If anyone can lure a star-studded lineup to Chicago in the freezing beginning of winter, it’s our forty-fourth president. On October 31, 2017, former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama launched the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit, drawing over five hundred carefully chosen activists from more than sixty countries, along with countless dignitaries and politicians from across the country. In the opening session, changemakers ranging from Whitney Kimball Coe, of rural Appalachia, to Marietje Schaake, an up-and-coming member of the European Parliament, spoke about the differences they were making in their local community and what they hoped to accomplish at the summit.
Obama continued this thread, telling the packed crowd about his work on the South Side and the struggles he faced as a community organizer. “I started thinking to myself, how could I have an impact? How could I have a difference?” he recalled. He told the crowd gathered at the conference, “One thing that binds all of you together is at some point in your lives, you’ve asked yourself the same question: How can I have an impact?”
The former president drew on his own experiences to inspire the audience, exclaiming that “ordinary people in local communities can do extraordinary things.” He then went on to admit that he was concerned with what his legacy would be, describing his vision for what he hoped his foundation and the inaugural summit would achieve. He likened the gathering of activists to “a big hackathon,” expressing that the crowd was to be his and Ms. Obama’s “co-collaborators” in determining what the Obama Foundation would become going forward. Speaking to the combined influence in the room, Mr. Obama told the crowd that “if we can pool the experience, knowledge, resources that’s represented in this room, I’m absolutely confident that we’ll be able to, together…create the kind of world we all want.” He implored the audience to seek out people with a different point of view, and asked them not be partisan, pointing out that “in the moment we’re in right now, politics is the tail, and not the dog.” To conclude the first session, Obama emphasized the collective power of the activists in the room, exclaiming, “What an amazing gift, what an extraordinary privilege, to be able to make the world better.” And with that, the former president kicked off the beginning of the first Obama Foundation Summit.
On Wednesday morning, Michelle Obama took the stage to give her own powerful speech. Introduced by renowned poet and longtime friend Elizabeth Alexander, the conversation centered around belonging to and serving a community. Alexander began by talking about words and inspiration that carry who we are and asked Obama who inspired her famous quote, “when they go low, we go high.” Obama focuses on words and actions that stay in her head and make her life useful and, naturally, pointed to her parents, Marian and Fraser Robinson. The words she heard growing up—“understated, humble”—keep her hopeful and her head high. Her family didn’t come from a wealthy background and received only secondary education, but they made use of their power, influence, and love to raise their family and never found a reason to complain. She added that Barack Obama reminds her of her father in that respect.
Michelle Obama grew up surrounded by art. Mr. Robinson was a sculptor and a painter. This created a fairly “luxurious” childhood for her since she was able to perform a lot, whether in a church basement or at school. “Art is the first language we speak,” she said before advocating for more art programs in public schools. Some brains just work differently and, in order to understand math and reading, students need something to motivate them. “Art is not a luxury; it is a thing that unites us. Just look at Hamilton!” She continued on this point and how we take art for granted because it is something we enjoy. But that is what makes it most important because art—especially in the public—unites communities, like the way crowds cheerfully gather around the Bean downtown. “There is too little public art in communities on the Southside. We deserve that in the Southside, too.”
Alexander progressed to the main theme of the summit: civic work. She asked Obama how we can be of use to our communities. Obama, however, chose to focus on the individual making the change rather than the change itself. “Self care is something you have to practice…you have to value yourself and think you are worthy.” She spoke about how do-gooders sometimes distract themselves with helping other people because what they can do for others, they can’t do for themselves. While admitting she falls into that category, she said she learned a lot about self-care when she became a mother and stopped treating it like a luxury and, instead, like a necessity. Obama remarked that as a mother, you have to be organized in order to teach your kids to care for themselves, and protect yourself before you protect them. This means health and nutrition, but also leaving time for yourself by not saying yes to everyone.
The people you should be saying yes to are your friends because it is important to schedule laughter. “I love my husband and he is my rock, but my girlfriends are my sanity. Women, we do it better than men. [Men,] get you some friends because you really need to talk about your shit.” She spoke about how her deepening friendships helped her to keep a steady head on her shoulders. “I don’t move unless some thirty-year-old tells me, ‘you can leave now ma’am,’” she joked, referencing her security personnel. Obama alluded to the fact that we live in a world that is ruthlessly efficient about work. Therefore, we have to balance that by being calmly organized about life. That is the key to happiness. The work will always be there but if there is no happiness, then it is hard for us to be good role models for others. We can do more good for others if we bring clarity to our lives rather than constant multitasking. This also means leaving space for spontaneity.
Alexander’s final questions were centered around specific moments: something in the last week that has given Obama hope and something that has made her cry. Hope resonated around the summit: the people, conversations, missions, and possibilities. The tears were around children, in both positive and negative ways. She tears up with happiness and pride as she watches her girls carrying themselves and going through their lives. However, so many children in the world today are unvalued, uneducated, or unwanted. Sadly, this brokenness doesn’t force us to stop Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Little ones look to us to protect them and love them because that is our number one role on this earth: producers of human life. She added that we must sacrifice for the world the same way we sacrifice for our children. Michelle Obama gave a powerful lesson of self knowledge that has shown her intimate self is the same self she shares. If nothing else, she is consistent.
The summit closed out with a diverse series of speakers and, finally, Barack Obama himself talking about moments of service and what service means for him. All of the guests at the summit had spent that afternoon in seminars and breakout groups, talking about how to mobilize, communicate, and take action. These groups helped weave participants’ stories together, and innovate based on the progress of others—all of which was discussed at closing.
Every speaker shared their own perspective on service and activism. Eric Liu talked about his work at Citizens University, where he teaches thousands of Americans about the value of citizenship and how the intersection of power and character can lead to effective citizenship. Adebola Williams explained how he was able to force the Nigerian government to listen to young people, in spite of the entrenched power structure. Tina Rosenberg discussed the power of solutions-based journalism amid a journalistic atmosphere of negativity.
One of the night’s best moments was a conversation between Lin Manuel Miranda and Common, in which they talked about art as a vehicle for activism and how their art intersects with their lives. Both spoke on how their art has evolved as a direct reflection of their politics, and how they realized the power that their art could carry. They discussed how the social clout that they carried could cause tangible change such as with Miranda in Puerto Rico, and intangible change such as Common with the inspiration he has given artists and citizens.
At the end of the night, Obama came out to wrap up the conference before the community event with Chance the Rapper. Referencing Miranda’s song “The Room Where It Happens,” the forty-fourth President told the crowd that, “[the people in that room] are not inherently better equipped to spread the kinds of value that are most important in how we treat each other.” After a weekend of talking about activism, especially in light of a political climate opposed to many of Obama’s core values, discussing the qualification of the crowd to get back into the room where it happened felt particularly poignant.
Michelle and Barack Obama exhibited their strengths and values while they held office for the past eight years. Now they are coming together to build something even longer-lasting. This foundation and the goals they have set out to accomplish as a team prove them to be the same people they were in the White House and before: compassionate, motivated, and charming. Gathering together the next generation of innovators, they hope to build a new future for underrepresented communities like the South Side in which they lived. The Obamas have not yet laid their full mark on the world and, from the looks of it, this project is just the beginning.The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons, the original can be found here.