Finding hope… and dissing Lin-Manuel… at the Obama Foundation Summit

I just spent two days at the inaugural summit of the Obama Foundation, and I’m coming back from Chicago more enthusiastic about the state of civics than I have been in the past year.

For several decades, US presidents have been working to make their time out of office part of their legacy. Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency has served as a model, both with the Carter Center’s work on elections and tropical diseases, and his personal commitment through volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Bill Clinton build a massive operating foundation based on public/private partnerships that, despite some highly reported controversies, has done some excellent work around public health and climate change in the Global South.

Obama had previously announced that his foundation would focus on revitalizing civics and on engaged citizenship. Great! But what does that mean? I hosted some of the organizers of the foundation at the Media Lab a year ago and was worried that the foundation might feel like an on-ramp into democratic party organizing. My students and I made the case that many people are feeling alienated from conventional politics and its surrounding institutions, and that Obama’s foundation could make a significant impact by broadening the definition of what we consider engaged citizenship. My student Erhardt Graeff spent the summer with the foundation making this case and studying how wer might measure the impact of this new, broader vision of citizenship.

I don’t claim that our lab had anything to do with it, but the summit yesterday felt much less like the “mini-reunion” of the Obama campaign (as Politico reported) than an experiment in just how broad the concept of civic revitalization could be. There was almost no talk about politics – indeed, I don’t think Trump’s name was mentioned once – and anyone expecting talk of how the left takes back Congress, fights gerrymandering or revitalizes the two party system would have been deeply frustrated. But for people looking for models for how individuals are changing their communities, in the US and around the world, the program and the people participating in it, was a feast.

In 2010, I spoke at an event at the George W. Bush Presidential library on digital activism. I was struck by the fact that our program specified events to the minute, not the nearest quarter or half hour. Evidently, Presidential libraries celebrate one or more characteristics of their patron, and the Bush library celebrated the former president’s punctuality. Indeed, W joined us for precisely 12 minutes, just as the schedule specified.

It’s possible that the signature attribute of the Obama legacy projects will be diversity. I spent two days in perhaps the most diverse room I’ve ever encountered at a conference in the United States. 12 of 30 featured speakers in the program were women, 19 were people of color. Sitting down for lunch, I found myself between a Nigerian roboticist and an American Sikh scholar who’s writing a book on islamophobia and its side effects. I didn’t have a bad or boring conversation over two days – the staff packed the room with people doing mentoring of young men on the South Side of Chicago, or combatting racism against Afro-Brazilians. I was impressed that the organizers found people beyond the usual suspects – Elaine Diaz, whose brilliant Periodismo de Barrio is transforming Cuban independent journalism – instead of a more widely known figure like Yoani Sanchez. It suggested to me less interest in virtue signaling than in opening interesting conversations.

Some of the key takeaways from the summit for me:

Heather McGhee of Demos knit together issues of inequality, race and economics with greater clarity than I’d previously heard. She offered an analogy for the contemporary economy: a massively multiplayer game where those who are winning can change the rules.
“Our democracy has become as unequal as our economy,” she argued, citing voter suppression efforts and the ability of wealthy voters to influence elections through political giving. She traces the increasing unfairness of the economy to our increasing diversity: “It’s no coincidence that it’s become harder for the average American to get by as the face of the average American has changed.” My friend Micah Sifry referred to her as the next black president of the US and I think he’s got a point – linking questions of economic and political unfairness to a realization that fairness hasn’t been equally through American society strikes me as a viable direction for the Democratic party in response to the Trump presidency.

– Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani Yogurt, won my heart with his passion for South Edmeston, NY, a small town in central New York that had lost much of its workforce due to plant closings. Ulukaya saw parallels between the rural Turkish community he’d grown up in and the community he moved to, and grew Chobani in a way that created not only jobs with livable wages, but a deep investment in community development and pride.

