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Barack Obama to summit attendees: ‘Go remake the world, it badly needs remaking’

Former President Barack Obama spoke Monday at his second annual Obama Foundation Summit at Chicago's Marriott Marquis hotel. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

One after another, speakers, and excitement, had built up to the moment where former President Barack Obama took the stage at his second annual Obama Foundation Summit at Chicago’s Marriott Marquis hotel.

Obama was introduced by teenager Esperanza Rivera, who is already a published author through 826Chi, a nonprofit amplifying voices of Chicago youth.

Obama strode out with 826Chi founder Dave Eggers to close the summit with a wide-ranging conversation covering his Chicago beginnings, lessons from the White House and how people can impact challenges facing the U.S. and world today.

“As a community organizer, what I learned over time was that everybody had a story, and everybody’s story was sacred, that if we bother listening to each other, those stories merge and blend. We don’t feel like that now because we don’t listen to each other,” Obama said.

“It’s very hard when you have entire industries built and designed to make people think they’re different, to set them against each other. My job now, as well as your job, is to wipe the windshield so people can see clearly.”

Video by Maudlyne Ihejirika

The summit had drawn some 1,000 international activists and community leaders — and a significant number of millennials — from places in Chicago and as far away as Africa.

Obama asserted that he found people were the same and encountered the same roadblocks among politicians — whether he was trying to effect change through the City Council, Illinois Legislature, U.S. Senate or as president of the United States.

“Our central experiment is based on the idea that each of us has power, and we win that power through consent. The question is how do we exercise that power? We are so confused right now, blinded with racism, hate and anger,” he said. “The single most important thing we can invest in right now is people. We gotta get people to figure out how to work together. That’s where you all come in.”

“I was having a conversation with a friend, who was depressed about the current course of our country — it’s a conversation that happens a lot,” Obama continued. “I had to remind him that this is what happens. Societies are these incredibly complex, organic things that sometimes moves forward and sometimes takes a step back.”

“This is a heavy burden,” he told his rapt audience. “But what a joyous burden to have this grand adventure where you can literally remake the world right now because it badly needs remaking. If you could blindly choose when you wanted to be born, you’d choose now … Or,” he quipped, “maybe two years ago.”

In another light moment, Eggers asked him how writing his memoir was coming.

“It’s just brutal. I just sit there, type two words and delete,” Obama said. “This is causing some strain in our marriage, the fact that Michelle’s finished [with her book] and I’m not. She’s got her feet up, saying, ‘So, how’s it going?’ ”

Earlier in the day, Obama sat in on some sessions, including, “How to Make Tech More Humane,” and a conversation with the Community Leadership Corps from Chicago, Phoenix and Columbia, S.C. At each, he took a rear seat and just listened.

He’d also earlier gotten a chance — in an empty ballroom — to experience virtual- and augmented-reality excursions into his Barack Obama Presidential Center, using gizmos that summit attendees had experienced since Sunday.

“Wow! Look at that! Outstanding!” he exclaimed, as he turned an iPad with an augmented-reality app this way and that, touching it to enhance aspects of the library campus, including a vegetable garden on the grounds and Lake Michigan.

“You know I hate to sound old, like, ‘I can’t believe it does that.’ It’s like when old people say, ‘Can you really talk on this thing?’” he joked.

“Wow! Look at that! Outstanding!” former President Barack Obama exclaimed about the augmented-reality excursion into the world of the planned Obama Presidential Center. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times
“Wow! Look at that! Outstanding!” former President Barack Obama exclaimed about the augmented-reality excursion into the world of the planned Obama Presidential Center. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

From there, he put on the huge virtual-reality glasses that took him into the Sky Room of the center — the top floor where visitors would end up. “Whoa! This is SO cool!” he told the designer. “Very, very cool. Great work!”

In the closing ceremony, Eggers asked Obama why Chicago for his library.

“I don’t see how I can build a presidential center anywhere else. This is the place where I found my calling, where I started my political career, most importantly, that produced my wife and my children,” he said.

“Chicago is not just where I grew up but where I discovered who I was. I came here as a boy. I left here as a man,” he continued. “Chicago is this extraordinary laboratory. The world converges here in a powerful way. You have extraordinary wealth smack dab next to extraordinary poverty, extraordinary violence. You see all of our glory and all of our warts, and it speaks to the larger story and contest of ideas that exists around the world.”