But for our foundation, we really wanted to make our mission really narrow. Ultimately, we had six girls under the re-current scholarship and what I thought of was the strength of what we offered versus other people. What we offer is very small, I know the girls very well. I email them. They know me, they have access to me all the time, like they are my own kids, I’m like Auntie Sole.
What are you expecting at New Orleans in the Hamptons event?
Well, we have about 125 people who are going to attend our event in the Hamptons. We call it “From New Orleans to the Hamptons” and some of that is because many of our girls are from New Orleans.
Sheba is our first graduate. And after Sheba graduated from the University of New Orleans, her dad enrolled as a freshmen; which is awesome. And I think all of our girls are on that margin and they are constantly dipping into poverty or very much in poverty. We have great sponsors, like Delta, American Airlines, Target, State Farm and Prudential.
I can give you the entire list. We have been really really blessed with great people who have agreed to help us out at Morgan Stanley and then we have a jazz concert and the New Orleans Jazz orchestra is going to perform for us.
The chairman of my board, Irvin Mayfield, is a jazz musician. He is really committed to rebuild New Orleans.
Honestly as a journalist there are so many stories and you can’t change the outcome of peoples lives. You go to Haiti and document orphans and it’s tough. You can’t change the outcome for four hundred thousand orphans in Haiti.
But we can get these six girls through college and than we can expand it to these 12 girls.
And then we probably can get at least 25 girls every year enrolled. They have a day care if they need it, mentoring and help to figure out and navigate internships, financial aid and just the things that your family would do. The things your Aunt would step in and do. That’s what I really want to be able to do.
Pharrell Williams serves as an event chair. What is one of your favorite Pharrell tunes?
What is so funny, my favorite thing about Pharrell is his producing. I said to him, you know what, what’s scary is that my daughter who was 10 and is now 20 are repeating some of the lyrics that you have.
But I think he does really well, because he has this tremendous value for education for young people. And that’s really how we met. After the first “Black in America” in New York, we need to do something together; that helps young people value education.
So I am not going to be able to rap to you any of Pharrell songs, but you’ll have to bleep out if I could.
When I heard him the other day, I was like, wow man, those lyrics!
Maybe you and I should just focus on education. But his heart in terms of wanting to make change; that’s where we really got. Can you make an impact? Yes! And that’s amazing. That has been very rewarding and it made me feel immediately that we were going the right direction.