The Obama Foundation’s surprising challenge: Community organizers | On Culture | Chicago Reader

The Obama Foundation’s surprising challenge: Community organizers 

The Presidential Center’s latest plans have kicked off a surge of serious protest.

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click to enlarge Prince Harry (right) will appear at an international civic leadership summit next week, hosted by the Obama Foundation.

Prince Harry (right) will appear at an international civic leadership summit next week, hosted by the Obama Foundation.

Chris Jackson

Nothing is better at making Barack Obama look good than Donald Trump.

That was painfully evident when the 44th president slipped into town earlier this month for a surprise appearance at the first-ever Obama Foundation Training Day for future leaders.

The minute he stepped onto the stage at the Gary Comer Youth Center, the contrast between what we had in our national leader and what we have now came to mind.

The former president is still intelligent, elegant, able, and informed. He's also rational. And charming: "You know, I live right around the corner," he said, as if he just saw the lights on and dropped in.

The crowd of 150 18- to 24-year-olds jumped to their feet to greet him and were clearly thrilled to participate as Obama conducted a "reverse town hall" where he asked questions and they gave answers about societal problems they intend to solve and how they'll bring about change.

"Everything we're going to do [at the Obama Center] is aimed at empowering you," the onetime south-side community organizer told them, "because that'll make the world a better place."

"This is Organizing 101," he said.

So it's more than a little ironic that as the Obama Foundation gears up to host an even bigger event next week—an international civic leadership summit headlined by speakers like England's Prince Harry—a fair chunk of the south-side community is busily organizing to contest various parts of its building plans.

Let's be clear: It's not that residents don't want the Obama Presidential Center. Everyone I've talked with loves the OPC and welcomes it to the south side. But the devil's in the details: those pesky, expensive, and unexpected add-ons, like road closures, a fancy golf course, and the latest wrinkle, a parking garage on the Midway Plaisance. Local residents are not all convinced, for example, that laying some sod on top of a two-story hump of a parking ramp will retain the historic parkland the foundation wants to build on. They say a rush to get all these plans approved has squeezed out community input and might in the end squeeze out the community altogether. They're worried about privatization, gentrification, coherent design, and economic opportunity.

And they've got the organizing thing down: Jackson Park Watch, which started as online posts by two concerned south-side residents, announced in September that it has become a formally organized nonprofit (operating under the fiscal sponsorship of Friends of the Parks). "We were reluctantly concluding that the Obama Foundation was really not paying attention to community concerns," says cofounder Margaret Schmid. Now JPW is raising money to hire the experts who can help it determine, for example, whether the shifting footprint of the Obama Center is cause for a legal challenge.

"It's quite stunning when you consider the legacy that they are promoting through the Obama Foundation—civic engagement and community building—that they have been completely tone-deaf to the concerns of the local community," Schmid says.

An even newer group, Save the Midway, is focused entirely on preserving the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Midway Plaisance "as an historic and vibrant park," one that uniquely connects neighborhoods, says cofounder Michael McNamee. It's mounted an online postcard campaign to stop the proposed garage (at savethemidway.org), a goal that's supported by the Midway Plaisance Park Advisory Council and the Friends of the Parks, among others.

And this month, the Obama Library Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, which has been fighting for a binding guarantee that the people who live near the Obama Center will be able to stay there and benefit from the economic opportunity it promises, picked up two muscular new members: SEIU Health Care Illinois & Indiana, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Since the Obama Foundation (and, last month, Obama himself) made it clear that it has no intention of signing a community benefits agreement, the OLCBAC has turned its efforts to getting an ordinance passed by the City Council that would do the same thing, and would require the presidential center, the University of Chicago, and the city to comply.

Speaking for the coalition, Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization executive director Jawanza Malone says there's precedent: the ordinance will be loosely modeled on an agreement that was hammered out and passed by the council for the proposed Chicago Olympics.

Obama Foundation Vice President Michael Strautmanis said in an e-mail last week that the foundation does not believe a Community Benefits Agreement is "the right tool because it's not inclusive enough." Instead, they're including "aggressive requirements" for diversity in their construction contracts. Strautmanis also argues that the proposed parking garage on the Midway will "increase foot traffic within the community," while it revitalizes "underutilized park space" and keeps auto "noise and pollution" out of Jackson Park.

Those young leaders the Obama Foundation wants to enable don't have to look far to see civic engagement in action. The lesson they'll draw from it? Stay tuned.  v

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