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by Jen Rose Smith

President Barack Obama came home to Chicago in crisp, blue-and-white pinstripes and a grin to match. “How do we dream big?” he asked in conversation with the actress Yara Shahidi, on stage at the third annual Obama Foundation Summit in October. “How do we sustain our own sense of hope?”


Turning towards a star-studded audience, he reminded attendees that some of America’s most profound changes have been led by youth like the activists who’d joined him onstage, participants in the Obama Foundation Scholars Program who hailed from as far away as Lebanon. “Most of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were your age,” he said. “Martin Luther King, when he started with the Montgomery bus boycott, was 25, 26. Think about that.” 


That towering legacy, he noted at the summit, shouldn’t intimidate young people from pursuing dreams of social and political change: just the opposite. “One place to start when you think about where to go next,” Obama said, “is to remind yourselves that the same doubts, uncertainties, struggles, difficulties, challenges that sometimes weigh you down, they were going through.” 


His encouraging words underscored the key goals of the Obama Foundation, a nonprofit based on the South Side of Chicago with the mission to “inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world.” From his work as a community organizer to his time in the Illinois Senate, Chicago shaped Barack Obama’s career and life. Now, he’s nurturing the city’s next generation of leaders. 


It starts with the Obama Foundation’s flagship Obama Community Leadership Corps (CLC), a handpicked group of dynamic 18- to 25-year-olds whose six-month tenures include both project funding and a series of trainings. “You are going to learn over the course of the next six months about your voice, your agency, your power,” said David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation, when he welcomed a 2019 cohort of more than 200 young leaders in June. “You are now part of the largest network of global changemakers that has ever been assembled on the planet.” 


The Leadership Corps’ Chicago-based cohort has gathered for in-person trainings, then leveraged online coaching and project funding to develop the causes they’re most passionate about. 


“What inspired me to apply to the CLC was my commitment to community, and my need to really be involved in the real world,” said Chicagoan River Bunkley in an interview with the Obama Foundation. Bunkley used his time in the 2019 Community Leadership Corps to help found Work Matters, a digital platform providing tools for facilitating the employment of people returning from prison. “I knew the Obama Foundation was all about bringing individuals who are passionate about community change together,” he said, “and I really wanted to be a part of it.” 


Another change-making alumna is Dejah Powell, who cofounded the wellness initiative black&well with help from the Community Leadership Corps, where she was part of the very first cohort. “I started noticing that the resources that were existent in communities up north weren’t existent here on the South Side,” said Powell in an interview with the Obama Foundation. “I really wanted to address the larger issue of access around health, food, education.” Following her time in the Community Leadership Corps, Powell joined black&well cofounders Kaysi Gray and LaNae Plaxico to launch workshops, yoga classes, and fitness trainings in the neighborhood where she was raised.


That focus on nurturing young leaders dates back to Barack Obama’s time as president, when he introduced the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force in 2014. “There’s nothing, not a single thing, that’s more important to the future of America than whether or not you and young people all across this country can achieve their dreams,” said President Obama of My Brother’s Keeper in 2015. 


With the goal of addressing opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color, the Task Force worked in all 50 states, combining grant programs with low-interest financing and money from the private sector.


Now under the auspices of the Obama Foundation, the MBK Alliance — as it’s now called — remains dedicated to helping young people achieve their dreams. “We all have the obligation to lift up communities that have consistently had the odds stacked against them,” said Obama of the ongoing effort to create change. “This works continues.” The MBK Alliance remains dedicated to providing boys and young men of color with the tools to thrive in nearly 250 locations across the United States. 


In April 2019, the MBK Alliance launched a nationwide competition for communities working to improve the lives of boys and men of color, then chose 19 organizations to highlight. Of these, 10 were designated as “National Impact Communities,” groups already making progress in improving the lives of young men and boys of color. 


Chicago’s own National Impact Community is a joint initiative between Youth Guidance and Thrive Chicago, two of the city’s most dynamic efforts to uplift young people. With a focus on school-based programming, Youth Guidance currently serves more than 13,000 students across Chicago, mostly in low-income areas. Dedicated to helping kids “succeed in school and life,” they’re a natural partner to Thrive Chicago. That organization was awarded prestigious MacArthur Foundation grants in both 2016 and 2018 for its work to help existing child- and youth-serving organizations in the city hone their efforts for the greatest possible results. 


