by Sabrina Sucato
The Hudson Valley boasts a a wide array of talent, from artists and creative entrepreneurs to volunteers dedicated to public service. But few are also luminaries who influence our most important national conversations. One of these is Soledad O’Brien, the award-winning writer, reporter, philanthropist, and shining star of global journalism, who is proud to call Pawling home.
If you haven’t seen this sought-after media regular recently, tune your television (or smart phone, laptop or tablet) to Matter of Fact, O’Brien’s hit political magazine program with Hearst Television that airs weekly across the country. The nationally recognized anchor is a leader within multi-media journalism and makes frequent appearances across such networks HBO, PBS, and CNN. She often reports on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and can be seen on PBS NewsHour as well.
O’Brien’s on-air presence and news-reporting prowess have earned her three Emmy awards, a George Foster Peabody Award, and an Alfred I. DuPont Award. She is also the author of two books (with Rose Marie Arce): Latino in America and The Next Big Story: My Journey through the Land of Possibilities.
At Home in the Hudson Valley
O’Brien shines on-screen with seemingly boundless energy and an uncompromising dedication to uncovering the truth behind issues of national importance. Off-screen, however, this consummate professional glows with a different sort of natural light right here in the Home of Positive Thinking.
“My husband knew Pawling,” O’Brien explains. While living in the Big Apple in the early 2000s, she and her husband, Brad, began the hunt for a weekend retreat for themselves and their two toddlers. Brad, who attended Westminster School in Connecticut, remembered competing in sports matches against Trinity-Pawling School as a student. He suggested a look at Pawling, which led to a rental for the next two years. After O’Brien and Brad were expecting twins, the couple decided to make the move upstate permanent.
“It’s very beautiful and very quaint,” the 14-year-long Pawling resident enthuses. Add to that an easy commute to Manhattan, a thriving local community, and a bountiful presence of natural surroundings, and you have a winning formula for life away from New York City.
Of course, it helps that there are horses. O’Brien, 51, is an avid horseback rider. She and her daughters often head over to Revolution Equestrian, part of Kirby Hill Farm in Pawling, to get in ride time. Melissa Hogan, who runs Revolution Equestrian, trains O’Brien and her daughters.
Hogan is “wonderful with horses and great with kids,” O’Brien says. She notes that her daughters are also avid riders who enjoy training just as much as their mother.
“[My daughters] blossomed and I am still chugging along,” she humbly declares, adding that the location enhances her overall experience outdoors. “Pawling is a fantastic place to be out in a field riding,” she says.
Giving Back to the World
Because of O’Brien’s exacting schedule, outings on horseback are treasured. With a temporary reprieve from filming Matter of Fact in Washington, D.C., at the time of our recent interview she was packed and ready to catch a plane to Las Vegas before making her way to Los Angeles to film a feature-length documentary with her media production company, Starfish Media Group.
On top of that, she manages to keep up with the PowHERful Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving determined young women from low-income families the assistance they need to go to college.
The origins of the foundation grew out of her compassionate witness as a reporter for CNN and other news outlets to suffering and depravation around the world. Haunted by images of “unimaginable human hardship and loss” from covering the ravages of such events as the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she felt compelled to make a difference. As she explains on the foundation’s website, she eventually found a way – by helping one life at a time: “I had met many young women whose life plans had been stagnated by terrible disasters, compounded by generational poverty – some were just down on their luck. I could help one of them, do my part, and maybe launch a successful young woman into a brighter future. Then they could go off into the world and help others.”
The organization provides young women across America with valuable, real-world college readiness advice, including “how to get an internship, what to wear, what are pitfalls, and what happens when you make a mistake,” she says.
O’Brien does not sugarcoat the reality of the path to and through college for the students, which is likely why her program has been so successful. She and her husband, who runs the foundation with her, are heading into their eighth year with the initiative and have no plans to stop anytime soon.
“We’ve had such a great experience,” she says of supporting each student and sending them to college. As part of that experience, she often invites a number of the young women to Pawling to experience life – including horseback riding – away from the urban centers in which many of them have been raised. (To learn more about this transformative educational initiative, visit www.PowHerful.org.)
A Clear-Eyed Optimist
With a successful philanthropy, a demanding career, and a vibrant family life, it is a wonder O’Brien has time to rest, let alone stay on top of the fast-changing currents of contemporary journalism. Not only is she tuned in to today’s reporting standards, but she remains optimistic about the present and future of quality news gathering.
“The time is better than it ever has been,” she affirms. She stresses that the key to success is to create quality content – and lots of it. Luckily, the tools to create such content are more accessible than ever before.
“You can shoot on an iPhone and do tons of storytelling,” she says. With the limits expanding, she recommends that all journalists and students aspiring to the profession embrace available technology and take on new challenges to capture the important stories that need to be told.
As for herself, O’Brien loves the thrill of content creation and the fact that, every day, it gives her something new to tackle.
“Otherwise you get bored,” she says.
It’s hard to believe “bored” is even in her vocabulary.