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Soledad O'Brien to deliver ASU lecture on importance of participatory democracy

Soledad O'Brien wants Americans to exercise their right to vote.
TV journalist says President Trump is conflicted about the role of the press.
March 28, 2017
soledad o'brien
Soledad O'Brien

The 2016 U.S. presidential election saw voter turnout at its lowest point in two decades, a fact that internationally recognized journalist Soledad O’Brien called “appalling.”

On Saturday, the Emmy-winning O’Brien will share more of her thoughts about participatory democracy at the ASU Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s Delivering Democracy Lecture 2017 at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in downtown Phoenix.

In her career, O’Brien has anchored several daily and weekly news programs and hosted a pair of CNN documentary series that dealt directly with race, “Black in America” and “Latino in America.” In September, she became the host of “Matter of Fact,” which focuses on alternative views on top issues.

As a woman uniquely suited to discussing both race and democracy, ASU Now reached out to O’Brien to get her perspective on these and other related issues ahead of this weekend's lecture.

Question: How did your own multicultural background O'Brien identifies as black, Cuban, Australian and Irish. come into play as the host of the CNN documentary series “Black in America” and “Latino in America”?

Answer: I did feel that having a multicultural background was very important. There was a lot to cover objectively, so I felt like being both an outsider [as a member of the press] and an insider was a really good thing.

Q: Throughout the past several years, we’ve been bombarded with news stories about police violence toward African-Americans in particular, and even what some would call sanctioned racial profiling, with the passage of bills like SB 1070 and the more recent immigration bans. So there’s a lot to contend with — what would you say is the most pressing concern for racial minorities in America right now?

A: I think the most important issue, which is actually not very sexy, is disenfranchising voters. At the end of the day, if you really think about it, voting is one of most important rights a citizen can have. GerrymanderingGerrymandering is the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class. is also a big issue. They’re sort of nerdy, boring issues that are absolutely essential to a good democracy. Rarely have people been seen marching in the streets over gerrymandering or over voter disenfranchisement. But they’re really critical. And solvable. We have to figure out how to get people to the polls.

Q: Why don’t people vote?

A: This is something we see every election cycle, there are a whole bunch of people who don’t go vote. It’s appalling that people don’t vote. A lot of people don’t vote because they’re not organized; maybe they don’t have all their documents together. Some people don’t vote because they’re too lazy or too busy. And then sometimes they just can’t.

Q: How important is the role of the press in a healthy democracy?

A: It’s critical. I think the press is like the canary in the coal mine. When the person in charge is trying to squelch the press, they’re keeping an eye on things.

Q: Does the current administration’s attitude toward the press concern you?

A: I think the press has been invigorated in a lot of ways by Donald Trump’s treatment of them. He, himself, is conflicted; he both maligns the press and uses the press. But I think the press has really risen to the challenge after Donald Trump made it very clear he thinks the press is the enemy the people.

Free tickets are required to attend O’Briens lecture at 4 p.m. Saturday; click here for more information. Before the lecture, there will be a Community Resource Fair from 1:30-3:30 p.m. featuring a variety of organizations such as the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts admissions team, the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, after-school programs and more. The resource fair is being coordinated by the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. 

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Where in the world is the Arizona Geography Bee? At ASU

Students learn geography by playing on AZ Geographic Alliance's giant floor map.
March 28, 2017

Arizona Geographic Alliance at ASU promotes study of maps, cultures and history

Update March 21: Governor praises geography bee contestants for dedication to STEM; find out who won.


Geography trivia: What building is at 33.4 degrees longitude north and 111.9 degrees latitude west?

If you’re a map lover, you might know that it’s the Memorial Union at Arizona State University — site of the Arizona Geography Bee on Friday.

On that day, 101 young students in grades four through eight will compete, answering questions about map locations, events, history, climate and culture until one is crowned the champion. Gov. Doug Ducey is scheduled to open the final round of competition with a geography quizExamples of geography bee questions: On a map, locate where the Tiananmen Square Massacre was. Which lake in Africa was created to provide power? (Answers: Beijing and Lake Volta in Ghana.). The bee is sponsored by the National Geographic Society, and the state winner will travel to Washington, D.C., in May for the national competition.

Geography is part of the state’s social studies curriculum in every grade, and classroom teachers get a lot of help from the Arizona Geographic Alliance, housed in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at ASU. The alliance holds workshops, field trips and conferences for teachers.

The subject is much deeper than learning the names of rivers and mountain ranges, according to Gale Olp Ekiss, co-coordinator of the Arizona Geographic Alliance.

Gale Olp Ekiss, co-coordinator of the Arizona Geographic Alliance, shows teachers how to use the giant floor map that the alliance lends for free to schools.

“Geography is the place in the curriculum where diversity is taught. It’s where teachers spend time on culture, regions and learning about others and how we’re interconnected,” Ekiss said.

Last fall, the alliance’s “GeoConference” ran workshops on how to teach the impact of wildfires on the ecosystem, using sonar to map the ocean floor and how technology changed society when the Pacific Railroad was built.

Map skills are big, too. Giant, actually. The alliance has two new 21- by 17-foot floor maps made of heavy vinyl that it lends to teachers around the state at no cost. Elementary students play games on the maps, like relay races and scavenger hunts, to learn about legends, directions and longitude and latitude. The maps will be in the Memorial Union on Friday, and students who are eliminated in the early rounds of the bee can play with them.

The cost of the two giant maps was covered by the National Geographic Society, but the alliance held its own crowd-funding campaign last year to pay for a new map that will teach ecosystems and topography. Ekiss hopes that giant map will be ready to lend by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

The alliance, funded by the National Geographic Society, the state and ASU, was launched in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning in 1992. Back then, Ekiss was a classroom teacher at Powell Junior High School in Mesa, and she was one of the first teachers the alliance sent to Washington, D.C., for training with the National Geographic Society. She became a “teacher consultant” who taught other teachers before coming to ASU.

“We’ve touched 19,000 teachers and influenced more than 100,000 students,” Ekiss said of the alliance’s work.

Ekiss said that geography is a hot field for careers.

“Geospatial technology is one of the three biggest fields emerging for employment,” she said.

“If you’re going to be economically competitive, it’s good to have your workforce understand the world.”

The Arizona Geography Bee will start at 9:30 a.m. Friday in the Arizona Ballroom in the Memorial Union on ASU's Tempe campus. Gov. Doug Ducey is scheduled to arrive at 11:30 a.m. to meet the contestants and will kick off the final round of competition with a trivia game at noon. For details, click here.

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now