As the Obama Foundation moves forward with breaking ground in Jackson Park to undertake a five-year long process of building one of the most progressive presidential centers in the country—his team is laying the bricks to build civic engagement among the next generation of leaders.
Bringing together a collage of leaders of nonprofit organizations, community and cultural stakeholders from around the globe, the foundation kicked off its first global Summit at the newly opened McCormick Place Marriott Marquis last week.
The first day opened up with President Barack Obama welcoming those who traveled as far as India, Japan and Africa to attend the two-day conference, which brought together progressive thinkers through well thought-out breakout sessions, keynote one-on-one conversations and intimate dinner placements—engaging newly formed acquaintances and crossing over cultural and class barriers.
In calm, cool and “Shaft-like” mannerism—Obama was both charming and very informed in sharing with attendees what’s at stake when there is no civic duty involved in the process of bringing about change. Although he admits social media was a powerful tool in gaining youth voters in his last two elections—he told the audience there’s more to the world than just a selfie.
He says, “True social media – it is an amazing tool. But if it is blocking you from having a conversation or seeing somebody and recognizing them and listening to them because you are so busy trying to get a picture, then you are, I think in some ways, contributing to what separates us rather than trying to break through,” said Obama. “So that seems trivial, but that’s me. It also will allow Michelle and me to have actual conversations with you, which will be nice.”
Mike Strautmanis, the Foundation’s VP of Civic Engagement, has met with hundreds of people from various communities and says this summit is the first step in the right direction to bringing together both Chicagoans and visitors from around the world.
Strautmanis explains the mission of the summit. “It came from Chicago, this is the community that gave the world Michelle Obama. We heard her talk about the values that she got from her parents—hard work and doing the right thing. Believing in the power of people coming together to solve problems. That’s what the president learned as a community organizer. In many ways, this is coming full circle and he took those lessons, tried things and had successes,” he said. “He took this to the White House and now we want to take that work and see if we can do something to affect our civic culture. We’ve known over time—one of the best ways to do that is to take people, bring them into a place and give them an opportunity to learn from each other, hear from each other and teach each other.”
There were 100 Chicago-based participants out of the 500 overall attendees invited.
The highlights of the summit included an in-depth discussion with Prince Harry, moderated by Ariel Investments’ President Mellody Hobson. They were joined by Chantelle Stefanovic, a Project Coordinator for Full Effect, a program of The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry based in St. Ann’s, Nottingham, England, and the President and Executive Director of The National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, David A. Peterson, Jr. Both Stefanovic and Peterson shared similar experiences in how there’s hope and burgeoning talent among youth in sometimes the lowest disparity areas. The conversation was enlightening and empowering as examples of their community work mirrored many who were in attendance.
On the final day, Michelle Obama had the best soundbites of the conference as she sat across from interviewer and friend Elizabeth Alexander, who’s authored several books of poems, essays and a play including her memoir, “The Light of the World.”
At ease, Michelle Obama walked attendees and the thousands of viewers via livestream through her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago. Growing up in a household that was embraced by music, art and theater. She recollected the familiar teachings of her family members and how she and the former president passed on that same independent thinking to their daughters.
“I was a blessed child. I was blessed with the love of a father and a mother who gave me gifts that were priceless. For that, I owe so much. I think about that. I think about making them proud. I think about every word I utter.”
The former first lady says the words of her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, rings out to her. “Do what you say you’re going to do. To be honest, to be true. To treat people with dignity and respect. It wasn’t just their words but it was their actions,” she said.
Other speakers in attendance at the summit included Hamilton playwright and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda; author and writer Anand Giridaradas; transformative artist and founder of Rebuild Foundation Theaster Gates; Managing Director of Chicago Beyond Liz Dozier; Grammy and Academy award-winning songwriter Common; and many others.
Born in Chatham and later relocating to Uptown, Strautmanis is familiar with his South Side roots. He compares the two-day gathering bringing together people together from different racial and cultural backgrounds as preparing a meal. “You have a bunch of different people, you don’t know who will show up with your family members and you took some of that and created something new from it while nurturing the people who exist.” He said that’s the “core and value” the foundation is building from.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going to come from this but everything is going to start here from our hometown. The President wants to make sure that our people, his former neighbors, his friends, the people that he represented, including Mrs. Obama’s people, benefit from it first. We have to do that work. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it’s fun, but it’s has to get done.”