Former President Barack Obama gave his first post-presidency speech in his hometown of Chicago and invited students to the University of Chicago — where Obama used to be a professor — for a discussion about strengthening community engagement in civic life.
About 500 students from Chicago high schools and colleges gathered in the Logan Center for the Arts on April 24. Tickets to the event were by invitation only and sent out to Chicago colleges including Loyola, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Chicago State, Roosevelt University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Obama invited six former and current students on stage to have a conversation about supporting the next generation of leaders through community encouragement.
The students included Kenwood High School senior Ayanna Watkins, University of Chicago senior Max Freedman, Chicago State graduate and now pharmacist Dr. Tiffany Brown, Roosevelt University student Ramuel Figueroa and Deputy Director of New America Chicago Harish Patel. Loyola senior Kelsey McClear was among them.
McClear is a marketing major who has been involved in civic engagement through Loyola as a student representative for the Implementation and Steering Committee of Plan 2020 — Loyola’s strategic five-year plan. She said she’s glad to see Obama recognizing young leaders’ input.
“I think President Obama said it best. We are the next generation and we are the ones who are going to be able to make this change,” McClear said. “Understanding that it is our job to be engaged, I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done but the conversation is the first way to begin and I think this was a great starting point.”
Obama asked the students what steps should be taken to strengthen community involvement.
“The simple, most important thing that I can do is to help in any way I can to prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world,” Obama said. “Because the one thing that I am absolutely convinced of is that, yes, we confront a whole range of challenges … but what is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civil life.”
McClear said one of the most important steps to improve civic engagement is listening to understand rather than listening to respond.
“I think there was a lot of talk of really moving from behind the computer monitor and really having that in-person conversation and … continuing to learn people’s viewpoints and perspectives and being able to work together for that better future,” she said.
Loyola junior Adam Roberts, 21, attended the event as a guest of McClear and echoed the importance of listening.
“Listening and hearing from people who have the lived experience every single day, and what they can do and how we can learn through those issues,” said the sociology and journalism double major. “Nobody knows their own experience of their narrative but you and the best way to have an action-oriented approach is listening and then going from there.”
Roberts also said he thinks more conversations between political leaders and young leaders need to take place.
“I think something that stood out to me is honestly and frankly how we know we need to have dialogue but we just aren’t [having it],” he said.
Loyola sophomore history and secondary education major Brad MacDonald said he received a ticket from Loyola’s School of Education and was honored to attend the event.
“I am ecstatic,” MacDonald said. “I am hoping to see what Obama is talking about with bringing together the youth and help build better communities.”
Obama said everyone has a story to tell, and working to hear those stories and foster civic engagement is key.
“My experience in office taught me that beneath the surface differences of people that there were common hopes and common dreams and common aspirations and common values that stitched us together as Americans,” he said. “My hope is that working with young leaders like this, the organizations and universities and high schools, nonprofit organizations and community groups, will help encourage others to get engaged.”