Former President Barack Obama will be in Berlin on Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — and two young adults with ties to Chicago — at the first international event of his Obama Foundation, as it happens, the same day President Donald Trump attends a NATO Summit in Brussels.
Obama’s first post-presidential Foundation public event was the May 3 unveiling of the model of his Obama Center campus, to be built in Jackson Park.
The complex is projected to open in 2022, and Obama has been making the point that his Foundation is developing programs and events — and is not waiting for the buildings to be constructed to get started. Empowering young leaders in various walks of life, not just politics or government, will be a central part of the Obama Foundation mission.
Merkel invited Obama to Germany’s “Kirchentag” — a festival marking the 500 years since the German Protestant Reformation — before the November election, with the celebration to include other world leaders.
With Trump in Brussels at his first NATO Summit, and Obama in Berlin at the first international public event of his post-presidency, the split-screen potential on Thursday highlighting the contrast is almost certain.
On Thursday, Obama and Merkel will focus on civic engagement with two men and two women — all in their 20s — outdoors, at Berlin’s famed Brandenburg Gate, with the Foundation co-hosting the “conversation” titled, “Being Involved in Democracy: Taking on Responsibility Locally and Globally.”
“This event is a way to make clear to the world that the Foundation plans to be very active internationally,” the Obama Foundation’s Bernadette Meehan told me on Sunday.
“And by bringing in the four young people, we really were trying to signal that the priority initially for the President and Mrs. Obama is to really try to get young people involved and give them a voice . . . and make them feel they are going to be a focus of the work the Foundation is doing,” Meehan said.
In 2013, Obama became the fourth U.S. president to speak near the city’s famous landmark, coming after Presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
However, in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., wanted to deliver a campaign speech from Brandenburg Gate, Merkel was cool to the notion of his using it for electioneering. Instead, he attracted a crowd of about 200,000 at the nearby Tiergarten, a major park in Berlin.
On Thursday, Obama and Merkel will discuss faith and government with the upcoming generation of young adults who include:
Sierra Sims, 24, a Dolton resident who teaches Social Studies to seventh- and eight-graders on Chicago’s South Side at Providence Englewood Charter School while working on a master’s degree from DePaul University in Educational Leadership.
Sims is a congregant at Trinity United Church of Christ, the church Obama and his family attended before quitting during the 2008 presidential campaign because of inflammatory comments from its then leader, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Imani Abernathy, 26, is a musician and singer who volunteers with Chicago’s HHW Vocal Arts Ensemble, an after-school program she participated in as a youth. Now employed at SMS Assist, she debuted recently at the ETA Creative Arts Foundation center on Chicago’s South Side.
The two Germans are from Mannheim. One of them, Johannes Benedikt Wichtlhuber, 21, this fall will be a student at Northeastern Illinois University, 5500 N. St. Louis on the city’s North Side.
The Foundation is headquartered in Hyde Park, and its international work will run out of its Washington branch office, steered mainly by Meehan, a former Foreign Service Officer who was a spokeswoman for Obama’s National Security Council, and Ben Rhodes, who was Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
A foundation source told me when it comes to Trump and Obama in Brussels and Berlin on Thursday, “the only thing we told the Kirchentag was — we’re looking to put on a pro-active positive agenda on behalf of the Foundation and talking about (Obama’s) vision for what he and Mrs. Obama can do in the world.”
“Our only request was — the conversation can go where it will,” the source said, with the point being this was “not set up as an event related to Donald Trump. We have our own message to talk about. Obama has been pretty clear he is not going to go around commenting on every single thing.”