Meeting Obama at U of C shows young people ‘you can do it, too’

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Former President Barack Obama listens as Ayanna Watkins, a student at Kenwood High School, chats about community organizing and civic engagement at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts on Monday, April 24, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Just before former President Barack Obama met with six panelists at the University of Chicago for his first post-presidential public appearance, he met with the group privately — their names and bios etched in his brain.

Ayanna Watkins, 18, a senior at Kenwood Academy High School called that introduction — from someone who started his politicalcareer in the cityshe calls home — a “life-changing experience.”

“Instead of saying who we are, he came in already knowing about me and who I am,” Watkins said. “It was very heartwarming to me.”

Watkins was among six panelists —all either civically minded students or graduates of Chicago-area schools — who took part in the event aimed at inspiring young people to get involved in civic life.

A more relaxed, nostalgic Obama said he’s had a lot of time to think about his post-presidential plans:“The single most important thing I can do, to help in any way, I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton.”

Former President Barack Obama makes his first post-presidential public appearance and chats with younger activists about community organizing and civic engagement at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts on Monday, April 24, 2017. | Ashlee

Former President Barack Obama makes his first post-presidential public appearance and chats with younger activists about community organizing and civic engagement at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts on Monday, April 24, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Obama made no mention of President Donald Trump during the hour and 25 minute panel — nor any detailed mention of the nation’s political climate besides a complaint of how special interests and partisanship have tainted the political process.

“So, what’s been going on while I’ve been gone?” Obama asked with a smile as he took his seat on stage. “It is wonderful to be home.”

Obama spoke in front of more than 400 in the audience — mostly students from city colleges and Chicago universities.

Watkins, the youngest on stage, said Obama’s message of trying to inspire young people to be more active in civic affairs and the political process is “essential,” especially for young African-Americans.

“I think it’s very essential for the next generation to see because representation does matter. So to have someone of the same color as me from the same community come out and do as much as he has done for the nation and the world. It was very influential,” Watkins said. “He can do it. So you can do it, too. So why aren’t you doing it?”

Another panelist, Dr. Tiffany Brown, a South Side native and Auburn-Gresham neighborhood pharmacist, told Obama she proudly got her doctorate from Chicago State University.

Former President Barack Obama listens as Dr. Tiffany Brown, a pharmacist, chats about community organizing and civic engagement at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts on Monday, April 24, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Former President Barack Obama listens as Dr. Tiffany Brown, a pharmacist, chats about community organizing and civic engagement at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts on Monday, April 24, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The cash-strapped university is one of many state universities struggling during the nearly two-year state budget impasse.

Brown said she didn’t talk to Obama about her alma mater’s struggles, but said she’s urging the state to find funding for the South Side university.

“We just started producing doctoral candidates such as myself. We don’t have as much money. I’m still paying back student loans. I’m trying to get my bearing in society. I can’t donate a lot to the school right now,” Brown said. “So we really need the government funding in order to help us more so than some of the other schools in Illinois that have a lot of foundations and a lot of alumni that are able to donate back.”

Brown said she graduated with 90 others: “It was a small amount of us. But I made it through.”

Obama took questions and also doled them out. Harish Patel, deputy director of the non-partisan policy group New America Chicago — and a former candidate for state representative — asked the former president how to deal with failure in the political world.

“With respect to failure, it’s terrible,” Obama said to laughs. “But sometimes it’s necessary. If you are trying to change something.”

Obama too spoke of the only race he lost, to Rep.Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, in the 2000 Democratic primary — blaming himself for running “more just because it was the next thing,” and not because it’s what he wanted to do. Obama said has been thinkingof that raceas he writes his next book.

Other panelists included Max Freedman, a Republican political science student at the University of Chicago; Ramuel Figueroa, a U.S. Army veteran and Roosevelt University student; and Kelsey McClear, a Loyola University Chicago student.

Obama kicked off the discussion at the Logan Center for the Arts by discussing his time as a community organizer. Of his early years organizing in Chicago, he added: “It did change me. This community gave me a lot more than I was able to give in return.”

A lot of young people, he said, “feel as if their involvement would not make a difference. It’s not worth their time.”

He also offered some general advice for community organizers: don’t carry a clipboard to scare away people, and listen more than speak.

And he had some quips:“Listen to understand rather than listen to respond. That will save you a lot of heartache and grief,” Obama said of community organizing — and marriage.

Obama arrived in Chicago on Sunday on a private plane and returned to the Roseland neighborhood — blocks from where he started his career as a community organizer — to talk to young men about ways to curb violence in Chicago.

This week kicks off Obama taking on a higher profile since he left office on Jan. 20.

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