Former President Barack Obama told young community organizers at his annual summit on Tuesday to be patient when it comes to change, and focus on what they want to do rather than who they want to be.
The gathering, sponsored by the Obama Foundation, drew 400 attendees from more than 40 countries to the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago’s South Side. From Cameroon to Lebanon to the South Side of Chicago, the young activists heard inspiring messages from filmmaker Ava DuVernay, civil rights leader Dolores Huerta and actor Billy Porter.
“Grown-ish” television star Yara Shahidi closed out the day in conversation with Obama and four young activists on stage.
“When I was your age, I was not sitting on the stage talking in some serious voice — I was out there trying to get with a girl or play basketball,” Obama said, drawing laughs from the audience. Then in college, he read about Nelson Mandela and the fight to end apartheid in South Africa.
“There was this long process for me of aligning what I said I believed in with my behavior and then testing what I could change, so the world would align better with what I believed in and my values,” Obama said.
He said he developed skills and courage along the way. Obama also cautioned against purity and lack of compromise in politics. He cautioned the young activists about being too judgmental on social media with “woke culture.”
“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws,” Obama said.
This was the Obama Foundation’s third summit, and although this year’s event was smaller than previous ones, the mission was still the same — training young people and highlighting participants in its global programs.
“My hope is that [the foundation] creates sufficient connectivity between people who are working on these issues around the world and inside this country, that no one is alone,” Obama said.
When asked about places lacking economic vitality, Obama talked up his presidential center to be built in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side.
“Part of the reason Michelle and I decided to locate the presidential center here is so that it can serve as a catalyst to stitch together the economies of downtown Chicago and North Side Chicago with South Side Chicago and eventually West Side of Chicago,” Obama said.
Earlier in the day, Michelle Obama joined her brother onstage, along with journalist Isabel Wilkerson, to reflect on their tight-knit family and the white flight they encountered in their South Shore neighborhood in the 1960s. MIchelle Obama also boosted bringing the presidential center to a park that doesn’t get the same amount of resources as others.
“There’s power in the selection of Jackson Park. Barack and I don’t do things incidentally,” Michelle Obama said. “What better place to put it than our backyard. Jackson Park is the juxtaposition of everything in our lives.”
The $500 million Obama Presidential Center will have a museum, public library, forum and open space that includes a children’s area. It’s not just about a presidential center, it’s about the South Side of Chicago, Michelle Obama said. “I love a tree, [but] our parks are public spaces … Barack and I wouldn’t bring some crap up in our neighborhood.”
She appeared to give a subtle dig at park preservationists who oppose the center going in Jackson Park. A federal judge ruled against their lawsuit earlier this year, but they are appealing the ruling.