First Lady to urge Chicago business leaders to invest in youth

April 10, 2013

WBEZ/Andrew Gill
First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to business leaders in Chicago on April 10, 2013. She urged them to invest in Chicago youth.

In a passionate plea to the private sector, First Lady Michelle Obama returned to her hometown Wednesday to help raise money for anti-violence youth programs.

At a downtown Chicago luncheon with 800 civic and business leaders, Obama urged them to contribute to a $50 million public safety campaign led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The First Lady grew up in South Shore and said the issue of violence is “personal.” She recounted her working-class family roots and how recent gun murders have touched her emotionally.

Obama recalled meeting with the friends and parents of Hadiya Pendleton - the King College Prep High School student killed days after performing at the presidential inauguration and a mile away from Obama’s Kenwood home.

“As I visited with the Pendleton family at Hadiya’s funeral, I couldn’t get over how familiar they felt to me.

Because what I realized was Hadiya’s family was just like my family. Hadiya Pendleton was me and I was her,” said Obama as her voice cracked. “But I got to grow up.”

Well-heeled members of The Commercial Club of Chicago, Economic Club of Chicago, The Executives’ Club of Chicago and World Business Chicago attended the luncheon. So far, $33 million has been raised. The money is supposed to go to at-risk youth programs, community building strategies and an innovation fund for new programs. All this would be administered over a five-year period by The Chicago Community Trust.

“What it takes to build strong, successful young people isn’t genetics, pedigree or good luck, it’s opportunity and I know from my own experience, I started out with exactly the same aptitude, exactly the same intellectual, emotional capabilities as so many of my peers,” Obama said. She added that the business community has a moral obligation to help local youth.

“This is going to take a serious and sustained investment over a very long period of time,” Obama said. “This is forever.”

After her speech, Obama visited a high school in Englewood, a neighborhood marred by gunplay and poverty. Harper High School was the subject of an earlier documentary by WBEZ's “This American Life.” Twenty-nine current and former Harper students were shot last year.

Obama told students the best thing they could do in life "is really be serious about education."

The mayor said if the city can rally around NATO, the Olympics bid, Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park, it can rally around children.

When Emanuel announced the $50 million fundraising goal earlier this year, he put Allstate Chief Executive Officer Tom Wilson and Loop Capital Chief Executive Officer James Reynolds in charge.

“I can honestly say I have never been more excited about any effort or initiative I’ve been a part of. The lives we save, the lives we change will ultimately be the test of how well this community responds to its moral duty,” said Reynolds, an Englewood native.

T.J. Crawford is project coordinator for the Black Youth Project and said the mayor’s $50 million initiative needs to address systemic issues.

“[It] will be beneficial only if they do something outside of the box that I haven’t seen him do before: Work directly with community organizations and individuals that have real relationship to our community’s youth and sometimes violent perpetrators to enhance their capacity and support mechanisms to do the work that they have already dedicated their lives to doing,” Crawford said. “It seems we fall in the trap of being able to properly report, quantify and qualify how dollars are being spent without investing in the human capital that is needed to actually create the change we seek. “

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.

A White House Pool report contributed to this story.