Why the Obama library needs a community benefits agreement

Obama library site

Photo by José Alejandro Córcoles

The Obama Presidential Center will be located in Jackson Park, across the street from Hyde Park High School, on the South Side of Chicago.

For the first time since the 2016 election, former President Barack Obama returned to the campaign trail recently to court voters for Democratic candidates. Sadly, at the same time, he’s been letting down his own earliest Chicago supporters.

The let-down came during a recent public meeting about the Obama Presidential Center, planned for the South Side in historic Jackson Park. Speaking via video, Obama dismissed the idea of a community benefits agreement to ensure that jobs and economic development sparked by the center benefit those of us who already live in the community. Brushing aside an idea that has gained traction among thousands of black residents raises questions about Obama’s commitment to low-income and working-class black families–and frankly, the validity of the Obama Foundation’s leadership summit that the former president is hosting here on October 31st.

From the moment the president announced the location, our community expressed overlapping perspectives: general excitement and extreme concern. Excitement because of what the center could bring in terms of quality-of-life improvements; and extreme concern about ramping up the relentless gentrification that has helped force some 200,000 black Chicagoans out of the city since 2000.

Given Chicago’s troubled racial history and Obama’s strong relationship to the city, we need a written guarantee that the partners developing his library will invest in bettering our lives, not accelerating our departure.

While Obama urged residents to “trust” him, we have good reason to want his assurances in writing. Our betrayed trust in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was so highly endorsed by Obama, has left us disappointed and distrustful of the former president. City policies started by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and accelerated under Emanuel have demolished public housing, transformed affordable housing into market-rate condominiums and jump-started investment in infrastructure and amenities to attract affluent newcomers.

Take historic Bronzeville. A two-bedroom apartment here rents for $1400—out of reach for many working families. So many schools have closed that parents had to stage a hunger strike to save the last open-enrollment, neighborhood high school. Promises to create quality, affordable housing have fallen short. Not surprisingly, many former residents have fled to the suburbs, northwest Indiana or even the Quad Cities in Iowa.

Residents of Bronzeville, South Shore, Woodlawn, Washington Park and other neighborhoods formed the Obama Center Community Benefits Coalition and have heard overwhelming support for the idea among thousands of people. The Obama Foundation, however, has done everything it could to avoid respectful engagement with the coalition. They formed a “shadow” community group, with several members who have questionable reputations in our community. They passed us off to Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th Ward), who has refused to support the coalition in public meetings.

Finally, after we staged a sleepover in front of the Hyatt Hotel the day before the September 15 public meeting, the foundation agreed that one of our representatives could ask the first question when President Obama appeared via Skype. When she asked why he didn’t support a benefits agreement, he responded that they are often viable solutions—but not in this case.  He said community groups would scramble for contracts, and implied any agreement would lead to abuse. He told the adoring crowd of hundreds to trust him, and that he would make sure that residents were supported.

It is deeply disappointing that he chose a condescending, “we know better than you” response to a coalition of reputable, community-based groups. This tone was like fingernails on a chalkboard and I, unannounced, approached the mic so that our representative would not be alone.  A short but necessary argument ensued between me and the former president. I am a proud member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Chicago’s oldest black-led, grassroots community group, and he needed to know we are not scrambling for contracts. We seek an ordinance protecting residents’ interests. We need assurances and accountability in writing, not just verbal promises.

The irony is, we want to trust him. One of my (now 8-year old) son’s first phrases was “Barack Obama.” As black people, we wholeheartedly supported President Obama.  I shed a tear at an election party in 2008, and marveled at how he and the first lady moved with such grace and dignity in a Washington that did not support him because of the color of his skin. He was my state senator. He spoke at the 2003 convention of KOCO, where I was then board president, as he was running for the U.S. Senate. From that moment, we rejoiced at his ascension to leader of the free world.

Unfortunately, the people who supported him the most, not only in Chicago but in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, Oakland, Newark, and New Orleans, continue to suffer through state-sanctioned, manufactured misery and the sabotage of community institutions. We as black Americans are being purged from major American cities, and this disruption of our lives, political power and history is met with a deafening silence from our first black president.  We pay taxes, too. The return on that investment should not be removal, but the support that every American should expect from their government.

A CBA for the Obama Presidential Center can be a model for other cities of how to invest in, not expel, working-class and low-income families.  This would be change we can believe in.

  • Stop giving away public land and public assets to billionaires. The funders/donors surrounding the Obama Center are billionaires. Why do they get priceless public land for free? Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the WORLD and yet the city wants to throw land and AT LEAST $650 million at him (+ another $ 2 billion from state). Trickle down economics has not worked, does not work. Will not work. We need MORE public assets and services. How to pay for them? Go to http://www.wearenotbroke.org for $5 BILLION in progressive revenue solutions for Chicago. All of these ideas are in place right now SOMEWHERE in the USA!

  • Buster

    Waiting for the government to provide “community benefits” is the trap many South and West Side groups step in. Community groups are often organized, or taken over, to march people into dead ends. The path to success can only be walked by the individual, start walking.