He shared the stage with Brian Alexander, who positioned himself as the anti-JD Vance: also passionate about the future of Appalachia, but sees the problem as structural and economic, not a problem of “hillbilly culture”. Asking us “What is capitalism for? Do we work for it, or does it work for us?” Alexander put forward a vision of a corporation’s role in a community that sounded both old-fashioned, and with Ulukaya’s example, worth returning to: “Companies used to be rooted in a place. Management used to play on softball teams.” Companies like that remain in their communities and work to support the people who depend on them, not just shareholders.

I’m used to community economics coming from inner cities, but it’s rare to see similar ideas coming from rural America. Exciting for me as the proud resident of a town of 3000. And, as Alexander pointed out, our communities are getting screwed over. Referencing the opioid epidemic and the dumping of drugs on West Virginia, then demanding people take responsibility for their addictions, he noted, “a culture of personal responsibility would mean demanding responsibility from the CEO who dumped 3.3 million doses of opiods into a county with 29,000 people.”

– In a workshop brainstorming the priorities of the Obama Foundation, one of the organizers asked a hard question about experts and expertise. (Despite the common root word, these often get put in opposition in social change circles – experts have degrees, while those with experience are people in beneficiary communities.) Introducing herself as a “sneakerhead”, she wondered how expertise in sussing out fake sneakers could translate to identifying and calling out fake news. “Sneakerheads are always calling out fakes. And I didn’t have to take an online course in ‘sneaker literacy’ – I got to know sneakers because I care about them.”

It’s an interesting point, not just about self-directed learning and about fake news. It’s a complicated point for people engaged in co-design, the practice of designing solutions in a way that deeply involves the beneficiaries in the planning and creation of projects intended to benefit them. When I’ve worked on co-design, I’ve had a tendency to think of communities I’m working with as experts on local conditions and priorities, while my teams tend to be experts on technologies and design methods. It’s an exciting challenge to think about how to work with community members not just as experts on their own problems, but on different ways of solving problems, of having insights that my students and staff are unlikely to have. How do people solve the problems they encounter in their lives, and how can those problemsolving skills change how we develop and design together?

– Listening matters. I have reached a point in my career where I rarely get to go to events unless I’m speaking. I’ve also developed the bad habit of dropping into conference to speak, and then heading to other engagements. I just got to spend two days listening, taking notes and tweeting and it was wonderful.

What was also wonderful was watching Obama listen. Half an hour into a fascinating conversation about the responsibility tech platforms have for the conversations they host, Obama stood up from the back of the room (none of us had seen him walk in), and asked a complex, nuanced question about how to balance principles of freedom of expression with the power of platforms to amplify misinformation. I watched him listening intently in another session, and saw him knit observations from two talks I’d been at into his closing remarks. If Obama can make time to listen this carefully, respectfully and closely, so can I.

The closing session featured two talks that I won’t forget for a long time. Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton, and Chicago rapper Common took the stage together, and talked about how social issues inspired each of their work. Lin was clearly starstruck to be spending time with Common, who he credited as the inspiration for the flow of the rhymes he gave to George Washington – “Hamilton had to be the smartest guy in the room, so I had to model his flow on someone with the trickiest, most polysyllabic rhymes, like Eminem or Big Pun. But George Washington was respected by everybody, and so his flow had to be from someone everyone respects in hiphop: you.” When Common started a freestyle session, Lin was too flustered to bring his A game, leading to a tweet I’ll always cherish:

But the highlight for me was seeing my personal civic hero, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and defender of countless youth trapped in the criminal justice system, offer his rules for engaged citizenship:

1) Get proximate and stay proximate to the problems you want to solve.

2) You can’t solve problems without changing the narrative – when it’s the war on drugs, we lost people we could save if we worked on treating addiction

3) Hope is your superpower. This isn’t about naiveté, but about finding strength to carry on when you encounter obstacles and frustration. “Hope is your superpower. Don’t let anyone take away your hope. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

4) To make change, we have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. Bryan ended his talk with the story of a civil rights activist, an elderly man in a wheelchair, who showed him his scars from injuries during the protests of the 1960s. “These are not my cuts, my scars. These are my medals of honor.”

I’m grateful for the Obama Foundation for letting me take part, and I cannot wait to see what this will become.


Also published on Medium.

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