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Barack Obama's First Public Remarks After Presidency. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired April 24, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: What do you have to lose? The answer is everything.

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has shown utter contempt for the values that make this nation great.

And then suddenly he's going to be the champion of working people? Come on. Come on, man.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Whether you voted for Trump or for Clinton, you've got to miss the come on, mans, from the campaign.

As we wait for the former president to take the stage -- and, again, you see the event at the University of Chicago, we're also waiting to hear from the current president of the United States. President Trump is at a luncheon with ambassadors from countries who have seats on the United Nation's Security Council. He's meeting with them. We're told there were some remarks at the beginning of that, including the president voicing his frustration the Security Council would not condemn Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people. Again, we'll bring you that from President Trump when we get it.

Coming into the room right now, the 44th president of the United States.

OBAMA: Thank you. Hey! Thank you.

Everybody have a seat. Have a seat.

So, what's been going on while I've been gone?

I -- it is wonderful to be home. It is wonderful to be at the University of Chicago. It is wonderful to be on the south side of Chicago. And it is wonderful to be with these young people here. And what I want to do is just maybe speak very briefly at the top about why we're here and then I want to spend most of the time that we're together hearing from these remarkable young people who are, I think, representative of some amazing young people who are in the audience as well.

I was telling these guys that it was a little over 30 years ago that I came to Chicago. I was 25 years old and I had gotten out of college filled with idealism and absolutely certain that somehow I was going to change the world. But I had no idea how or where or what I was going to be doing.

And so I worked first to pay off some student loans. And then I went to work at the city colleges in New York on their Harlem campus with some student organizing. And then there were a group of churches out on the south side who had come together to try to deal with the steel plants that had closed in the area and the economic devastation that had been taking place, but also the racial tensions and turnover that was happening in these communities. And so they had formed an organization and they hired me as what was called a community organizer. And I did not really know what that meant or how to do it, but I accepted the job.

And for the next three years I lived right here in Hyde Park, but I worked further south in communities like Roseland and Auburn, Gresham and (INAUDIBLE) Gardens and West Pullman (ph). Working class neighborhoods. Many of which had changed rapidly from white to black in the late '60s, '70s. And full of wonderful people who were proud of their communities, proud of the steps they had taken to try to move into the middle class, but were also worried about their futures because in some cases their kids weren't doing as well as they had. In some cases, these communities had been badly neglected for a very long time. The distribution of city services were unequal. Schools were underfunded. There was a lack of opportunity.

And for three years I tried to do something about it. And I am the first to acknowledge that I did not set the world on fire, nor did I transform these communities in any significant way, although we did some good things. But it did change me. This community gave me a lot more than I was able to give in return, because this community taught me that ordinary people, when working together, can do extraordinary things. This community taught me that everybody has a story to tell that is important. This experience taught me that beneath the surface differences of people that there were common hopes and common dreams and common aspirations, common values that stitched us together as Americans. And so even though I, after three years, left for law school, the lessons that had been taught to me here as an organizer are ones that stayed with me and effectively gave me the foundation for my subsequent political career and the themes that I would talk about and -- as a state legislator and as a U.S. senator and ultimately as president of the United States.

[12:06:23] Now, I tell you that history because on the back end now of my presidency, now that it's completed, I'm spending a lot of time thinking about what is the most important thing I can do for my next job? And what I'm convinced of is that although there are all kinds of issues that I care about and all kinds of issues that I intend to work on, the single most important thing I can do is to help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world. Because the one thing that I'm absolutely convinced of is that, yes, we confront a whole range of challenges from economic inequality and lack of opportunity, to a criminal justice system that too often is skewed in ways that are unproductive, to climate change, to, you know, issues related to violence. All those problems are serious, they're daunting, but they're not insoluble.

What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life. It has to do with the fact that because of things like political gerrymandering our parties have moved further and further apart and it's harder and harder to find common ground because of money and politics. Special interests dominate the debates in Washington in ways that don't match up with what the broad majority of Americans feel. Because of changes in the media, we now have a situation in which everybody's listening to people who already agree with them and are further and further reinforcing their own realities to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward.

And so, you know, when I said in 2004 that there were no red states or blue states, they're the United States of America, that was aspirational comment, but I think it's -- and it's one, by the way, that I still believe in the sense that when you talk to individuals one-on-one, people -- there's a lot more that people have in common than divides them. But, honestly, it's not true when it comes to our politics and our civil life. And maybe more pernicious is the fact that people just aren't involved. They get cynical and they give up. And, as a consequence, we have some of the lowest voting rates of any advanced democracy and low participation rates than translate into a further gap between who's governing us and what we believe.

