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Community groups keep pushing Obama library for written promises

Michael Strautmanis, vice president of community engagement for the Obama Foundation, speaks to a packed crowd Saturday in Hyde Park about plans for the Obama Presidential Center library. | Matthew Hendrickson / Sun-Times

A standing-room only crowd gathered on the South Side Saturday with hopes for the economic opportunities the Barack Obama Presidential Center library could bring to the South Side – and with some still pushing for those benefits to be promised in writing.

The Hyde Park meeting was so packed that organizers had to set up a separate area where those who couldn’t get in could view a Facebook Live feed.

It came days after a coalition of community groups held a press conference reiterating their call for the Obama Foundation to enter into a community benefits agreement with residents of the Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore neighborhoods.

Community input will be integral to the process of building the center, Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s vice president of community engagement, told the crowd.

“Now I know that some people when they hear that language, they’re going to hear that with a bit of a cynical ear, because the truth is, too many people pay lip service to community input, when all they really want is the appearance of community input,” Strautmanis said. “This is going to be different.”

He promised there would be transparency and accountability throughout the process.

Some speakers said it comes down to trust, and that residents should put their faith in the foundation and President Obama to deliver.

“It has nothing to do with trust; we trust them,” Sandra Bivens, executive director of the 51st Street Business Association, said. “It’s about an opportunity for the foundation to lead by example with a community benefits agreement.”

Bivens’ organization and other community groups that have formed a coalition, want an agreement in writing to be able to legally hold the foundation to its promises of jobs for the community when the center is built and affordable housing.

Joanna Trotter, senior program officer with The Chicago Community Trust, said plans to ensure accountability and input from the community will come through a yet-to-be-formed nonprofit that will include at least three representatives each of the adjacent neighborhoods on a board consisting of 2o to 25 members.

Trotter pointed to board member applications available at the summit that are being accepted through April 30.

The board, once set, will ultimately determine the structure of the organization but could include committees that would allow more residents to play a role, Trotter said.

Strautmanis said he had met with community members to consider their views on community benefits agreements, while Trotter said she was not opposed to them personally.

In a statement after the event, Strautmanis said the Obama Foundation maintains the view that there are better ways to oversee a lasting impact on the Southside than a community benefits agreement.