WASHINGTON — “Whatever you may have envisioned a presidential museum and library to be, this is very different,” Obama Foundation CEO David Simas said as we talked about a series of new big programs the foundation is kicking off, and what will be the unique aspects of the Obama Presidential Center.
“Which is why there is a proposed playground,” said Simas, “which you usually don’t find at a presidential center.”
My exclusive interview with Simas, who was political director in the Obama White House, occurred before Obama Foundation officials are set to discuss on Thursday — for the first time at an event open to the public — program and design plans. Doors open at 5 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.
Simas said the meeting “is a good opportunity to talk to the community in a broad sense about the programming” of the foundation. That includes two major events in Chicago next month that will bring participants from around the globe.
Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle decided to start programs after leaving office in January and not wait for their center to be constructed in Jackson Park.
At the Thursday meeting, I also expect a lot of interest in plans to close roads in Jackson Park for the center and a proposal — not from the foundation — to merge golf courses in Jackson Park and South Shore, not far from where the center will be built.
Simas told me it was premature for him to say whether this is a good idea.
“We’re supportive of investments in the South Side of Chicago if it is done the right way,” Simas said. “Let me be clear, these are separate projects.”
When Obama unveiled a model of the center in May, he talked about some of the unique aspects he envisioned, including a studio for video and audio recording.
Outside of the museum per se, which will tell the story of the Obama presidency, the Obamas want their center to be sort of a neighborhood club house more than a haven for presidential scholars.
As designs get finalized, it becomes more clear there really isn’t a need to devote much space to a presidential library structure.
Since all Obama records are digitized — and won’t even be kept at the center — if there is a library building, the chances are growing it will be a Chicago Public Library branch. Simas said talks with the CPL are ongoing.
Simas said the public will learn more Thursday “about the way the Obama Presidential Center integrates fully into the community which is very, very different that previous presidential centers, museums and libraries.”
The former first couple “were clear from the beginning that they wanted this place, this center, to be a central part of the community on the South Side of Chicago — which is why there is a community garden, which is why there is a test kitchen,” Simas said.
The garden — inspired by Michelle Obama’s famous White House kitchen garden — is “a way to open up” the center to a wide range of activities, said Simas.
New foundation summit
The foundation on Tuesday also unveiled three upcoming programs — and made official what I have previously reported: an Obama signature initiative, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, created to help at-risk young men of color, will merge with the foundation.
• The foundation’s first global summit, aimed at developing local leaders, will be Oct. 31 to Nov. 1 at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place. Between 400 and 600 participants from Chicago, the U.S. and other nations identified as young rising stars will attend. Invitees would range in age, in general, from 25 to 40.
In a video, Obama said his summit will “be a place to share your stories, learn from one another and then go back to your communities to lead others in the hard work of change.”
• On Oct. 14 in Chicago the foundation will host its first “Obama Foundation Training Days,” billed as helping young people learn “how to put ‘civics’ into action.” There will be other “training days” in Boston and Tempe, Arizona. in November, with each session to include about 150 folks, ages 18 to 24.
• Applications are now open for the first class of Obama Foundation Fellowships for “outstanding civic innovators.” About 20 fellows will meet four times a year — with the bonus that the inaugural group can explore the roles “they can play in the broader ecosystem of the foundation.”