Celebrating the Groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center

Photo Credit: The Obama Foundation

Hello, everybody. This day has been a long time coming. We had originally hoped to hold a bigger, festive event, but the pandemic had other plans, so we’re keeping this small for now. But to everyone who is watching, including so many of you who were part of my administration, so many who’ve worked tirelessly to make this day possible, please know how grateful I am, and how much I’m looking forward to celebrating with all of you in person as soon as we can.

I want to start by thanking Trenton for that outstanding introduction, and Zell for doing such a great job introducing Michelle. I would like Zell also to give me some tips on my golf game. We are so proud of both of you, and I also want to acknowledge a few other people here today who have been so instrumental: Our own governor of Illinois, Governor Pritzker; the mayor of our great city, Mayor Lightfoot; Aldermen Leslie Hairston and Greg Mitchell. Thank you for everything you’ve done to move this project forward.

We are here today on the South Side of Chicago in Jackson Park to officially break ground on the Obama Presidential Center. As Michelle has noted, we chose this location for a few pretty good reasons. It’s close to where Michelle grew up, where I started my political career; it’s surrounded by vibrant neighborhoods and a community where we can help make a difference.

Jackson Park also happens to hold a special place in my heart because it was literally my entryway into Chicago.

In the summer of 1985, I packed up my car, a pretty janky car, from New York City and I headed west, a 23-year-old kid about to start a new job and a new life. And after I came off the skyway, I found myself driving through Jackson Park. And at the time, I remember thinking this is a lot more beautiful than I expected. Admittedly, it was not winter, and I had not yet tasted the hawk coming off the lake.

But at the time, I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose to my life. And it was in neighborhoods not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadow of closed steel mills. It was in communities across the city, from Roseland to Pullman to Pilsen, Little Village, North side, where I learned that everybody’s got a story to tell, that beneath our surface differences, we have common hopes, and common dreams, and common values that stitch us together.

Chicago is where I found the purpose I’d been seeking. It’s where I finally put my ideas about democracy, and activism and social change to the test. Most important, it’s where I met the brilliant, beautiful daughter of the South Side named Michelle Lavon Robinson. We were married here, had our reception right down at South Shore Cultural Center. Our daughters were born here, right down the street at the hospital. We bought our first home here a few blocks away.

It’s where I taught law, and Michelle worked with students at the university and patients at the hospital. It’s where I announced my first campaign for public office at what, at least then, was known as the Ramada Inn on Lake Shore Drive. It’s where I first had the honor of serving constituents. All that happened within a few mile radius of here. Chicago is where almost everything that is most precious to me began. It’s where I found a home.

Photo Credit: The Obama Foundation

Now, obviously, Michelle and I have been on a fairly extraordinary journey since then, one we could have never imagined all those years ago. But as far as we’ve come, I’ve never lost sight of some important lessons that I learned right here in Chicago. The first involves the power of place, the need to anchor our efforts to build a better world, not in theories and abstractions, but in neighborhoods and communities.

By now, most people know that I come from a pretty diverse background. I was born in Hawaii. My parents are from Kenya and Kansas. As a child, I lived in Indonesia. I’ve got family whose gene pool stretches from Ireland to China. I’ve got lifelong friends who come from just about every corner of the world. And that background helps explain my core belief in the oneness of humanity, a belief in the God-given dignity and worth of all people and the underlying bonds that we share. It’s why I believe America’s diversity is a strength, not a weakness, and that the only way we can solve our biggest challenges, from climate change to economic inequality, is if we recognize those common bonds and learn to work together across divides of race, and religion, and language and culture.

But as strongly as I hold to that belief, Chicago taught me that change doesn’t start on a global scale. Change starts one person at a time, one school at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one community at a time. The Internet and social media can connect us and raise awareness about issues that matter, but it’s only when we root ourselves in specific communities that we can understand the realities of people’s lives and their complexity. That’s where we build relationships and the trust that change requires. It’s how we test our commitments and our assumptions, and we learn to navigate our differences and refine the strategies and programs that ultimately transform the world.

The second thing Chicago gave me was a faith that ordinary people working together can do extraordinary things. Rarely in our history has progress arrived from on high. The abolition of slavery, the expansion of the franchise, better working conditions, cleaner air and water, women’s rights, LBGTQ rights, all these things gained traction because a critical mass of people got involved, got engaged and came together to make their voices heard. And yes, that process can be contentious, as I’m sure the governor and the mayor are aware. It can take time, but in the end, it’s the most effective, most inclusive, most durable way to move the world as it is towards the world as it should be.

The idea of participation, of active citizenship also happens to be at the heart of our American experiment in self-government. This country was built on the belief that any of us, no matter who we are, where we come from, how much money we have, what our last name is, any of us can recognize where our nation has fallen short, challenge the status quo, and pull America a little closer to our highest ideals. And that same faith and participatory democracy has overthrown tyrants, and liberated countries, and delivered greater opportunity, and freedom and dignity to billions of people around the world.