[12:10:20] The only folks who are going to be able to solve that problem are going to be young people, the next generation. And I have been encouraged everywhere I go in the United States, but also everywhere around the world, to see how sharp and astute and tolerant and thoughtful and entrepreneurial our young people are. A lot more sophisticated than I was at their age. And so the question then becomes, what are the ways in which we can create pathways for them to take leadership, for them to get involved? Are there ways in which we can knock down some of the barriers that are discouraging young people about a life of service? And if there are, I want to work with them to knockdown those barriers and to get this next generation and to accelerate their move towards leadership. Because if that happens, I think we're going to be just fine. And I end up being incredibly optimistic.

So, with that, what I'd like to do is to have our panelists here today each tell them -- tell us a little bit about themselves. And what I've asked them ahead of time, and I did give them the question ahead of time, I asked them to describe for me what it is that they see among their peers that they think discourages voting, participation, paying attention to some of the issues, getting involved. Do they have some immediate suggestions of the kinds of things that would get young people more involved and engaged and discover their voices? Once we've gone through the entire panel, then we're just going to open it up and we're going to see how it works. And hopefully it will be interesting. I'll find it interesting. Hopefully you'll find it interesting. All right?

So we're going to start with Kelsey. KELSEY, MCCLEAR, LOYOLA UNIVERSITY: Well, thank you, Mr. President,

and good morning, everyone. It is an absolute honor to be here with you all.

My name is Kelsey. I'm a senior at Loyola University of Chicago, where I have spent the last four years studying marketing with minors in sociology and leadership studies. I've had the pleasure of being very involved on Loyola's campus with a number of different things going on. I'm looking forward to graduating in less than two weeks and pursuing my masters in higher education and student affairs.

And I think to answer your question, my passion for working with college students does stem from the ability to work with activists and to work with community engagement and really understanding that college students, during that transformative time, is the opportunity for students to learn about these important issues and really find their voice, understanding that we can't get discouraged when something doesn't go our way immediately, but really being able to work towards that end common goal.

OBAMA: Fantastic. OK.

RAMUEL FIGUEROA, ROOSEVELT UNIVERSITY: Good morning, everyone. My name is Ramuel. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I am a U.S. Army veteran. I major in sociology with a minor in legal studies at Roosevelt University. Yes. I work as -- currently I'm a research assistant at Roosevelt University focusing on community based collaborative research projects. We've worked on projects ranging from landlord/tenant issues to youth leadership programs and currently we're working on a project about the day labor market in Chicago, the city of Chicago. It's a pleasure to be here, Mr. President.

OBAMA: Fantastic. Thank you.

DR. TIFFANY BROWN, PHARMACIST: Good morning. I'm Tiffany. I was raised on the south side of Chicago in a low income household. I graduated valedictorian from Burns Science (ph) Academy, in the top ten from Kenwood Academy. Broncos in the house. I graduated number one from Chicago State University with my bachelor in chemistry. And graduated from Chicago State a second time with my doctorate in pharmacy. Thank you. I'm -- I've currently been a community pharmacy manager on the south side of Chicago and -- for the past three years. And I'm also author of "Ten Tactics to Tackle Studying." It's the guide to elementary school, high school and undergraduate success.

[12:15:07] OBAMA: OK.

MAX FREEDMAN, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO: Hi. I'm -- I'm Max and you can see what they've made me follow now. I have been involved in civic engagement and civic life here at the University of Chicago through the Institute of Politics, which has been, you know, an absolute blessing and a fantastic resource to all of us. The summer after my first year here they gave stipends so that I think the number was 16 of us could go to Des Moines for the summer of 2015 to either work with certain press agencies or with campaigns. And I mean I think that was a really eye-opening experience in terms of having to campaign directly and how far you can move the needle by moving one vote in the caucus. I'll have more time on this later. I've also been involved on campus with student government and College Republicans.

OBAMA: Fantastic.

AYANNA WATKINS, KENWOOD ACADEMY HIGH SCHOOL: Hello, everyone. My name is Ayana Watkins. I'm the baby of the panel. I'm currently a senior at Kenwood Academy High School. And throughout my high school career, I've been involved in numerous student organizations, multiple sport teams, et cetera. And outside of high school I've been involved in a lot of community based organization to volunteer my time with the youth as well. And in the fall I will be attending Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, with multiple scholarships in my name and I'm also an entrepreneur, I would say, with my own clothing line.


