WINNER: DR. LIBBY HAIGHT O’CONNELL CHIEF HISTORIAN, SVP, CORPORATE OUTREACH, AETN
"I thought I was going to have a research job," Dr. Libby O’Connell recalls when we ask about her early days as a part-time consultant at The History Channel.
Some 15 years later, as History’s chief historian, she still does plenty of research. But her outgoing personality — O’Connell is one of the most charming academics we know — has led to a larger portfolio that has O’Connell leading A&E Television Networks’ corporate outreach. This means the historian is in the field as much as she’s in the library. "I spend at least two nights a week in uncomfortable shoes" at out-of-town events and business-related dinners. "And I know America’s airports far too well," she jests. But the rewards are fulfilling, perhaps more than what a pure historian can receive. And her travel goes straight to the heart of her belief about public affairs and history.
"History must be about partnerships that bring history to the public," she insists. That’s why one of her initiatives, Save Our History, makes $10,000 grants to historical societies that partner with schools on projects. It’s also why History has videos in some 70 museums and historical sites around the country, including the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, on whose board she serves. "They’re bringing history to the public, too," O’Connell says.
On a recent morning, she was in her Manhattan office by 8:10. After her "big breakfast" of eggs and grilled turkey, O’Connell was mixing history and public affairs, following up on a screening of History’s Martin Luther King documentary at an inner city high school in Washington, D.C. Most of the students had never seen the documentary’s famous footage of dogs attacking civil rights marchers and police using water cannons. "You could hear the students gasp," O’Connell says. A surprise guest at the screening was Walter Fauntroy, D.C.’s first elected delegate to Congress and Dr. King’s envoy to JFK and LBJ. Afterward, rather than address the students on civil rights, O’Connell asked Fauntroy to speak. "He gave a great talk on how he helped organize the march on Washington…it was fascinating."
Perhaps the project that takes O’Connell furthest from her academic training in American history is A&E’s Intervention Town Hall Meeting. These grassroots sessions, held with local cable affiliates, are based on A&E’s hit series Intervention. "It’s very important to emphasize the local component…satellite can’t do this — it’s what your local cable operator can do to help you," she says. The meetings, where participants discuss their addictions, "are very profound events," but much of the night is devoted to telling people where they can find help for themselves or a friend or family. While help is available on the Internet, "people can’t always find it [online], and sometimes it’s best when someone looks them in the eye and says, ‘I know where you can get help.’" Sounds like a good definition of outreach.
O’Connell’s team sends some 160,000 educational e-mails to schools and teachers weekly.
In its first year in 2007, O’Connell’s Take a Veteran to School Day initiative had participants in all 50 states as veterans shared their experience with students.
The Save Our History Initiative received The White House Preservation Award, presented by First Lady Laura Bush in a Rose Garden Ceremony.
Richard Ramlall, SVP, Strategic and External Affairs, RCN — Lacking a substantial budget, Ramlall pushed in-kind services donations, coaxing programmers to set aside $3 million worth of airtime for The United Way.