Our Pledge To You


With kids health, arts moves, Michelle Obama locking in legacy

First lady Michelle Obama announcing a makeover for food nutrition labels in Washington on May 20. AP photo

WASHINGTON — With only months left in the White House, first lady Michelle Obama is locking in her legacy.

The foundation she launched in 2010 to bolster her “Let’s Move!” anti-childhood obesity campaign, the Partnership for a Healthier America, is growing and positioned to play a key role in her future life.

And Obama announced just days ago that another program created on her watch — Turnaround Arts, providing arts education to very low-performing schools — will be taken over by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, ensuring that it survives beyond the Obama administration.

After the next president is sworn in on Jan. 20, Obama will likely broker a book deal and spend time working on the Barack Obama Foundation and the Obama Presidential Center, to be built in Chicago.

She will also have the freedom to once again, if she wants, go out and shop at a Target store — an activity she has said she misses — as the Obamas settle in to a house in Washington, where they plan to remain at least until daughter Sasha graduates from high school.

It’s also likely that Obama has a plan in the pipeline for her Reach Higher project, aimed at students who, without help, wouldn’t continue their educations beyond high school.

Turnaround Arts, Reach Higher and Let’s Move! have a common focus: boosting opportunities for minorities. That’s something Obama has been doing — in and out of the spotlight — for the past seven and a half years. In speeches, she often mentions how she got breaks while growing up in very modest circumstances on Chicago’s South Side.

President Barack Obama’s similar My Brother’s Keeper outreach initiative also was designed to independently continue after the end of the administration of the nation’s first African-American president.

Michelle Obama hosted . . . Lynn Sweet / Sun-Times

Michelle Obama hosted last week’s Turnaround Arts student talent show at the White House.    Lynn Sweet / Sun-Times

“This might be the last Turnaround Arts Talent Show I’m hosting in the White House,” Obama said Wednesday ahead of the student performances, which included kids from four schools in North Lawndale joyfully belting out “Sweet Home Chicago.”

“But we are all committed to continuing this work to promote the arts and lift up students and turn around schools nationwide for years to come,” the first lady said.

The kids attend Chalmers, Herzl, Johnson and Dvorak schools, all managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which runs Turnaround Arts: Chicago.

Turnaround Arts was the brainchild of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. The committee is co-chaired by George Stevens Jr., the founding producer of the Kennedy Center Honors show, and Broadway producer Margo Lion. Obama is the honorary chair of the committee and gave Turnaround Arts a boost in visibility by hosting its talent shows at the White House.

The president appointed Stevens and Lion on Sept. 16, 2009. By 2011, the first eight Turnaround Arts schools — they now number 68 — had enhanced arts programs going, fueled by an assortment of artists including Yo Yo Ma, Sarah Jessica Parker, Paula Abdul, Elizabeth Banks, Tim Robbins, Misty Copeland and Keb’ Mo’ who volunteered to mentor the students at their schools.

But Stevens, Lion and the committee executive director Megan Beyer all serve at the pleasure of the president. The next administration might have its own programs to champion. So a way to keep Turnaround Arts — which now has a yearly budget of $3 million — going beyond the Obama presidency needed to be found. Planting the program at the Obama Center wasn’t an option because it will be years before that’s built and running.

The Kennedy Center was an obvious choice. Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president, was familiar with Turnaround Arts from her days as the president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Beyer says that with the move to the Kennedy Center, a “legacy” fund-raising  drive is being kicked off, with many of the celebrities involved agreeing to stay involved with Turnaround Arts for three more years.

Major funding is expected from the U.S. Department of Education and contributions from the same foundations that helped start the program, including a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation, $300,000 from the Herb Alpert Foundation and $600,000 from the Rosenthal Family Foundation, established by the creators of TV’s “Everyone Loves Raymond.”

“We need to keep on expanding the Turnaround Arts program, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office next year, absolutely,” Obama said Wednesday.

First lady Michelle Obama announces a makeover for food nutrition labels, with calories listed in bigger, bolder type, and a new line for added sugars, while speaking in Washington on May 20. AP photo

First lady Michelle Obama announces a makeover for food nutrition labels, with calories listed in bigger, bolder type, and a new line for added sugars, while speaking in Washington on May 20. AP photo

Long-term planning also is in place to ensure that a signature Obama project continues: reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity within a generation.

“While next year I will no longer be first lady, I just want you to know that I will always be here as a partner in this effort — always,” Obama said in her May 18 keynote speech at the annual summit of the Partnership for a Healthier America. “These certainly aren’t my closing remarks on this issue — just the opposite.”