HARISH PATEL, NEW AMERICA: Peace and blessings, y'all (ph). My name is Harish, Harish Patel, and I live on the northwest side of Chicago. I arrived as a proud immigrant around the age of 14 with my mom and sister from Gujarat (ph), India, and attended public schools and then went to the University of Illinois Chicago, both for my undergraduate studies and for my masters in urban planning and policy. After graduating, I did become an organizer with somebody in the audience I want to point out, Ramen Nashashibi (ph). He's been a mentor of mine. That experience sort of led me to run for office and most recently now I work for New America -- New America Chicago, I'm the deputy director here in Chicago, where we sort of do what we're doing today, we infuse new ideas, new voices in public policy conversations. So I'm really looking forward to this. Thank you.

OBAMA: Fantastic. Excellent.

All right, so, as you can see, we have an extraordinary group here of sharp young people. But you'd also notice that they kind of avoided my question. So -- but that's good because it tees up the next segment.

And I -- look, in the presidential election, you have maybe half of your peers voting. In midterm elections, about a third of your peers vote. I suspect that if you ask a lot of young people about a wide range of issues, regardless of where they sit ideologically, they would say, yes, I'm very concerned about the economy, I'm very concerned about foreign policy, I'm very concerned about this or that or the other. But a lot of them feel as if their involvement would not make a difference. It's not worth their time. And, in fact, they're discouraged but feel disempowered, right?

So all of you have already shown yourselves to be willing to get out there and be involved and to make a difference. And I'm curious as to what is it you think that prompted you to get involved in some fashion? And also when you talk to your friends, what is it that you think is preventing them from doing so that might make a difference?

And we don't have to go in order. So if anybody wants to start. Ayanna, I like that in you. Go ahead. WATKINS: So although I am in high school, you know, a lot of my peers -- so I'm a senior, so, of course, some of my peers were able to vote this year. But, overall, I'm grateful that I have the opportunity to take courses at Kenwood Academy -- you know, Kenwood Academy High School that involve political science. You know, we take African- American studies, et cetera, when not a lot of schools have that opportunity. So I would say awareness is something that holds a lot of our youth back from getting involved because I -- I'm privileged, so therefore I step up and I encourage others to get involved and to have a voice. But I think the youth feel like they don't have a voice. So that plays a huge factor as to why the results are the way they are, if that makes sense.

[12:20:38] OBAMA: Yes, no, it makes a lot of sense. Do you think that as you were coming up, you know, social studies, civic education, what kids are getting in the classroom would make a difference? Do you think that it would make more of a difference if young people had the opportunities to volunteer with organizations, to engage in community service? You know, what is it you think that would make the biggest difference in young people seeing, you know what, if I volunteer for this organization, I might make a difference in my community, or, if I participate on this issue, some -- somebody might hear my voice and it might actually make a difference? What do you think would be most effective in encouraging people?

WATKINS: So I feel like in order to encourage the youth, it involves to have a strong support system behind it to bring the youth up. So, for instance, in school, we are taught social studies, but we tend to focus on mathematics, science, English, you know, because that's what we're always brought up on because of tests, exams, et cetera. So social studies and civic education tends to be pushed to the side. So I feel like it should be encouraged in the school systems because the majority of our youth are in school, of course. And then, from there, build outside programs. So, you know, from there -- you know -- want to (INAUDIBLE)?

BROWN: Yes, so I agree.

OBAMA: Come on.

WATKINS: Come on.

BROWN: Yes. So I agree with Ayanna --

OBAMA: All right.

BROWN: Because since I went to Kenwood too, that was kind of the start of me getting my foot in the door to want to expand and do outside things. I think also funding after-school programs and summer programs because I had two to three jobs ever since eighth grade every summer because, one, you make money, you know, so --


BROWN: So that was one. But also to help my resume, help me get my feet wet, to allow me to see different opportunities, to see if I liked being a counselor, if I wanted to be a cheerleading coach, if I wanted to be a tutor. So just trying different things every summer helped me to kind of hone in as to what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And then after-school programs, too, the funding for that, it helps keep the kids off the street so hopefully in Chicago we'll have less violence since they'll have something to do. And then you're also enriching their lives, so in school and after school and also in the summer.

