The question Tuesday evening from college student De’Andre Brown to former President Barack Obama was a blunt one: “As a black man, what made you believe you can change things in an entire country?”
Obama, on stage with Black-ish actress Yara Shahidi for the closing session of the third annual Obama Foundation Summit, chuckled and coolly quipped to Brown, “I was dropped on my head as a child so I didn’t have any sense.”
Turning serious, Obama told the audience of students and community leaders and activists from 41 different countries that his own path to leadership was one of small steps and deep introspection.
“I tried to align what I believed most deeply with what I saw around me and with my own actions,” the former president, 58, said.
It wasn’t always so. In college, at first, “I was kind of a goof off,” Obama said. “I was out there trying to get with some girl or playing basketball — yeah — doing things I should’nta been doing. … And if I’m in a class and I raise my hand, I’ve got some opinion.”
But his studies, first at Occidental College in Los Angeles and then as a transfer student at Columbia University, changed him. It was when he read about the justice work of Nelson Mandela or the African National Congress that he started to question, he said, “if I really do believe in that, then what am I doing about it and what am I willing to give up or risk for it?”
So after graduation, while his classmates were headed to law school or business school (“there was a track that was set up”), Obama instead surprised his mother and the grandparents who helped raise him by announcing that he was moving to Chicago’s South Side to work on community organizing.
“They’re all like, ‘Huh? What?’ Yeah, and I’m getting paid $13,000 a year. Even back in 1985 that was broke,” Obama recalled. “I was eating tuna every night. I didn’t have an actual bed; the place was too small. I had this futon mattress I’d roll out. I could not afford the whole futon — just had the -ton. I would roll it up, put it in the closet, roll it back out again.”
While he laughed along with the audience at the absurdity of the memory, Obama went on: “I was alone most of that time.” (He quickly added, “Waiting for Michelle.”)
Bottom line, he told the audience of budding leaders, “You shouldn’t expect at age 18 to have a master plan. … Worry more about what you want to do than what you want to be.”
He also had this word of caution: “One danger I see among young people particularly on college campuses — Malia and I talk about this; Yara goes to school with my daughter — but I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people and this is accelerated by social media: There is this sense sometimes of the way of ‘me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people and that’s enough.’ “
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff — you should get over that quickly,” he said. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities.”
Don’t just tweet judgmental hashtags on Twitter. “That’s not activism,” he said. “That’s not bringing about change if all you’re doing is casting stones.”