Joining the National Impact Communities in the Obama Foundation’s spotlight are four Chicago initiatives that received seed grants aimed at amplifying the good work and leadership that’s already taking place in the city. That means a helping hand for the South Shore Drill Team & Performing Arts Ensemble, which has danced through the last four decades with a talented cast of Chicago youth drawn largely from the city’s South Side. 


“What I see when I see our practice? I see the future in a positive light,” said Steven Washington, the South Shore Drill Team’s Community Outreach Director, in an interview with the Obama Foundation. “I see determination. I see hard work. Optimism!” 


Resources from the MBK Alliance will extend that life-changing experience to an additional 60 young people, including 30 who have been referred from the Cook County Juvenile Court. Members of the South Shore Drill Team marched at the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Parade, and their accomplishments extend beyond the dance floor; since 2012, 100 percent of South Shore Drill Team members have graduated with their high school classes, with most continuing to technical school or college. 


Another recipient is BUILD Chicago — the name stands for Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development — which has worked in disadvantaged Chicago neighborhoods since 1969. “The only way to really change outcomes for our young people is to walk with them side by side,” said Adam Alonso, BUILD’s CEO, in a video introducing the program’s collaboration with the Obama Foundation. 


With funds from the MBK Alliance, BUILD is launching a pilot Apprentice Mentor Program that will recruit 10 mentors from the program’s youth participants and train them to work with their younger peers. “These young men are powered by that passion that says: ‘I don’t want young people to end up like I did,’” Alonso said, “because there are options.” 


In addition to their dedication to building better futures for young people, each of the four organizations share a commitment to working in, and with, underserved neighborhoods in one of the most segregated cities in the United States.


That nexus of place and community is at the core of the Obama Foundation’s efforts in Chicago. Pinned on the wall at this year’s Community Leadership Corps gathering was a colorful map of the city, speckled with pins where members marked the neighborhoods where they live and work. “A lot of us never get to step out of our neighborhoods and just have a simple conversation with other people,” said Chicagoan Malik Milon, a member of the 2019 Community Leadership Corps, in an interview with the Obama Foundation. “It’s great being able to connect with people from different areas of Chicago, kind of breaking those borders of segregation.”


A focus on how place molds our lives and work infused the 2019 Obama Foundation Summit, whose theme was “Places Reveal Our Purpose.” There, former First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage with her brother, Craig Robinson, to discuss growing up on the South Side of Chicago in a session called “There’s No Place Like Home.” 


“Everyone we knew got up every day and did what they were supposed to,” said Michelle Obama. “They strived to give their kids good values and access to better things.” The Robinson family moved from the 6400 block of South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to South Euclid Avenue so the children could attend higher-quality schools, and the kids spent their free time playing at nearby Rosenblum Park. “The parks in Chicago, when we were growing up — that was a gathering place,” Obama said. 


Chicago green spaces remain an essential place to play, with more than 7,600 acres of the city devoted to parks. Among the most iconic is Jackson Park, a 500-acre green space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the visionary pair behind New York’s Central Park. It’s slated to be the future home of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), which will occupy 19.3 acres on the western edge of the park. New renderings of the center were released at October’s Obama Foundation Summit, highlighting spaces designed to
bring the community together — just as Rosenblum Park did when the Robinson kids were growing up nearby. 

Flanked by a museum, a forum, and a new branch of the Chicago Public Library, the OPC’s plaza will welcome community festivals and live performances, while the whole neighborhood can enjoy basketball courts and a two-acre children’s play area. Inside, exhibits will explore the American story, from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns. 


Like the Obama Foundation’s own projects in Chicago, it’s a dream in progress, making it a fitting home for the young people who will lead the city in the years to come. “The work you’re doing in this place at this moment is not going to be the beginning,” said President Obama told them at the Obama Foundation Summit in October. “And it’s not going to be the end.”

Images courtesy of Obama Foundation

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