Barack Obama back in Chicago to tout initiatives for young men of color: ‘Fight cynicism’

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Former President Barack Obama returned to Chicago this week to highlight cities across the country who will serve as “model communities” for his namesake My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

Launched in 2014 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, while Obama was still in the White House, MBK sought to steer public, private and philanthropic dollars to programs that would help young boys and men of color succeed.

“In many ways, I was constrained by my office. There was a Justice Department investigation taking place at the time” into Martin’s death, the former president told a crowd of roughly 300 Wednesday at Venue Six10 in the South Loop before moderating a brief panel event. Obama said he couldn’t “offer all his opinions about a pending case, but obviously it was a wrenching time for the country.”

Instead, the administration proposed communities work to get young Black men through a series of milestones in schooling, work and personal safety.

At Wednesday’s event, the foundation announced that four model communities — Newark, New Jersey; Omaha, Nebraska; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Yonkers, New York — will receive $800,000 each in grant funding, as well as access to coaches and technical assistance to expand on successes they’ve had reaching MBK goals. Yonkers, for example, had a 91% high school graduation rate for young people of color, the highest in the state. Tulsa boosted its pre-K enrollment of students of color by 33% between 2013 and 2019. Reductions in homicide rates pre-pandemic were applauded in Omaha and Newark.

Obama moderated a panel with officials from those four model cities to close out Wednesday’s daylong event. Much of his foundation’s work has centered on civic leadership development.

In a release, the Obama Foundation says by “investing in and spotlighting” those model communities, it hopes to “seed other communities across the country with knowledge, best practices, and resources so they too can achieve systems-level impact in the lives of boys and young men of color.”

“My main charge to everybody here is: fight cynicism,” Obama said at the conclusion of the panel. There is a prevailing cynicism that shootings, deaths, dropouts, joblessness and despair “is just the norm, and that there’s not much you can do to fix it and that most programs are not successful, and that’s simply not true,” he said.

“Part of what we’re highlighting today is that with the application of targeted, smart, data-supported investments, we can make progress” and begin seeing reduction in violence, improved graduation rates and employment.

Tuesday, the former president made a surprise visit to a South Side after-school program, Guitars Over Guns, not far from his future presidential center. The program, which offers “no-cost music instruction, mentorship, academic support and mental health programming,” according to a release, received a $15,000 MBK grant last summer.

The president has sporadically visited his adopted hometown while his presidential center has been under construction in Jackson Park. Most visits have been below-the-radar or surprise pop-ins.

Last year, Obama was in town to discuss the dangers of misinformation at the University of Chicago and also met with Hyde Park Academy students. On a separate trip over the summer he made a surprise visit to the OPC construction site to talk with workers. He and former first lady Michelle Obama came back in October to cast their early ballots for the November election, and both met with groups of students on the South Side.

Major structural work on the Obama Presidential Center’s parking garage finished last month, and crews are working to construct the core of the museum building for elevators and stairways. Street level concrete work at the museum building, the presidential center’s forum building and the future Chicago Public Library branch at the center are also underway. It is slated to open in 2025.