By TONIA HILL
Former President Barack Obama met with young leaders Monday, April 24, at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., in his first public speaking appearance since leaving office in January.
Obama engaged in a lively discussion on the importance of civic engagement and community organizing. He was joined on stage with Chicago area young leaders, Dr. Tiffany Brown, Ramuel Figueroa, Max M. Freedman, Kelsey McClear, Harish Patel, and Ayanna Watkins.
Brown is a graduate of Chicago State University and Kenwood Academy High School; Figueroa- Undergraduate at Roosevelt University; Freedman is a student at the University of Chicago (U. of C.).
McClear is a student at Loyola University Chicago; Patel is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Watkins is a senior at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave.
Obama said since leaving office one of his missions is to prepare the next generation to lead. He said he hopes to create pathways for young people to become leaders and to “knock down some of the barriers that are discouraging young people” from a life of service.
The core of the discussion centered on ways to engage with and involve the next generation of American leaders who Obama believes will have the drive, instinct, and ability to solve our biggest challenges.
The problems he spoke about were economic inequality, the criminal justice system, and climate change, which he said are “daunting, but they’re not insoluble.”
He pointed to political gerrymandering as the root of the problem. One that he said is causing political parties “to move further and further apart” making it that much harder to “find common ground because of money, politics, and special interests,” that lead the debates in Washington, “in ways that don’t match up with the broad majority of Americans.”
Obama spoke of his early days as a community organizer in the south side neighborhoods of Roseland, Auburn Gresham, and West Pullman and how those experiences helped to provide a foundation for him as he traversed through his political career as a state legislator, U.S. Senator, and two-term President.
After giving introductory remarks, he asked the panel about their political involvement, how to motivate and reach people from different walks of life, and what they think is keeping people from becoming more active citizens.
Watkins said she believes that awareness and access to education are essential.
“I am grateful that I have the opportunity to take courses that involve Political Science and African American studies, but not a lot of schools have that opportunity,” Watkins said. “I would say awareness is something that holds a lot of youth back from getting involved.”
Brown discussed the need to fund afterschool programs for children so that they can have access to different types of career paths.
“I believe that we need to connect personal problems with public issues,” Figueroa said.
Freedman spoke of the challenges of reaching people who share different values and political ideas.
“There’s not understanding we’re not talking,” Freedman said. “It’s not just that we are reading different news we don’t talk to each other anymore. Civic engagement at some point will require a level of civility. I think the lack of results stems from the lack of understanding each other well. Somehow we are going to have to find ways bridge that.”
The panel was then allowed to ask Obama questions, the event in total lasted nearly 90 minutes.
“I am always optimistic even when things look like they’re not going the way I want and that is because of young people like this,” Obama said. “It gives you a sense of what’s possible for this country.
Watkins, the youngest member of the panel, said she was contacted last week about joining Obama for the discussion.
“The experience was great he [Obama] came in and talked with us,” Watkins said referring to his visit to the group of youth panelist before the public discussion.
She said made her feel comfortable before coming on stage.
“He’s willing to listen to the youth in Chicago,” Watkins said. “He’s willing to hear what we have to say as far as change for our younger generation. I hope he uses what we have to say and we can move forward.”
In addition to the youth panelists there were about 460 guests in the audience that included students from Harold Washington College, Malcolm X College Kennedy-King College, Columbia College, University of Chicago, Chicago State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Roosevelt University, Illinois Tech Institute, Northwestern University, DePaul University, and Loyola University Chicago (Arrupe College).