My experience in Chicago made me believe in the power of place and the power of people. Those beliefs guided me all the way through my presidency, and they have shaped our vision for the Obama Presidential Center.

We are about to break ground on what will be the world’s premier institution for developing civic leaders across fields, across disciplines and, yes, across the political spectrum, a forum for those who want to strengthen democratic ideals and foster active citizenship, a campus right here on the South Side where we hope to convene, support and empower the next generation of leaders, not just in government and public service, but also those who intend to bring about change through the arts or journalism, or who want to start businesses that are inclusive, socially responsible, and responsible and responsive to the challenges of our time.

We want this center to be more than a static museum or a source of archival research. It won’t just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle’s ball gowns, although everybody will come see those. It won’t just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards. We want to look forward. We want this to be a living, thriving home for concerts, cultural events, lectures, trainings, summits, topical dialogues and conversations. We want this to be a hub for in-house fellows with real-world experience to share what’s working and what’s not in solving the big problems of the day. We envision this as a place where residents and visitors from all over the world come together and restore the promise of the people’s park.

That will be the core mission of the center and our foundation programming, inspiring and empowering citizens and communities to act on the biggest challenges of our time, giving leaders the tools they need to be effective, and preparing young people everywhere to pick up the baton and help change the world.

And along the way, we want the Obama Presidential Center to change Chicago for the better. This center will support thousands of jobs during and after construction, many of them right here on the South Side. It will help spark economic growth in this community by bringing as many as 750,000 visitors to this area every single year, visitors who will eat, shop, explore and spend money, strengthening the South Side and making it an even more attractive place for businesses to grow and to hire.

The center will also preserve and enhance all the things that make Jackson Park special. We’ll reunify parkland, plant new trees, provide new habitat for birds and wildlife. But as Michelle noted, we are also going to open this park up to the community, creating a community rec center, another branch of the Chicago Public Library, creating new spaces for folks from the South Side and all over the city to gather, and to connect and to learn.

I’ll close by saying that it feels natural for Michelle and me to want to give back to Chicago and to the South Side, in particular, the place where she grew up and I came into my own, where our children were born, where we made so many friends, and where I launched my political career. We will always be grateful for that, and the Obama Presidential Center is our way of repaying some of what this amazing city has given us.

But we’re also building this center because we believe it can speak to some of the central struggles of our time where we are living through a moment of rapid disruption in technology, in the global economy, in our social arrangements, in our environment, and those disruptions can be scary. And too, often it feels as if our major institutions have failed to respond effectively to these disruptions to help people find economic security or manage our differences or protect our planet.

And what we’ve seen is that in the breach, a culture of cynicism and mistrust can grow. We start seeing more division and increasingly bitter conflict, the politics that feeds anger and resentment towards those who aren’t like us, and starts turning away from democratic principles in favor of tribalism and might makes right. This is true in Europe and in Asia, it’s true in Latin America and in Africa, and it happens to be true here at home.

But the good news is we can reverse these trends. I don’t believe it’s inevitable that we succumb to paralysis or mutual hatred, or abandon democracy in favor of systems that reserve power and privilege for the few. As has been true throughout our history, I believe we have it in us to reimagine our institutions, to make them responsive to today’s challenges, and to rebuild our societies in a way that gives more and more people a better life.

And I believe it because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the work of young activists and social entrepreneurs right here in Chicago, from the North Side to the South Side to the West Side, from Oakland to Johannesburg, from Ho Chi Minh City to Rio de Janeiro, from Amsterdam to Port au Prince. Around the world and right here in Chicago, there are young people who are not waiting for someone else to solve big problems. Instead, in the face of sometimes impossible odds, they are rolling up their sleeves, and putting down stakes and making a difference one neighborhood, one school, one community at a time.

They’re building health clinics in urban slums and educating girls in rural villages. They’re reforming policing and challenging corruption. They’re inventing new ways to cut carbon emissions and providing clean water to those who desperately need it. They’re building businesses on principles of equity and sustainability, and they’re giving workers a real stake in their company’s success.

This coming generation, this generation of Zell and Trent and others, they are the source of my hope. It’s their imagination, their resilience, their embrace of diversity, their belief that every voice counts, their deep commitment to protecting the planet and challenging longstanding injustice that I believe will save all of us. And through this center, we intend to give these young people and those who are coming up behind them whatever training, support, resources and platforms they need to fully realize their potential to collaborate and share ideas and to bring their dreams to scale.

Michelle and I cannot imagine a better legacy than that. We cannot imagine a better investment than that, for in this next generation of leaders in Chicago and around the world, we see ourselves. We didn’t start out in Washington. I didn’t start off as president. I started off right down the street, and the lessons I learned in these neighborhoods ended up shaping the rest of my life. The Obama Presidential Center is our way of showing young people everywhere that they can do the same. And I could not be more excited to officially break ground and get us one step closer to making that vision a reality.

Thank you very much. Now we’re going to go grab some shovels and break some ground. Thank you, everybody.

Photo Credit: The Obama Foundation