OBAMA: Fantastic. OK.


OBAMA: I'm sorry. The -- Kelsey, I know you -- didn't you work -- was it in the Bronx that you worked during the summer and what prompted you to -- first of all, describe what the experience was and then give us a sense of what inspired you to do something like that.

MCCLEAR: Yes. So I have been blessed at Loyola to be involved in their alternative Break Emersion Program, which is a program that sends students on trips over spring break, as well as winter break. So the spring break of my junior year of college I spent in the South Bronx working with an incredible group at an elementary school out there. We took a group of ten students and were really there kind of like a lot of what you all were saying, to enrich those students lives for the week that we were there.

I think what's so unique about the way we run this program at Loyola is we understand the privilege that we have to be welcomed into these communities. We are not there to support them. While we are supporting them, we are there to learn from them, to understand the experiences that these students are having, but really to understand just how wonderful so many of these young elementary school kids are.

I remember the principal at Immaculate Conception, which is the school that we were at, coming up to us at the end of the day and said, I hope you all realize that this is the only week out of the year the students get to finger paint because it is too messy with just one teacher in the room. It took having a lot of us there to make sure that they were able to do that. A very simple thing, but really goes to show the impact that young people can have in these communities.

OBAMA: Now, Ramuel, you were going to say something and obviously your service in the military is an example of public service that I think thankfully everybody now appreciates. That wasn't always the case. But what I discovered obviously was that once our veterans take off the uniform and they leave service, sometimes people forget how much talent is there and the need to tap in to the amazing young people that have served in our military so that they can work in the community and continue the leadership that they've shown while they were in the military. You've been able to make that transition, but talk a little bit about your mindset both when you went into the military and after you left, how did that change your perception in terms of your responsibilities to your community and how you might be able to make a difference.

[12:25:47] FIGUEROA: Well, when I joined the military, I joined six months out of high school. I was working full-time. I wasn't in school. I wasn't in college. Where I come from, being in college is a big deal. Graduating is an even bigger deal. But it's all about graduating high school, you know, get a job, do stuff like that.

And I was in the military and I realized there's so much more to that. And that I am being afforded this wonderful opportunity to engage with so many different people from all over the country, have so many different views, but we all share the same purpose -- the same goal. And I realized that if I wanted to make a larger contribution, I was going to have to go to school. And so that's what I did. I served my initial contract. I received an honorable discharge March 2014. I moved to Chicago in June 2014. I was in Roosevelt in August 2014.

And I didn't do it by myself. When I got out of the military, I was part of this program called Veterans Upward Bound. And it's a pre- college readiness program for veterans that need to brush up on their academic skills before they enter college. And that -- being a part of that literally saved me taking extra courses, remedial courses. So I benefited immensely from that.

And I was fortunate enough to get a research assistant position at Roosevelt and that really, like, that really got me going because I was working with different projects, youth, landlords. I mean it was -- it was amazing because like these are regular folks. And that's something I definitely wanted to get involved in.

And to answer your question about what I think is preventing youth, I believe that what we need to do, I believe that we need to connect personal issues -- personal problems with like public issues. I feel like sometimes, you know, you're working two jobs and you can't afford daycare, it's not because you're lazy. There's -- so if we can establish some sort of connection, demonstrate some sort of connection, and I'm really big on like collecting data and numbers and, listen, 80 percent of people are experiencing this in your community and you just don't know it yet. You just don't see it, but here's the numbers, here are the facts. So I believe that is a huge thing that we can do to help that.

OBAMA: Well, look, you're making a terrific point. One of the things that I learned when I was organizing, and this is true for I think a lot of young would be do gooders, you know, you show up in a neighborhood and your initial instinct is to tell people what they should be interested in. Instead of spending the first six months listening and finding out what they actually are interested in and then connecting -- you know, connecting their immediate needs to the policies that are having influence on those areas of concern. And, you know, the more that you can make concrete for people, the fact that the reason there aren't enough after-school programs is not just because they're impossible to set up, but have to do with budgets that -- and here are the people who are making the decisions about the budgets. And the reason that there's a lack of childcare is not because of, you know, you're the only single mom who needs childcare. Everybody needs childcare. But there aren't enough facilities in place with trained childcare providers and this is what a change in public policy could do to provide everybody support. [12:29:53] That's when you start bringing people together and their

voices are amplified because what's certainly true is one voice by itself rarely changes something. Two voices have a better shot.