Former President Barack Obama stopped by Lilydale First Baptist Church in Chicago’s Roseland community on Wednesday morning to catch up with his old friend, Pastor Alvin Love — and to share words of advice with a new generation of community organizers.
“I first set foot in this space before probably all of you were born,” Obama told 30 students from the University of Chicago and Columbia University gathered around him in the church’s basement. “I had moved to Chicago. I was intent on changing the world. I didn’t quite know how.”
Obama credits the South Side church and Love, its longtime pastor, for helping him to find his way. He learned a lot about community organizing in church basements, he said, especially the importance of listening.
“Everybody’s got a story, and that story is sacred,” he told the students. “And if you pay attention, if you are genuinely listening, if you are respectful and you are showing people you care about what they think and what they feel — even if they start off cranky — you can get their respect.”
On the receiving end of this advice were students wrapping up a leadership training course started by the Obama Foundation in 2018. The Obama Scholars program recruits young people from around the globe who are working to solve social issues in their home communities.
Students heading into their final year of a master’s degree program at UChicago’s business, social work or public policy schools can apply. After finishing the yearlong program, students return to their communities to implement action plans they developed over the course of their training.
Obama advised them not to go it alone.
“A lot of times the tendency for a bunch of do-gooders like this is to try to do everything yourself,” he said. “And then you burn out and then try to figure out why you feel tired or depressed. You’re not making as much progress as you’d like. And it’s like, ‘Well, of course, it’s because you’ve taken too much of a load just on yourself.’ ”
Instead, Obama said, students should surround themselves with capable people who share their goals.
“I hope that’s something you take away: that you should be looking for collaborators, colleagues, allies, supporters,” he said. “Because ultimately, power in any society comes down to organizing numbers of like-minded people around a common goal.”
This piece of advice stuck with Linda Flor Brito, an Obama Scholar and immigrant rights activist on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
“I am not the face of my organization. My community is the face of the organization, because it is their work that has carried us up to here and will continue to carry us,” said the UChicago public policy student. “That’s something that’s incredibly important to me: to make sure that I continue to bring people in to make sure that our organizations continue to thrive.”
Flor Brito grew up in Albany Park on the city’s Northwest Side. Her parents are indigenous to Ecuador and were displaced from their homeland by governmental policies. Flor Brito said their work as undocumented immigrants and community organizers inspires her own work.
“They didn’t let what happened to them lead them to despair,” Flor Brito said. “It led them to hope.”
She said she applied to UChicago and then the Obama Scholars program because she wanted to build on her background in community organizing to learn how to create policy change. Her action plan aims to center Indigenous voices in immigration advocacy and access.
“These institutions were not really built for people like me, for communities like mine,” said Flor Brito. “I knew that … I needed to start showing up in these spaces, and speaking, and uplifting the voices of my community.”
Flor Brito said she is grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Obama Foundation program. She said she doesn’t take it lightly.
“I have had the privilege of being here,” she said. “And I know that there are so many others that haven’t been able to be here, and not because they did anything wrong, but because there are systemic barriers that don’t allow them to be here.
“I really hope that other foundations, other institutions that have had those barriers in place will allow for the voices of those who are really at the root of change to show up and be there.”
While in Chicago on Wednesday, Obama also announced a new initiative to invest in four communities his foundation says are successfully reducing crime and increasing education access for boys and teens of color.
Four “My Brother’s Keeper Model Communities” will each receive an $800,000 grant, coaching and technical assistance from the foundation to continue and expand their efforts. The communities are Tulsa, Okla.; Yonkers, N.Y; Newark, N.J.; and Omaha, Neb.
“Nowhere is cynicism more routinely enforced in our public narrative than this idea that the poor will always be with us, and [that] Black boys and brown boys, just a few, are gonna be successful,” Obama said during an announcement at an event space downtown. The narrative goes, he continued, that “it’s inevitable that the kinds of shootings, deaths, dropouts, joblessness and despair, that’s just the norm in this country. And that’s simply not true.”
The My Brother’s Keeper Alliance will spotlight these communities as examples for other cities to follow.
Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @LAPhilip and @WBEZeducation. WBEZ reporter Adora Namigadde contributed to this story.