With great White House fanfare, Obama announced in February 2010 the creation of two organizations to combat childhood obesity: Lets Move! and its allied foundation, the Partnership.

Let’s Move! — which is run out of the White House — is the brand most closely associated with Obama’s high-profile crusade for childhood health through eating right and exercise. In 2010, it was a natural cause for Obama — the mother of two young daughters, as well as a workout fanatic whose White House vegetable garden already had gained fame — to adopt.

First lady Michelle Obama plays soccer as she joins the U.S. Soccer Foundation, Major League Soccer, Women's Professional Soccer, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health and other organizations at a soccer clinic in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2010, to promote the Let's Move! campaign. AFP / Getty Images

First lady Michelle Obama plays soccer as she joins the U.S. Soccer Foundation, Major League Soccer, Women’s Professional Soccer, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health and other organizations at a soccer clinic in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2010, to promote the Let’s Move! campaign. AFP / Getty Images

Not as well-known is the Partnership for a Healthier America, the not-for-profit, nonpartisan foundation that provides support for Let’s Move! and its offshoots.

Inside her husband’s administration, Obama obviously has had an influence in setting a policy agenda and spawning a national conversation on healthful living. At the summit, Obama announced that, for the first time in 20 years, the federal Food and Drug Administration is updating what’s required to be on food labels — including adding information about sugar and other nutritional factors and putting calorie counts in bigger type.

But a White House operation such as Let’s Move! has constraints on things like staffing and finances. And even the powerful pulpit that comes with being a popular first lady goes just so far.

The Partnership took on the jobs of negotiating and verifying commitments to provide healthier options from a growing universe of restaurants, supermarket chains, food and beverage makers, Olympic and pro sports organizations, hotels, universities, affordable housing developers and other groups.

Working with Obama and her staff in the White House, the Partnership rolled out splashy, celebrity-driven marketing campaigns — Drink Up and FNV (for fruits and vegetables) — to sell kids on turning to water as their go-to drink and eating fresh produce. Based on findings that children eat the foods “their sports heroes and other idols endorse, even if it’s fruit,” the idea was to counter corporate advertisers employing celebs to push unhealthy foods and drinks.

The Partnership began in 2010 with $7.5 million in contributions and grants, according to its Internal Revenue Service filings. Foundations already working on childhood obesity issues were involved from the start: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The California Endowment, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, Nemours and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an outgrowth of the Clinton Foundation.

Between 2010 and June 30, 2014, the Partnership raised $21 million, according to its latest report to the IRS. Through the years, money has come in from foundations, other not-for-profits and corporations involved in Partnership projects.

The latest is Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country, which has announced it will give the Partnership $600,000 to support the FNV celebrity marketing campaign.

The Partnership isn’t required to disclose its donors and doesn’t do so, though other Obama-related non-profits do: the Barack Obama Foundation and Organizing for Action, a spinoff from the two Obama presidential campaigns.

But a spokesman for the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation says its contributions to the Partnership so far come to $14.5 million, with grants continuing beyond the end of the Obama administration.

Lawrence Soler, the Partnership’s president and chief executive officer, said in the group’s latest progress report that it has a strategic plan through 2020. “We’ll be here as long as needed,” Soler wrote.

The first lady is the honorary chair of the Partnership, which describes itself as independent even as it works in close collaboration with Let’s Move! at the White House. But the organization added two board members in 2013 with deep ties to the president and first lady: Susan Sher and Bryan Traubert, both friends of the Obamas for years before the presidency. Sher was Michelle Obama’s chief of staff when Let’s Move! and the Partnership were born.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Screenwriter Graham Moore (L) and Susan Sher attend the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 534117945

Susan Sher. Getty Images

After leaving the White House, Sher became an executive at the University of Chicago — where she successfully led the drive for the Obama library and museum to be located near the university’s Hyde Park campus.

Traubert, who’s married to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, headed the Chicago Park District board when Sher and the University of Chicago pitched South Side park sites as possible locations for the Obama Presidential Center.

Traubert chairs the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, which has a focus on health and fitness and whose IRS filings show it is a donor to the Partnership.

Kevin Poorman, who worked for Pritzker, is the president of the Barack Obama Foundation and is also on the board of the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation. Traubert is on a year’s leave from the Partnership board.

Sher and Traubert were also put on the Kennedy Center board by President Obama, though they weren’t involved in the Turnaround Arts transfer.

Even after the White House gets its next occupants, Michelle Obama has put things in place for her legacy projects to thrive.

“If you think about people like Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, they were celebrities long after they were first ladies,” says Ric Jurgens, a Partnership board member. “They were popular people that continued to influence America.”