To the Editor:
The Obama Foundation will break ground on the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in 2021, which is a welcome sign that recovery and progress is in sight.
Consistent with how President Obama has worked throughout his career from his community organizing days to the White House, and with its new global headquarters in Chicago, the Obama Foundation has the opportunity to bring together community and city leaders in ways big and small as we work together to align around strategies and policies that move the city forward.
With this element of cooperation in mind, here are two different views on the OPC and what it means to the city.
From Helene Gayle, President & CEO of the Chicago Community Trust
While some might see the OPC as just a museum, we see something more. We see it as a place where new leaders can be nurtured and developed — as the saying goes, “leaders aren’t born, they are made.” That’s why we are announcing a $3M investment in the Obama Foundation, to help it develop a generation of civic leaders who will help us unite for a better city and world.
At the Trust, we know how important it is to grow the bench of community leaders who are ready to tackle the challenges that vex our city. As an organization that has been working to strengthen Chicago for the past 100 years, we want to be able to look back 100 years from now and see that our investment in the Obama Presidential Center helped develop an important civic leader dedicated to addressing deep-seated issues, someone who made a tangible and lasting impact — particularly in underserved areas of the city. We see the Center as a key part of a forward-looking vision that will boost the city for the coming decades.
The OPC has the opportunity to model authentic community engagement, embracing the inherent messiness that comes with bringing disparate groups together but staying engaged nonetheless. Creating true collaboration is how we move forward. We will align around the shared goals of creating equitable investment, developing opportunities Chicago’s youth, and increasing prosperity for surrounding communities.
From Anton Seals Jr., South Shore Works Planning and Preservation Coalition Board Chair
As a South Shore native and proud Hyde Park Career Academy alumnus, some of my earliest memories come from Jackson Park. My father coached football here, and the beauty and energy of this section of the world shaped me. The blaring sounds of the drum at “bongo beach” and the sweet aromas of smoke served as the welcome to “Summertime Chi.” It is where our culture thrived.
To protect and honor this part of the city, I was one of several residents who advocated for a community benefits agreement that would etch in stone benefits that the OPC would bring to the surrounding neighborhood. We fought for this agreement because of questions about what the OPC will mean for our community.
Will it let Black culture flourish? Can it engage South Side and West Side youth? Will the stories told at the museum reflect the resistance, resiliency, and repair at the very core of the Black experience in America? Can the Center be done in a way that prevents displacement and benefits those whom people have underestimated in particular the poor black residents.
After much consideration — and even some disagreement with the Obama Foundation — the answer I’ve settled on is: it should. And it can. If we make it so.
The discussions around the CBA model much of what the OPC can do in creating a new generation of leaders and culture of civic engagement. While we didn’t always agree on the tools needed to ensure the community benefits from the investments made, we did agree on the goal. It was that alignment that allowed us to stay in discussion, to continue working toward our shared goals and through our disagreements. Imagine the progress we can make if we bring more around the table with a shared commitment to not just offering platitudes around equity and inclusion, and liberty but making real progress toward those goals.
There is no more fitting tribute both to President Obama’s message of change and to Chicago’s highest aspirations, than to support an institution that embodies the American ideals we all collectively strive towards, those of liberty, justice, safety and happiness. The Obama Presidential Center is an inspiration for us all to come together in pursuit of a better world, a more perfect union, and a brighter future for the generations to come.