Former President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama returned home early this week for the annual Obama Foundation Summit.
After two days of roundtables and featured sessions at the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, President Obama concluded the summit with a sit-down alongside actress and activist Yara Shahidi and four of his Obama Foundation fellows on Tuesday, October 29, and BET was there.
During the sit-down, the 44th president called out our increasingly toxic “cancel culture.” Cancel culture describes a form of boycott of someone or something, usually a public figure or brand, who has expressed a questionable or unpopular opinion or has exhibited offensive behavior.
“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. The world is messy, there are ambiguities,” CNN reports he explained. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.”
He went on to call out those who are judgmental towards others who are striving to make a change.
According to CNN, he named “young people, particularly on college campuses” who typically embody an attitude “to be as judgmental as possible about other people. That's not activism. That's not bringing about change. If all you're doing is casting stones, you're probably not going to get that far. That's easy to do."
The former POTUS also addressed young advocates and change makers when asked how does one sustain a movement and the motivation while dreaming big. Obama revealed that his own journey to success wasn’t a cakewalk.
“For me at least, it was not a straight line, it wasn’t a steady progression, it was an evolution that took place over time. And I tried to align what I believed deeply with what I saw around me and with my own actions. One of the things I used to tell folks, ‘If you want to know what your values are, right now, look at where you’re putting your time, money and energy to.’ You may tell yourself you’re community minded but if all your time and energy is going into going to the club, or playing sports, then that’s what is actually important to you.”
He jokingly described how he made the transition from a child who was “dropped on [his] head as a kid so he didn’t have any sense” to a man of valor and honor to his family, community and now the world.
“As a young man, I was playing basketball, chasing girls, doing things I shouldn’t have been doing. But what started happening was I would say to myself, ‘If I really do believe in that, then what am I doing about it? And what am I willing to give up? What am I willing to sacrifice? So there was this long process for me of aligning what I said I believed in my behavior and then testing what I would change so that the world would align better with what I believed in.”
He gave the audience three definite steps in achieving their dreams by changing their habits and behaviors to accurately reflect them.
“The first stage is figuring out what do you really believe, what’s really important to you- not what you pretend is important to you but what’s really important to you and what are you willing to risk or sacrifice for it.”
“The next phase is test that against the world, [even when] the world kicks you in the teeth and says, ‘You may think this is important, but you know what we’ve got other ideas, and who are you, and you can’t change anything!’”
“Then you get to a phase of trying to develop skills and courage and resilience and you try to fit your actions to the scale of whatever influence you have. Sometimes you succeed, most times you fail, but you learn over time and you gain more confidence with small victories. That gives you the power to analyze what worked, what didn’t, and [determine] what you need more of in order to achieve the vision you have."
He concluded the three life phases with a final word on staying the course, even without a master plan.
“It’s not that you come up with a grand theory of here’s how I’m going to change the world and then suddenly it all goes like clockwork, at least not for me. For me it was me trying to be the person I wanted to believe I was, and at each phase challenging myself against the world to see if in fact I can make a difference. And over time you’ll surprise yourself.”
He reminisced on how his White House interns would ask him questions when their internship concluded, where he was often asked about the path they should they take for human service. Obama explained where exactly one’s focus should be.
“Worry more about what you want to do, rather than what you want to be. A part of the problem of politics is typically in Washington D.C., or any other capital around the world, a lot of people got there because they had an idea in their head that they want to be a congressman, or want to be XYZ. When that’s your focus, you may spend 10 years just trying to be something and when you get there, it turns out you have no idea what you want to do with it. So you have no moral compass, no issue or cause you’re willing to risk it all for because what’s important to you is to stay that thing you wanted to be,” Obama preached. “Whereas if you focus on what you want to do… organically out of doing that thing, it may turn out your influence expands or suddenly you’re a leader in advancing the thing you cared about. And if it doesn’t work out perfectly exactly how you planned, along the way, all these people have been touched and all this good has been done. And your life is full.”
Obama went on to warn dream chasers of the dangers of solely seeking a position or authority.
“Chasing an office or a position is a little bit like chasing money. I don’t want to belittle it because you need money to pay the rent. You need a job, that is honorable and right. But after a certain point, the people I find who end up the most satisfied are the people who are really passionate about the things they wanted to do.”
Obama, who served as the 44th president for two terms from January 2009 through January 2017, also gave a word of encouragement to those who face danger and scrutiny when fighting against oppression.
“You do what you can, but this is a long path. So if at any point, the threats or dangers that are presented from your work gets to be too great, you should not feel as if you are somehow compromised if you say strategically, ‘I have to be careful on how I approach these issues.’”
The summit also previewed an exclusive look at the tentative Obama Presidential Center slated for Chicago’s Southside Jackson Park, the community where Obama got his start as an organizer and where Michelle grew up and where they built a collective of supporters and friends.
“For us just to have some office downtown somewhere, from which we issue reports, and occasionally travel for photo ops, wasn’t going to cut it,” he said. “We joke about it a little: like this is the mothership. We want [it] to be a university for activism and social change.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, the $500 million project has been stalled during the federal review process.
The Obamas' summit coincided with President Trump’s first visit to the Windy City as president. The Chicago Tribune reports Trump insulted both the city’s top cop, Eddie Johnson, and the city for providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.
(Photo: JUSSI NUKARI/AFP/Getty Images)