The Obama Foundation throws a summit | Bleader

The Obama Foundation throws a summit

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Michelle Obama and Chance, at the Obama Foundation Summit concert - CHARLES REX ARBOGAST
  • Charles Rex Arbogast
  • Michelle Obama and Chance, at the Obama Foundation Summit concert

The very cool, really dope, first-ever Obama Foundation Summit, held at the glassy new McCormick Place Marriott earlier this week, made one thing clear: the foundation has picked a worthy mission for itself.

It’ll nurture the next generation of world leaders.

That’s woke, as those budding leaders might say, because representative government requires participation, and too many of us are not participating.

And because their generation has unprecedented access to information and to each other.  Game-changing tools for making change. 

The summit drew 19,500 applications, and 450 young people from 60 countries were selected to attend. A global audience watched online at Obama.org, where some of the proceedings can still be viewed.

The slickly produced two-day event was hosted by Liz Dozier, the former Fenger High School principal you might remember from CNN’s Rahm-chummy 2014 documentary Chicagoland. (She’s now CEO of a youth-focused nonprofit funder, Chicago Beyond.) It featured a packed roster of brief TED-like talks by activists and innovators, interspersed with multiple breakout sessions. And a dazzling speakers and participants list, including Theaster Gates, Chance, Common, Caroline Kennedy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the hugely popular Michelle Obama.

The former first lady was among several speakers who paid tribute to parents and grandparents, lovingly recalling her artistic, hard-working, disabled father and praising her wisely skeptical mother, Marian Robinson, who “raised adults, not children,” and took the family’s tenure in the White House in stride. But the summit was less about wisdom being passed down from the elders than about the potential of the young to fix the mess that previous generations have made.

One celebrity speaker after another said these youth are the key to solving the world’s problems. From Britain’s Prince Harry, interviewed by Mellody Hobson on the summit’s opening day, to writer-actor Lena Waithe, at a closing concert in McCormick Place’s new Wintrust Arena, they handed the troubled planet over. “You’re changing the world by changing your own communities,” Waithe said, in front of a crowd of thousands. She was followed by Nas, with a rap that hammered the message home: “The World Is Yours.”

The elders will help by providing a stage, a launch pad, a channel—or, in the current jargon, a platform. “The workforce is already there, all we have to do is create a platform,” was what Harry said about the charitable foundation he and his brother and sister-in-law (that would be William and Kate) have created. And it’s how the former president explained his vision for the Obama Presidential Center: “If we could create a platform for all those young people, there’s no problem we couldn’t solve,” he said.

So, although speakers like Glass House author Brian Alexander and public policy expert Heather McGhee pointed to root issues with the financial system (“What is capitalism for? Are we supposed to work for it? Or is it supposed to work for us?” were questions Alexander floated), the Obama Center will be a connector and amplifier, with values (like humility, integrity, inclusivity) but not an agenda. It’ll be activism enabled, for causes the young leaders choose and commit to on their own.

Will the kids be up to it? Hard to say on the basis of the summit, since reporters weren’t allowed to attend the breakout sessions, where the young leaders would be actively participating, and weren’t allowed to mix with them. In his concluding remarks, Obama (who also forbade selfies with him and Michelle, because they interfere with communication), said he’d dropped in on the workshops and “could not have been more inspired.”

It won’t be easy. As a few speakers noted, the digital connection that’s setting this generation apart can also be sinister. European Parliament member Marietje Schaake, a founder of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, cautioned that we must not allow “the digitalization of everything to become the privatization of everything.” And University of Virginia professor Siva Vaidhyanathan warned that we’re already buying into a Brave New World in which authoritarianism can take over because the citizens are so entertained they’re lulled into complacency, while “those who want to foster genocide are using Facebook to great effect.”

“It’s going to be hard, and the high you get today is going to dissipate,” Obama said at the summit’s close. “But we’re going to build a cadre of young leaders who will help each other. You now have a massive support group from around the world.”

"All the talk is nice and fun," he added. "But in the end, we have to act."

And, in what sounded like an oblique reference to local controversy over some of the foundation's plans, Obama also asked the concert audience to support him in getting the center built:  "Just as you have supported me in the past, I want you to be my partners in this," he said.


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