The Obama Foundation Summit keynote speeches kicked off on October 29, 2019 in the locked-off Kaplan Institute, featuring former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama themselves. Accompanied by service events the day prior, this main day of the summit invited artists, activists, celebrities, big voices, and donors from all around the world to discuss a wide host of topics. The list ranged from more abstract subjects — change, activism, healing, and media representation — to the more specific issues of the summit — the future of the South Side and the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
A standing ovation greeted Michelle Obama as she approached the stage to deliver the first of the summit’s two speeches from the presidential couple. Speaking with her brother and Princeton basketball star Craig Robinson, they discussed their childhood growing up on the South Side and their time spent at Princeton together. Craig Robinson graduated from the university in 1983 with Michelle Obama graduating two years later in 1985. They spoke glowingly of their parents and the community they had growing up, remarking on how many amazing black families there are, yet how few of their stories get told in comparison to the number of on-screen perfect white families or the derelict single parent stereotype.
Both being Princeton alum, they spoke of their experiences of being othered as black students at a majority white university — a theme that I’m sure non-white Illinois Tech students could relate to or have comments on, if more were allowed, but I’m saving that digression for a different article. The brother, a basketball star, commented on the unique way he was othered, being dubbed “one of the good ones” or “boy” by his coaches and donors.
Robinson told an oft-repeated and well rehearsed story about his sister asking him to vet a prospective boyfriend — who would turn out to be no other than Barack Obama — by playing basketball with him. After all, a player who lies about how good he is, hogs the ball, constantly calls fouls, or otherwise sucks doesn’t make for a good boyfriend. However, the Princeton basketball star only had good things to say, and after passing that check of Craig Robinson’s the rest is history.
The former first lady closed on a reflection of how, even if you’ve made it to the Oval Office, you cannot simply “fix” racism in other people. But she hoped that showing up everyday on the television as a normal, kind, empathetic human being could maybe “pick away the scabs” of systemic racism. It won’t eliminate economic injustice all at once, but maybe it makes the mom from the flyover state not “shelter” her kids from the new neighbors or helps the ancient grandparents out there to accept (or at least tolerate or even reserve their judgements) when their grandkid brings home somebody “different” for the holidays.
Just as she came in, Michelle Obama left the stage to applause.
Other than the Obamas, the summit featured a variety of other engaging speakers and acts, opening with spoken word about Chicago’s South Side and the immigrant stories of the city, as followed up by an interpretive dance. Some notable invitations were the creative voices behind Comedy Central’s “South Side,” Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, as well as the director of the new Netflix series about the Central Park Five titled “When They See Us,” Ava Duvernay, to speak on telling stories about black voices and underrepresented neighborhoods. Though not without its problems, the makers of “South Side” wouldn’t write a show about the titular neighborhood if they didn’t deeply love and appreciate it, after all.
One of the most powerful individual speakers was De’Andre Brown on behalf of the community program “My Brother’s Keeper” in Yonkers, New York. As a successful young man coming from a marginalized neighborhood, he spoke to that awkward line between wondering if you succeeded despite your setbacks and systematic disadvantages, or if you succeeded because of the lessons and community his neighborhood provided.
The closing speech came from President Barack Obama himself. As accompanied by a small panel of young activists on stage, he discussed both how young many civil rights leaders were when they started making a difference — MLK wasn’t even 30 years old during the Montgomery boycotts — yet also how you’re never too old to make a difference. He made sure to mention all of the stupid decisions he made when he was their age, too, so as not to give the impression that you have to be a “perfect” leader.
He also recognized how real the economic and social injustices around us are, but he urged the crowd to remember that change doesn’t just happen in one day. When facing a problematic system larger than yourself, Obama urged the audience to ask, “What am I actually doing about my problems? And how can I align myself and what I’m doing to make my actions within this flawed yet compulsory system to be the least at-odds with the principles that I already hold, even if it isn’t perfect?”
The former president followed this serious bit up by joking about sleeping on a futon in college, just to cut the tension a bit. Major props to the former president for maintaining an admirable level of charisma and humor throughout his entire time on stage during what I’m sure was an exhausting day.
One segment that picked up legitimate press attention from the summit occurred when the topic shifted to “cancel culture” on Twitter, which he criticized as “not real activism.” The former president commented that “if all you’re doing is casting stones…” then you’re not doing anything constructive for your cause. He urged the audience to remember that our world isn’t perfect and that sometimes policy making is messy. While I’m saving my criticisms for another article, this portion genuinely sounded like somebody trying to brush any criticism for significant policy disagreements or foreign policy blunders or drone strike horrors under the rug. Getting criticized for something online isn’t “cancel culture.”
The crux of the summit was the pitch for the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, which he continues to drum up support for. He emphasized the importance of narratives in social change and how he plans to incorporate all of the stories around his presidency into the museum there. The narratives of social change and popular support, his role as the first black president, the accounts of his campaigns, and of course all of Michelle Obama’s dresses will all be included at the presidential center. A model of the center was on display at the summit which showed the parks and forest trails and facilities surrounding the Jackson Park location; Michelle and Barack Obama are hoping to use its location on the South Side to bring their vision (and tourism revenue) to a part of the city they both have roots in. Specifically, Barack Obama made sure to emphasize how “jazzed” he was for the center and its purpose of “passing the baton [of change] as many people as possible,” to those young activists and change-makers.
Other speakers had also taken the stage throughout the afternoon, including Billy Porter (Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winner), director Lulu Wang, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, and other activists who spoke for their nonprofits confronting conflict and poverty in a variety of dimensions, however it may present itself.
I had to sneak around NBA stars Charles Barkley and Dikembe Mutombo to get some complimentary coffee and fruit snacks. Despite rumors, Elon Musk was not there, and Oprah only appeared through a video message.
Despite the eloquent speeches and impressive appearances, the prevailing mood around campus and on the Illinois Tech Student Community (ITSC) was that this was just a fundraising event for the Barack Obama Presidential Center disguised as lip service to the South Side. Reconciling the presence of the donors on campus, who could donate more money on a whim to the presidential center than many Illinois Tech graduates will make in years, at the closed-off Kaplan Institute no less, is a difficult task.
As an institution on the South Side, it was an honor to host Barack and Michelle Obama on this campus. The campus disconnect and overall criticism for the summit, however, is a topic for a different article.