Obama speaks to Chicago students
By David Struett
Former President Barak Obama returned to Chicago April 24 and offered inspiring words to an audience including Harold Washington College students about how to get involved in community organizing and heal the political divide.
It was Obama’s first public event since leaving office, and it set a tone for his post-presidential work.
“The single most important thing I can do,” said Obama, “is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world.”
In a discussion with six youth leaders, and an audience of over 300 college students at the University of Chicago, Obama avoided mentioning President Trump, but instead talked about how to start a common “conversation” among political camps how to make pathways for students to get involved in their communities.
Obama reflected on his early community organizing work in the Roseland and Pullman communities and how he turned his youthful idealism into actual change.
“This community gave me a lot more than I was able to give in return, because this community taught me that ordinary people, when working together, can do extraordinary things,” he said.
Obama asked the students what they thought was keeping other students from getting involved in their communities.
Ayanna Watkins, a senior at Kenwood Academy High School, said she thought youth felt voiceless and therefore avoided politics.
Obama also spoke about the decline of community organizations like churches and parent teacher associations, and how that decline is part of a broader trend of people becoming more individualistic and less involved in their community.
“Maybe more pernicious is people are not involved and they give up,” said Obama. “As a consequence, we have some of the lowest voting rates of any democracy and low participation rates than translate into a further gap between who's governing us and what we believe.”
“The only folks who are going to be able to solve that problem are going to be young people, the next generation,” he said.
One student asked Obama about how he has dealt with failure.
“With respect to failure, it's terrible,” said Obama. “But sometimes it's necessary. If you are trying to change something… you will go through failures.”
Obama said it is important to have resilience, and he reflected on a time he lost a congressional race.
“That was about the sole time in my career I was running because it was just the next thing, not because I want to accomplish something,” said Obama.
“So I always tell young people, worry less with what you want to be, and more with what you want to do… Even if you fail at a particular objective, you are still learning. And it becomes not just about you,” he said.
A group of Harold Washington students who sat in the audience appreciated the chance to listen to Obama.
“It was really informative, and I got to see his post-presidential plan,” said Student Government President Kevin Woo, who raced to stage after the event and shook Obama’s hand.
“I’m walking away with inspiration and practical advice,” said Raquel Navarro, HWC’s archery club president.
Ayanna Watkins, the Kenwood Academy senior who participated on-stage, said the experience was life-changing, and that being part of Obama’s return to the community was inspirational.
“To go back into the community is very essential,” Watkins said, “because communities build cities, and cities build states, and so on. So instead of going to the press…going to the selective few people who are a part of what [Obama] wants to change is very essential and it can help a wonderful process in the near future.”