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Obama teaches ‘organizing 101’ in surprise foundation appearance

Seated from left: Casmiro Pena, Alexzandria Johnson, Consuela Hendricks and Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola talk about their ideas at the Obama Foundation's first training day. | Rachel Hinton/ Sun-Times

Former President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to his hometown on Saturday to pop in during his namesake foundation’s first youth training day at the Gary Comer Youth Center.

The Obama Foundation isn’t set to break ground on its presidential center until late 2018, but Saturday’s South Side gathering drew about 150 people between 18 and 24, for a day of putting “civics into action.”

Obama gave three groups an up-close “organizing 101” crash course, workshopping ideas around issues like eradicating food deserts and creating financial literacy programs in schools. He urged each group to consider community stakeholders.

“Once you’ve identified a problem and a solution the next step is figuring out who makes decisions, who’s running the show,” Obama said. “It’s not magic. It’s not a mystery — it’s people who are part of the decision making process.”

The goal of the day was to “energize” young people who may not be involved in civic life, and “kickstart” their work, according to the foundation.

Obama’s appearance brought a special energy the room, said Michael Strautmanis, the center’s vice president of civic engagement.

“This was an opportunity for us to begin,” Strautmanis said. “Today we learned from a set of really inspiring young people from all kinds of background and showed them the power of understanding that their story makes a difference.”

Most attendees came from Chicago, but about 14 percent came from the suburbs.

Karen Aguirre, a peer advisor for one of the groups, said the day focused on identifying issues within communities and connecting participants to tools to “start their advocacy.”

“The goal is to get them to start being advocates in their communities,” Aguirre said. “Sometimes that’s scary, but we’re trying to show them today you can start whenever.”

In April, during his first public appearance since leaving office, Obama focused “passing the baton” to the next generation and urging civic engagement.

The foundation has similar training days scheduled next month in Boston and Tempe, Arizona.

Jenna McDonnell, a 22-year-old DePaul University graduate, said she developed “concrete actions” to take back to her hometown to help students with college and career readiness.

“Being in a room with so many amazing people was unlike anything I’ve ever felt, and I would encourage others to find a space where they feel like that, too,” McDonnell said.