Former President Barack Obama told young people at his second annual summit in Chicago that they “can remake the world right now because it badly needs remaking.”
The two-day summit wrapped up Monday afternoon with Obama in conversation with author Dave Eggers. Sponsored by the Obama Foundation, the summit drew 650 participants from 41 countries who are engaged in community or global issues.
Obama’s talk served as a pep talk for the next generation of community organizers the Obama Foundation pledges to train.
“You have to maintain two seemingly contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. One is you should be extraordinarily impatient about the injustices and nonsense and foolishness you see around you,” Obama said. “And keep in mind … at the same time, societies are incredibly complex, organic things that you don’t turn switches on. They evolve. And they shift and they change and they move in unexpected ways.”
This year’s summit — themed “Common Hope, Uncommon Stories,” is scaled down from last year’s. Many of this year’s participants are from programs the foundation sponsors such as Global Girls Alliance, My Brothers’ Keeper Alliance, Africa leaders, and Obama fellows. On Sunday night singer-actress Janelle Monae headlined an event. On Monday, among the featured writers were Yaa Gyasi, Zadie Smith, and Tara Westover.
Obama continued the theme of storytelling by recalling his early days as a community organizer in Chicago 32 years ago. His boss told him to connect with people, and at first, Obama didn’t think it made sense. But he listened.
“What you started learning over time is everybody had a story. Everybody’s story is sacred,” Obama said. “When you listen to enough of these stories, you started seeing these weird connections and how they overlapped and reoccuring themes.”
“You had a sense of something shared,” he added.
Obama also talked about why Chicago’s South Side Jackson Park is the place he wants to build a presidential center.
“I don’t see how I could build a presidential center anywhere else. It’s the place where I found my calling, my voice, my political career, and the place that produced my wife and my children,” Obama said, adding that Chicago is where he came as a boy and left as a man.
Earlier in the day, Obama put on a pair of virtual reality glasses to get a glimpse inside of what the planned presidential center may look like once it’s built.
“Wow! Look at that! Outstanding!” Obama exclaimed, as he turned this way and that, honing in on the buildings and grounds. “You know, I hate to sound old, like, ‘I can’t believe it does that.’ It’s like when old people say, ‘Can you really talk on this thing?’” he joked.
After the augmented reality excursion, Obama surveyed his center’s architectural model. “You know what I always love? It’s the tiny people on these models,” he said. “But this is wonderful.”
Some local community activists fear that the presidential center will lead to rising home values and rents. They have criticized the one-time community organizer and his foundation for not agreeing to a binding community benefits agreement to protect residents in nearby Woodlawn from being displaced.