SOUTH SHORE — Activists hoping Obama Presidential Center officials would commit in writing to what they plan to do for the community got the ultimate brushoff Thursday night: Barack Obama himself rejected the idea at a highly publicized meeting.
But those groups — despite the former president's stance against a written community benefits agreement — said Friday the fact that Obama addressed the issue was a victory that showed their concerns have made it all the way to the top.
The groups have been pushing to get commitments on local hiring, contracts for minority firms and other terms from the Obama Foundation as it builds the center in Jackson Park. Organizers said that they now know their calls are being taken seriously because Obama himself addressed them.
“I was shocked that he even wanted to address it,” said Jeanette Taylor of Woodlawn, who posed the question about a benefits agreement at the Thursday night meeting.
Taylor didn’t know that she would be addressing Obama himself, but foundation officials knew that Obama would be making a surprise appearance via video conference — and also knew that groups pushing for the agreement had camped out for hours to make sure Taylor asked the first question.
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Obama said an agreement wasn’t necessary because the foundation is a nonprofit and is bringing money and other benefits to the community that it otherwise would not have received.
“I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that' … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork,” Obama said.
But at least one organizer said that the Obama Foundation already has made commitments regarding who will get jobs and contracts and called Obama’s response “non-answers.”
“It’s a simple thing. I don’t know why the president and others would try to complicate it,” said Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.
Obama said the construction of the center is not like the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics in 2009 because unlike landing the Olympics, which was always an uncertainty, the center is actually happening.
He said one of the difficulties is figuring out exactly who from the community should be on the other side of the table negotiating for the benefits with the foundation.
The Obama Foundation already has outlined its high standards for diversity in contracting during the construction of the center. A very basic community benefits agreement would put all of that in writing and lay out consequences if contracters, for example, failed to hire enough local workers.
No one group would necessarily have to sign off on the agreement, however. In the case of Olympics, the guarantees from Olympic organizers were made with city officials only.
Malone and others in the current campaign cut their teeth on the work to get the Olympics agreement — even though the groups never signed the deal and the Games were not held here. They then moved on to successfully push the University of Chicago to open a trauma center and to get Chicago Public Schools to reopen Dyett High School.
They hope they will have repeated success on the Obama Library.
Obama Foundation officials were not available to comment.