Michelle Obama muses on how white flight hurt her Chicago community

Former US president Barack Obama (right) and his wife Michelle close the Obama Foundation Summit together on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology on Oct 29, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.
Former US president Barack Obama (right) and his wife Michelle close the Obama Foundation Summit together on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology on Oct 29, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.PHOTO: AFP

CHICAGO (DPA) - The Obamas selected Jackson Park for the Obama Presidential Centre because not only was the public park underutilised, 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 on Tuesday (Oct 29).

"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."

Mrs Obama made her remarks at the end of a nearly hour-long 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 centre 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 programmes rose for a standing ovation.

Mrs Obama appeared in conversation with her older brother, Mr 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, Mrs 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."

Mrs Obama told the group that her remedy in Chicago to bridge the divide and restore investment to a neglected neighbourhood, in part, is by placing the Obama Presidential Centre 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 Centre is expected to be a sprawling campus with outdoor recreation areas, an athletic centre, a public library branch and a number of meeting spaces. Unlike presidential libraries, which are usually research facilities, the centre will house the Obama Foundation offices, have buildings for large conferences and gatherings and a museum devoted to telling the story of the first black president and his family.

Plans for the presidential centre 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 US$500 million (S$681 million) project seems to have stalled in the federal review process, in which parts of the process have been delayed over and over.

Mrs Marian Robinson, the former first lady's mother, was in the audience and was acknowledged by Ms Wilkerson.

During their conversation on Tuesday, Mrs Obama and her brother started their reminiscing by speaking about their father, Mr 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 black 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 centre.

"Jackson Park, was for us, we lived maybe a mile from it," Mr Robinson said. "This was one of the parks that we lived near that people just didn't congregate in."

After her morning appearance on the main stage, Mrs 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," Mrs 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 Mrs Obama's childhood home, which she called her "stomping ground".

Mrs 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.