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In Chicago, The Obamas' Civic Engagement Programs Are In Action


Along with his political campaigning and fundraising, the former president has other projects that will shape his post-presidency. He's writing a memoir. The Obamas have a production deal with Netflix. And they've created the Obama Foundation in Chicago. NPR's Melissa Block went to Chicago to see one of their civic engagement programs in action.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It's morning at a boot camp, and it's going to get loud.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I said I'm alive.




UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And I'm energized.


BLOCK: These Chicagoans ages 18 to 25 have been chosen as the debut class of the Obama Foundation's Community Leadership Corps. They'll go to workshops on activism as a lifestyle and youth as power. The foundation's Anne Filipic gives them a pep talk.

ANNE FILIPIC: And as we think about - OK, building the civic society of tomorrow sounds good, but how the heck do you do that?

BLOCK: They're training to be community organizers just like Barack Obama was decades ago on the South Side of Chicago. And they've come to this boot camp with specific community problems they want to help fix.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Food deserts, not having good enough food in our area.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Getting more kids aware of the benefit of art.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The problem is that millennials aren't voting.

CHANELLE BELL: To increase opportunities for disenfranchised youth - bam.


BLOCK: That last voice belongs to Chanelle Bell, who used to teach preschool in Chicago.

BELL: I taught a classroom of all black and brown and chocolatey kids. And I didn't get any curriculum for Black History Month. And I remember thinking, what? There's nothing.

BLOCK: Now Bell works for a network of charter schools on Chicago's South Side.

BELL: My official title is senior community organizer.

BLOCK: But when that job was first proposed to her...

BELL: I was like, isn't that what President Barack Obama did? And they were like, yeah. I was like, well, I don't know about you, but I am no President Barack Obama, and I do not think that I could be able to do that.

BLOCK: It turns out, yes, she can.

DAVID SIMAS: To watch them begin their journey of active citizenship around the thing they care about is really inspiring. And, God, I love it.

BLOCK: That's David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation. He says the program springs from what he calls the defining theme of President Obama's life.

SIMAS: Which is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

BLOCK: The foundation has already raised a quarter of a billion dollars from private donors and plans to raise far more than that. Most of those funds will go toward building the Obama Presidential Center and museum in Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side. And that has drawn heated debate in the community. Preservationists and environmentalists worry the project will do great damage to a historic park. Others worry about gentrification and want guarantees of affordable housing nearby.

SIMAS: We will continue to have discussions with them because frankly that's consistent with the way the president and Mrs. Obama would expect us to as neighbors here on the South Side.

BLOCK: If plans are approved, David Simas says they hope to break ground next year. The center would open in 2022. Meantime, Chanelle Bell and the other young people in the Community Leadership Corps aren't waiting. They're taking to heart the president's words from his farewell address just before he left office.


BARACK OBAMA: If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes, and do some organizing.

BELL: He started something, and we are just rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling. We're getting bigger. We're getting badder and more educated and more empowered. And so when it's our time, people will really, really be able to see the impact that he's had and how it's going to live on way longer than any of our lifetimes.

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.