By EVAN HAMLIN
On Monday, Sept. 25, Obama Foundation CEO David Simas took part in a public lecture at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St. As part of the Cindy Pritzker Lecture on Urban Life and Issues, Simas joined Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on the importance of civic responsibility and the goals of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) among other topics.
Before joining the Obama Foundation, Simas worked in the Barack Obama administration as the Deputy Assistant to the President, where he worked closely with top political advisors and the President. He also worked as the director of opinion research for Obama’s reelection campaign. Following Obama’s victory in 2012, Simas stayed on in the White House as Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach.
Simas prefaced the discussion by speaking about his parents, both immigrants who fled a dictatorship in Portugal during the mid-1900s to pursue a better life in America. He explained how they made him appreciate freedoms that they had not always been afforded in their previous lives.
“The path was pretty clear,” Simas said about going into public service. “It was always with this idea of my responsibility to make sure I was fully engaged with my community.”
Simas tied his sense of community and civic responsibility to his goals as CEO of the Obama Foundation, expressing his desire to build a strong, visible civic forum that will facilitate and promote opportunities for civic engagement.
“The work of civic engagement, the work of citizenship, is the most important work of any democracy,” he said.
A solid part of the conversation was dedicated to highlighting the OPC’s goals, and how it will balance local engagement with an attempt to attain a national and international scope.
“Whatever the notion is of what a presidential center was, this is going to be completely different,” he said. “We want to renew a culture of active citizenship… one that’s predicated on bringing people and communities and organizations together to bring about lasting change.”
While his comments were short on specifics for how the center will affect the south side community and Hyde Park residents, Simas highlighted aspects of the project he thought would be valuable in cultivating a vibrant community. This included emphasizing the center’s playground, athletic center, public garden, and digital archives, all of which will be features that distinguish the OPC from past presidential centers.
“This is an asset and an amenity for everyone… this will be an embedded part in the south side community of Chicago,” he said, adding that the center will “serve as a catalyst for economic development and growth in the neighborhood and beyond.”
A newly minted Hyde Park resident himself, Simas described how he’s come to get to know and respect Chicago through the Obamas and his brief time here in the city so far.
“I love to hear the president and Mrs. Obama talk about their hometown,” said Simas. “It’s embedded in who they are.”
Simas figures to play a key role in the advancement of the OPC for the foreseeable future. As CEO of the Obama Foundation and a south side resident, his personal and professional involvement in the community will only increase in years to come.