“That was hope,” the foundation’s CEO, David Simas, said in an interview during a break on Monday. “This is tangible.”
There was a virtual-reality tour of the Obama Presidential Center to be taken, and a wall where people could write their “stories” on different colored slips of paper and insert them into a giant HOPE. Janelle Monáe, fresh off her participation in Michelle Obama’s voter-registration drive, kicked off the event by moderating an opening panel on creativity on Sunday and walked the hallways Monday in a bright-red suit. But the focus was less on her than on the two members of the “Community Leadership Corps” whom she was talking to: one who’d formed a group that creates digital campaigns for local initiatives in her native Arizona, and another who is a “Dreamer” and trans Latino man who blends art and activism in South Carolina.
Then there are the 20 fellows, chosen from more than 20,000 applicants around the world, like Veronica Crespin-Palmer, who runs an advocacy and empowerment group in Aurora, Colorado, devoted to helping low-income immigrant families of color organize to change the public-school system. She’s been brought in to trainings and connected with other fellows who talk monthly over Skype, with a colleague in El Salvador who’s advised her on applying for federal grants and another in the Philippines who’s talked to her about building team culture.
“I, as a leader, will last longer, but when I decide it’s time to move on, the group will last longer, too,” Crespin-Palmer said.
There have also been two classes of Obama Scholars, placed at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, “international leaders” from all over the world brought in for smaller sessions, an expansion of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to mentor young black men and the next stage of Michelle Obama’s Global Girls Alliance.
Talking up inclusion and diversity and the power of organizing, it all boils down to a choice between the Obama way and the Trump way, though the Obama supporters try not to make it quite so explicit.
“There is a fork in the road in our nation where one path prioritizes isolationism and the other path focuses on civic and community engagement,” said Robert Wolf, an Obama donor who’s now on the board of the foundation. “I am glad that our young leaders are working together and picking the path of doing good.”
And that boils down to people still trying to connect with Obama.
“His ability to engage and inspire people was never a sole function of being president,” Simas said. “There is something intrinsic both in his story and the way he articulates it that transcends the presidency. It is now enhanced.”
Despite that, Obama was a small part of this year’s program. He didn’t even arrive in Chicago until midday on Monday, and spent his first few hours at the summit speaking to top donors who’d been brought together for a special lunch. Michelle Obama, who’s currently selling out arenas on her book tour, didn’t attend at all, and the pop-up bookstore on site, which was stocked with all sorts of fiction and nonfiction that resonated with the foundation’s programming, might be the only bookstore in America that didn’t carry a single copy of her book, Becoming.