Former U.S. President Barack Obama returned to public life Monday, urging young people in his adopted hometown of Chicago to be activists in their communities, much like he was before running for political office.
On a sunny spring morning at the University of Chicago campus, Obama told an audience that as a community organizer three decades ago in Chicago, he learned that "ordinary people, when working together, can do extraordinary things," a lesson "that stayed with me."
The 44th U.S. president moderated a panel of young people made up of a high school senior, college students and recent graduates working in their fields of study, saying he hoped to "help and prepare the next generation to take up the baton and take on the world." He said such pressing problems of income inequality, climate change and unfairness in the criminal justice system are "serious, they're daunting, but they're not insoluble."
Emma Finkbeiner, a public relations and advertising graduate student at DePaul University in Chicago, sat in the audience of more than 500 at the packed Logan Center for the Arts auditorium. Finkbeiner, who works in community and government relations at DePaul, said the talk was “really encouraging.”
“I think a lot of conversations happen about our generation and about young people without us, and so him including young people and taking so much time to just talk about how we can be more civically engaged and encourage our peers to do the same really said something about what he cares about.”
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Obama has stayed out of the public eye since leaving office three months ago, ignoring the political controversies of Washington. Obama, a Democrat, derided his successor, real estate mogul turned Republican politician Donald Trump, during last year's national election campaign as unfit to assume the presidency, but Obama has declined to offer any commentary on Trump's performance since he took over the White House.
Illinois Institute of Technology international student and architecture major Naila Opiangah of Gabon said Obama’s pitch for engaging people of different opinions and hearing from the lone Republican on the panel made the discussion “so much more beautiful.”
“Not just because I’m from another country, but also because I’m really into politics and a lot of people might consider me a liberal. I’m also always willing to talk with other people and to see that President Obama was reinforcing that idea that I was kind of leaning towards since November 8th [election day 2016], it was really, really a great experience for me.”
As he greeted people at the University of Chicago, where he once taught law school classes and where his presidential library is planned, he joked, "What's been going on since I've been gone?" But he offered no thoughts on Trump's often controversial early months in office.
After the talk, Ayanna Watkins, the youngest panelist and a senior at Kenwood Academy High School in the university’s neighborhood, called the former president’s interest in young people “rare.”
“It was genuine. He’s actually trying to sit down and discuss matters, and from there create solutions for the problems, which many adults and people of power don’t do for the youth. So that was something that was very influential overall; that he’s actually trying to ask my opinion.”
While staying out of the public eye, Obama has spent time on vacation with his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama. He was spotted kitesurfing at airline titan Richard Branson's Caribbean island retreat in February. More recently, the Obamas spent time aboard the luxury yacht of film studio magnate David Geffen in French Polynesia, alongside rock star Bruce Springsteen, actor Tom Hanks and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
Both Obamas also signed multi-million-dollar deals to write their memoirs.
The former president first ran for political office in Chicago, elected as an Illinois state senator. The event program said the town hall-style meeting Monday is part of Obama's "post-presidency goal to encourage and support the next generation of leaders driven by strengthening communities around the country and the world."
At the end of the heavily attended panel discussion Monday, Obama said he was “excited to see what [all those present] do in the future.”
In the coming weeks, Obama is accepting a Profile in Courage Award in Boston, giving private paid speeches in the U.S. and Europe and attending an event in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.