SPECTRUM :FIVE QUESTIONS FOR SOLEDAD O’Brien

Committed to reporting on undercovered communities, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien spoke to Diverse about 2009’s “Black in America” and “Latino in America” documentaries and other issues she’ll cover through the expanded “in America” series. The half Afro-Cuban, half Australian New Yorker says her mixed background has given her the ability to relate to many different communities. Visit diverseeducation.com to hear more on her “in America” work.

1. Is there anything you regret or wish you had done differently in last year’s “in America” specials?

Oh gosh, always. … We did Latinos but didn’t look at all at Afro-Latinos. They’re absolutely missing from the documentary. My mom is Afro-Latino and so she even says ‘Oh so none of that in your documentary, huh?’ Understandably, it’s four hours and you’re looking at 51 million people. It’s not possible to get everything in. … The beauty of it is, I get to do it again because we will do more Latino stories, and we will do more “Black in America” stories. And we’ll expand even more what we consider to be the “in America” series. To me the mantra is we’ll go do stories that are undercovered.

2. What was the driving purpose behind “Latino in America”? Was it to explain this group, clarify stereotypes or bring forward issues?

I find a great story with a great character and I let them tell their story because it’s a documentary. There are a lot of unexplored stories in both the Black and Latino populations. I know that to be true. There are a lot of stories for gay Americans that never get told; certainly for Native Americans there are none [and] Asian-Americans. … My job is not to say ‘OK, this is a story for Asian-Americans.’ Not at all. My job is to find a great character and tell their story in a way that everybody is compelled, everybody is interested. It’s not about, ‘Well I’m here to explain this to this.’

3. In an article in Latina magazine you said education is the most pressing issue facing Black and Latino communities. Why do you believe this?

It’s the next front in civil rights. If you can deny someone a good education, you can deny them everything. You will get in the way of their earnings potential. You will determine whether their children are likely to be educated. You will determine whether they live in poverty. You will determine what job they are likely to have. You will determine their health care. … So I think that if we are not able to figure out how to make public education a real opportunity for all people who cannot send their children to private education, [if we are not able to] make public education safe and available and good quality, you will effectively condemn a large number of people, mostly brown and Black to being underclass.

4. What are you working on in regards to higher education? Well, right now, we’re looking at doing an “Education in America,” because I think (education is) one of the things that every single person has (experienced) as a touchstone education. … Some of (the stories) involve historically Black colleges and universities (and] retention of Black and Latino students in the college process, so we have a number in the works now. Education is … a story that everybody has a vested interest in.

5. Do you think there is a place for honing in on different ethnic groups in a so-called “postracial” America? I’m not even sure what post-racial America means. If it means that race is no longer an issue then that’s insane. So I think that there is no post-racial A m e r i c a . And anybody who says that never fully understood “pre-racial” America. America has had a long and difficult history with race, and it’s really, really interesting and compelling to explore. And one of the most interesting things about my job is I get to explore that and the ramifications of some of those complications over the hundreds of years of history that present themselves today in present-day America and the challenges that certain people face. And some of the incredible successes that certain people are able to achieve. But there is no “post-racial America.” Race is a conversation that America is having very much currently.

The Grammy-nominated Professor

Roberto Sierra, chair of Cornell University’s Department of Music, has earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for “Missa Latina Pro Pace.”

“Missa Latina” is a 75-minute, fulllength composition for orchestra, full choir and two soloists (soprano and baritone). The National Symphony Orchestra commissioned it to celebrate the orchestra’s 75th anniversary in 2006, but its last season’s recording by the Milwaukee Symphony that received the Grammy nomination.

It took Sierra over a year to write Missa Latina.

“I had to juggle teaching and writing and everything else,” he says. “When I write music, I don’t think of things like nominations. I just write the best I can and it’s up to others to decide about it.”

Sierra grew up in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, and studied at the Puerto Rico Conservatory and Puerto Rico University before receiving his master’s in Musicology from the Royal College of London University. He studied programmatic composition in Hamburg, Germany with Gyorgi Ligeti. The former dean and chancellor of the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music also was Composer-in-Residence for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. In 1992, he began teaching composition at Cornell.

The 52nd Annual Grammy Awards will be held Jan. 31 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Making Visiting Students Feel Right at Home

Nothing says welcome like a piece of prime asphalt real estate. Meredith College has found giving prospective students assigned, personalized parking spaces for planned visits to be beneficial. “It’s an unexpected surprise for students,” said Cristan Harris, director of admissions at the Raleigh, N. C.-based institution. “When families arrive in the office they’ll report to us that they were excited to see their sign. Students take their picture with it and many families take it away as a souvenir from the visit. It sets a wonderful first impression and opening tone to their day.” Harris said the personalized parking spaces reflect Meredith’s personal approach to education.