Soledad O’Brien: ‘You have to reach students where they are’

communities / Article

Photo credit: Bryant Sanders Photography

Journalist Soledad O’Brien, CEO of Starfish Media Group and a correspondent for Al Jazeera America, last week moderated a discussion on mentoring here in Philadelphia as part of the launch of a new guide released by Urban Youth, a local nonprofit that works with kids.

Urban Youth developed the “Lessons Learned E-Mentoring Guide for African-American Men and Boys” in partnership with Knight Foundation and United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. The guide, a project of Urban Youth’s What It Takes initiative, recommends “e-mentoring” to connect kids with positive role models anywhere in the world, using e-mail, text messages and social media.

A reception and screening of an installment of O’Brien’s “Black in America” documentary series followed the discussion.

As a follow-up to the events, I asked O’Brien to reflect on her decision to participate and the importance of mentoring African-American youth.

You are a very busy person. Why did you decide to participate in the Urban Youth discussion?

Soledad O’Brien: One of the things I think is really interesting in communities is the way that people connect to try to solve some of the most entrenched challenges in the United States. You look at a program that has some legs, not just in Philadelphia but could be a model around the country. As a journalist, anytime you see a thing that has repercussions and is not just working where it is but could be much larger [that] is always intriguing, and to sit down with the major player and people who have also assessed the program is very intriguing to me. 

What do you find most compelling about the Urban Youth and its What it Takes e-mentoring program?

S.O.: The most interesting thing that came out of our panel is that you have to reach students where they are and right now where they are is on social media, and where they are if they are young men in 9th or 10th grade [they] aren’t always ready to put down their tough guy attitude and everything-is-cool-don’t-worry-about-me attitude until they really need to reach out, and that was really compelling.  I have four kids, a little bit younger, but I see that in my kids. … They do have those points where they want to pour out their heart, and to have mentors who are available for listening and guiding is tremendous, and, again, where the youth are, on their phones anytime is a brilliant idea and obviously really effective.

Based on your “Black in America” documentary series and your work with diverse communities why do you think it is important to create mentoring opportunities for black youth?

S.O.: You can look at some of the statistics that are really challenging in any urban environment.  If you are looking at challenges in education, some young black men are struggling when it comes to graduating high school and getting into and through college. When you see challenges in employment, young black men unfortunately again are bottom of the line when it comes to great opportunities. So clearly there needs to be some kind of intervention and people here said, Okay. Here’s a solvable problem. One thing we can do is find men who are willing to be helpful, willing to be mentors to reach out and help those young men, navigate through a very difficult time.

Obviously for some there are huge socioeconomic challenges.  As the panelists explained, it is incredibly difficult to be a person living in poverty.  Things that most of us take for granted, like a meal at dinner time, a house to live in, transportation to get to your school, for a lot of young people across this country they struggle with that, and those are expectations that are really not possible to meet for many kids… instead it’s, You feel free to reach out to me, and I will answer your post or your text. 

The Urban Youth e-mentoring program relies heavily on technology and social media to spark relationships between youth and adult mentors.  What is your take on this technology-based model and employing new ways to reach out to youth?

S.O.: It’s back to meet them where they are.  My youngest are 9 and oldest is about to be 13; they are on social media. That’s how they reach out to their friends, and when they say goodbye to their friends at school, they are texting them on the way home.  They are having constant conversation in ways that people of earlier generations find a little strange. I don’t reach out and text my friends 10 seconds after I’ve left them. But younger people do; that’s how they communicate. They don’t need face-to-face conversation all the time. That’s what makes the possibility of this type of e-mentoring successful.

 A big part of your work is finding great stories in minority communities.  What advice would you give to organizations such as Urban Youth, who are trying to highlight their work through storytelling?

S.O.: One thing we’ve really learned is that nobody is going to tell your story for you. If you have a story to tell, you better make sure you are talking about your own story, that you are shouting your own story, and that your young people are telling that story. The beauty of all these social media platforms and the beauty of the fact that technology is so cheap is really that you have the opportunity to tell your own story much more easily. Twenty-five years ago when I was starting as a journalist at WBZ-TV in Boston—where a camera was a $50,000 massive thing—there was no grabbing a little camera and shooting TV-quality pictures, but now that time is here.  You can now have the young people tell their stories, shoot their own stories and send them to the media to say, Here’s what we are doing. Isn’t it compelling?

Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Philadelphia program director at Knight Foundation

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