Michelle Obama on white flight: I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us
The Obamas selected Jackson Park for the Obama Presidential Center because not only was the public park underutilized, it was close to their Chicago home and it was the largest park near her childhood home on the South Side, former first lady Michelle Obama said Tuesday.
“There’s power in the selection of Jackson Park,” she said. “Barack and I don’t do things incidentally. There’s a strategy.
“Barack’s presidential library could have been anywhere in the world, because there are so many people who feel like he is their president,” she said. “New York wanted it. Hawaii wants it. Because it’s also an economic engine.”
Obama made her remarks at the end of a nearly hourlong conversation at the Obama Foundation Summit, which was held on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville.
The Obama summit is a two-day event and has been the Obama Foundation’s largest event of the year. In some ways, it set the tone for the work the foundation wants to do in Chicago once the presidential center is built: bring leaders from across the world to share ideas and learn from one another.
On Monday, the summit was closed to the media and featured workshops and events for participants only.
On Tuesday, the day started with a performance by the Joffrey Ballet and Young Chicago Authors. The creators of the Comedy Central television show “South Side,” Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin, greeted the audience.
Then award-winning film director Ava DuVernay sat in conversation with the world-renowned artist and space-maker Theaster Gates, where they talked about creating opportunities for others and the importance of sharing new stories to larger audiences.
But it wasn’t until Michelle Obama appeared on the stage that the gathering of more than 500 hand-selected community leaders, social innovators and participants in the Obama Foundation programs rose for a standing ovation.
Obama appeared in conversation with her older brother, Craig Robinson, and they were interviewed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson. Onstage, they flashed family photos and discussed their upbringing in South Shore, the example their father set for them and the fierce way they were nurtured and loved by their mother.
In the past, Obama has trod gently when talking about her life, her husband and their experiences.
But on Tuesday, she spoke directly about how white flight devastated her South Side community, how racism and discrimination led to inequities. Then she shifted the conversation from what happened in the past to what’s happening in the present.
“As families like ours, upstanding families like ours, doing everything you’re supposed to do and better, as we moved in white folks moved out because they were afraid of what our families represented,” she said. “I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us. This family — with all the values you read about. You were running from us, and you’re still running. We are no different from the immigrant families, the families in Pilsen.”
Obama told the group that her remedy in Chicago to bridge the divide and restore investment to a neglected neighborhood, in part, is by placing the Obama Presidential Center in a community that needs it.
“It will be a visited presidential library,” she said. “It’s going to be alive. It’s a first. We had to think: ‘Where do we put this resource?’ Because it will be a resource. What better place to put it than in our backyard?”
The Obama Presidential Center is expected to be a sprawling campus with outdoor recreation areas, an athletic center, a public library branch and a number of meeting spaces. Unlike presidential libraries, which are usually research facilities, the center will house the Obama Foundation offices have buildings for large conferences and gatherings and there will be a museum devoted to telling the story of the first African American president and his family.
Plans for the presidential center already have been approved by the Chicago City Council. The city also won a lawsuit brought by a group of environmentalists that wanted to halt construction in Jackson Park and essentially have the project moved elsewhere.
But the $500 million project seems to have stalled in the federal review process, in which parts of the process have been delayed over and over.
Marian Robinson, the former first lady’s mother, was in the audience and was acknowledged by Wilkerson.
During their conversation on Tuesday, Obama and her brother started their reminiscing by speaking about their father, Fraser Robinson III, who lived with multiple sclerosis and struggled to walk yet rarely missed a day of work.
Then the siblings moved on to talking about leaving Chicago to attend Princeton and discussed how first-generation African American college students could feel isolated as minorities on campuses.
The two talked about the Obamas’ wedding day and how the absence of their father cast some sadness on the occasion.
At the end, they turned their focus to Jackson Park and the center.
“Jackson Park, was for us, we lived maybe a mile from it,” Robinson said. “This was one of the parks that we lived near that people just didn’t congregate in.”
Obama told the audience that the city invested millions to help create a museum campus close to downtown and even restructured South Lake Shore Drive to accommodate it. She said she envisions something similar for the part of town that she still calls home.
“This isn’t just about the Obama Presidential Center. It’s about the South Side of Chicago,” she said. “It’s about our neighborhood and community and bringing life to the park that may be protected and loved by its friends. But is not used by a community.”
Obama urged trust from the community and the city and state that it will be a gem.
“It requires the trust to know that Barack and I wouldn’t bring some crap up into our neighborhood. We just wouldn’t do it,” she said. “Our intent and our purpose is not just for us — I don’t need a library. He doesn’t need a library. But the community needs a gathering place, a place for lifting up young people, a place that is vibrant and alive, that is utilized. And if we have to do it anywhere, we should do it in our hometown.”
After her morning appearance on the main stage, Obama spent part of the afternoon at the summit in small group sessions with the attendees. In one session, with a selected group of participants in her Girls Opportunity Alliance, she sat in a circle, listening to the leaders explain how they are empowering girls and women in Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru and South Africa.
“I want to hear from you,” Obama told the gathering. “I want to thank you for your work, your dedication … I’m here to listen.”
That group spent part of Monday on a tour where they got to see Obama’s childhood home, which she called her “stomping ground.” Obama told the group she was surrounded by children who were smart, creative and ambitious. But they didn’t have the opportunities that she was afforded.
“When you’re poor … the margin for failure is really thin,” she told them.
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