Soledad O’Brien stopped by Stony Brook University on Monday, Feb. 16 as part of her Black in America Tour of 2015, which she began last month.
Former NBA player Etan Thomas, author and journalist Joan Morgan, activist Luis Paulino and O’Brien, a Suffolk County native who grew up in St. James, made up the panel.
Born to a black, Cuban mother and a white, Australian father, who was a founding professor at Stony Brook, O’Brien observed firsthand the difficulties that families like her own would face—for example, being turned away from buying a home.
She also struggled with people questioning her race as she grew up. She often had uncomfortable experiences; she recalls when a photographer asked her if she was black at age 11.
Her Black in America project began back in 2008 as a six-hour documentary. The first two hours covered the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the remainder questioned where society stands in terms of civil rights.
The tagline of the campaign is “I am the conversation,” and O’Brien urged college students to take part in uncomfortable conversations in order to expand their knowledge, saying, “I think the most important thing that any college student can do is to open up your mind.”
O’Brien said she hopes to open up an exchange rather than a lecture on issues surrounding race, therefore giving college students a new perspective from their peers.
“[If] you haven’t gone out of your way to be involved in uncomfortable conversations and you don’t have a group of friends for whom you feel like sometimes you’re competing with them in difficult ways, you’re probably not having a really challenging college experience,” O’Brien said.
Morgan said she believes that there is great potential for the current generation to bring about change, referencing the Millions March, a black youth organized protest that drew tens of thousands of people.
These youth leaders did not choose to be in the forefront, but rather used the magnitude of people who showed up in to showcase the immense issue of “Black Lives Matter.”
“Of course all lives matter, but that’s not what we’re talking about,” Thomas said, in response to those who say that all lives matter.
In 2012, Paulino was defending a black adolescent who had been approached by police for riding his bicycle on the sidewalk. As a result, Paulino found himself surrounded by five police officers.
After arguing with the officers, Paulino was charged with resisting arrest. A taxi driver watching the incident take place caught the violence on camera.
Paulino was grabbed from his wrists by the police officer, leaving the former college football player unable to complete a single pushup.
“We’re often stigmatized before we’re given a chance to be humanized,” Paulino said.
Paulino urged black youth to understand that when they walk across the graduation stage with their “letters,” whether it is their fraternity letters or just their diploma, a person looking at them from a criminal perspective will not know of their accomplishments.
“We need to coexist and it needs to matter to all of us equally,” Roger Carson, a senior mechanical engineering major and a member of the Student African-American Brotherhood, said.
“This is something that we’re not going to get over until we actually do something about it,” Diana Costa, a junior health sciences major of Omega Phi Beta Sorority, said. “It’s all of us together, because at the end of the day, it’s our humanity at risk.”