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Obama Says His 'Next Job' Will Focus On Empowering Young Leaders

By Sam Cholke | April 24, 2017 9:53am | Updated on April 28, 2017 11:45am
 Former President Barack Obama led a panel of address young community organizers Monday at the University of Chicago, marking his first speech since leaving office in January.
Former President Barack Obama led a panel of address young community organizers Monday at the University of Chicago, marking his first speech since leaving office in January.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

HYDE PARK — Former President Barack Obama moderated a panel of young community organizers Monday at the University of Chicago, hoping to inspire young organizers to change a divisive and unproductive U.S. political climate. 

Billed as a "Conversation on Civic Engagement," Obama was joined by six young activists to talk about their community work, including voter registration and food drives and mentoring programs. 

Addressing a cheering crowd, Obama greeted the room by jokingly asking "What's been going on while I've been gone?" and recalling his journey from community organizer on the South Side to 44th president of the United States. 

Now, he said, he's looking to the future. 

"I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the most important thing I could do for my next job," Obama said. "[There are] all kinds of issues that I care about and issues I intend to work on. But the single most important thing I can do is help in any way [to] prepare the next generation of leadership to take their own crack at changing the world." 

Obama said his concerns range from criminal justice reform and climate change to economic challenges. But tackling these issues, he said, is a huge task — especially in the modern political climate.

Gerrymandering, which Obama has previously vowed to combat now that he's out of office, has moved our political parties further apart and made it "harder to find common ground," he said. 

He pointed to a media landscape that allows people to listen to those "who already agree with them," and neglect a "common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and find common ground and move solutions forward." 

Obama bemoaned the decline of many civic organizations such the Rotary Club, unions and churches that were once the main pathway that brought people to civic projects.

“That means people don’t have the same habits to be together on a common project like they used to. We’re a more individualistic society,” Obama said. “I think that has a spillover for civic engagement, but also on empathy because we’re dealing with fewer people.”


Among the young Chicagoans joining the president are a member of the Young Republicans at U. of C., an immigrant from India who ran for a state representative seat, and a U.S. Army veteran studying at Roosevelt University preparing for law school.

The participants were:

• Max Freedman, a member of the Young Republicans at U. of C. who has worked on job campaigns for veterans;

• Dr. Tiffany Brown, a pharmacist who was the "study queen" at Chicago State University and is now helping other students from low-income neighborhoods get through college;

• Ramuel Figueroa, a veteran studying day laborers while finishing his sociology degree at Roosevelt University;

• Kelsey McClear, who helped launch a fund at Loyola to support student startups;

• Ayanna Watkin, who has been advocating to improve cleanliness at Kenwood Academy;

• Harish Patel, an immigrant from India who ran for state representative in Illinois.

Obama prodded the panel for ideas to get young people involved in civic activities at a time that he thinks its more frustrating to be involved in politics and civic issues.

“I feel like in order to encourage the youth, it needs a strong support system behind it,” Watkins said.

She said so much of her time in school is focused on math and science to do well on tests.

“So social studies and civics get pushed to the side,” Watkins said.

Obama admitted that coming out of college, he wasn’t entirely sure where to put his civic-minded energy.

“I had gotten out of college full of idealism and absolutely certain I would change the world, but I had no idea how of where or what I would be doing,” Obama said.

The talk turned at times into Obama sharing his own advise from his time community organizing in Chicago.

“Your initial instinct is to tell people what they should be interested in rather than spending the first six months listening and finding out what they are interested in and then connecting their needs to the policy interests that are affecting their concerns,” Obama said. “The more you can make concrete for people the fact that the reason there are no after-school programs is not because they are impossible to set up, but because of budgets and here are the people setting the budgets.”

Max Freedman said he feels outside the mainstream as a Republican on a college campus, and there's a widening gap between people of different ideological backgrounds.

“I think there is a significant empathy gap, not just here, but everywhere," Freedman said. “It’s not just that we’re reading different news, we’re not talking to each other anymore — civic engagement will require a level of civility.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he was "immensely proud" that his former boss chose Chicago not only for his last speech as president but also for the first speech of his post-presidency.

"It reflects his emotional as well his intellectual commitment to this city, and seeing this city as his home," Emanuel said.

Tickets to the event were sent out to the city's universities — U. of C., Northwestern, Loyola, Chicago State, Roosevelt and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The event was streamed online starting at 11 a.m. 

Obama came to town over the weekend, and met with young men at the Youth Peace Center of Roseland, 420 W. 111th St., Sunday, the Tribune reports. 

It’s a beautiful day on the South Side. pic.twitter.com/PtoaFbww0s

— The Obama Foundation (@ObamaFoundation) April 24, 2017

The meeting was with members of Chicago's Create Real Economic Destiny, a program run by former Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan that aims to lift up "young, at-risk men by preparing them to enter the work force and matching them with real job opportunities." 

The Tribune reports that Obama discussed gang and gun violence in Chicago with the teens and stayed overnight in his Kenwood home. 

The Monday event at the Logan Center put Obama in a building designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the same architect team that has been trying to find a design bold enough to satisfy Obama's expectations for his presidential library.