Obama White House alumni reflect on legacy as presidential center breaks ground

EXCLUSIVE: Former Obama administration officials celebrate the history-making moment in Chicago's southside and remember their 8 years of transformation and advancement of civil rights in the United States

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As the sounds of Steve Wonder’s Motown hit song, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” piped into the ceremony, Former President Barack Obama alongside former First Lady Michelle Obama and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and others, broke ground for the newest presidential center. 

After a lengthy legal process, the court mandated wait is over and ground was broken for the Obama Presidential Center on Tuesday. 

“The Obama Center is our way of repaying some of what this amazing city has given us,” President Obama said at the groundbreaking ceremony for the new presidential library that will be a place for community members to “gather, connect and learn” in the southside Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. 

“This center will be more than just Michelle’s ball gowns as I know everybody wants to see those,” added Obama jokingly. “This will be a center for young people to pick up the baton and change the world.”

The unique nature of Barack Obama’s presidency as the first Black person to assume the highest office in the United States will always place race and politics at the heart of his legacy. However, Obama administration alumni are celebrating the history of this moment remembering their 8 years of transformation and advancement of citizen rights in the United States with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (also coined Obamacare),same sex marriage and more.

The former president contends the location or the presidential center will offer a place for community leaders to solve today’s most pressing problems — voting rights, policing, climate change and more. 

Eric Holder, the Obama administration’s first U.S. attorney general emphasized that, for these reasons, Obama is ranked number nine among the former United States presidents for overall rankings among historians.

US President Barack Obama stands with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
US President Barack Obama stands with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. who announced his resignation today, September 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Holder, the first Black Attorney General of this nation told theGrio, “we tried to think about what is it that we want to do in our post-government lives, and we decided to focus on the problem of gerrymandering.”  

Holder, who chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, is working with the U.S. Census Bureau to help ensure fairness in redistricting, which is directly connected to the election process. According to Holder, “we don’t have to cheat in order to win.” 

He is equally as committed to advocating for voting rights and added, “critical to our democracy is the protection of the right to vote, both in terms of combating voter suppression and combating racial and partisan gerrymandering.”  

Holder insisted that he would have been just as passionate about carrying on the work even if his name were not linked to one of the most destructive Supreme Court decisions on voting rights, Shelby vs. Holder. 

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on September 02, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court voted 5-4 not to stop a Texas law that prohibits most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

At times, Holder and Obama looked as if they were in lockstep on various issues, but Holder reminded the wall was high to create a separation between the White House and the Obama Justice Department. 

During that time, the Obama administration also examined American policing. Holder compliments the administration for the “architecture” in building the first steps in police reform with a 21st-century approach.

In addition to its record on legislation and policy, the Obama White House was known for its distinguishing ability to connect with the American people and strike a more social cord in its pursuits to garner public support.

Deesha Dyer worked in the administration for seven years, and during its final two years, she served as the Obama administration’s social secretary. Dyer was present on that very last day of the Obama administration as she literally watched the transition to the next president from the North Portico of the White House when Donald Trump’s motorcade came to the front door of the ‘People’s House.’

Deesha Dyer, former Obama social secretary, theGrio.com
Deesha Dyer, former Obama White House social secretary. (Photo: Courtesy of Deesha Dyer)

Dyer remembers fondly one of her proudest moments in that role was bringing the elderly — many of whom played a role in building the nation and had never seen the White House — into the Executive Mansion. As social secretary, she especially wanted to give other Black people the opportunity to experience the White House. Dyer recalled pulling a Black Catholic choir that was around the corner from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to sing for Pope Francis during his historic White House visit. 

“The job was about the responsibility of [including] people who never thought they would see the day that they would walk through the doors,” Dyer told TheGrio. “Or even kids or anybody else or the choir that we had seen for Pope Francis with Saint Augustine’s Church, Black Catholics who probably never thought they’d be able to sing for the pope at the White House. 

That choir sang Richard Smallwood’s iconic gospel song “Total Praise” on the South Lawn for the pope.

“It was for those Black Catholics who had never seen as much as other race Catholics,” Dyer added. “I was like, you know, I’m bringing you in.”

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and first Lady Michelle Obama (L) wave from the balcony with Pope Francis
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and first Lady Michelle Obama (L) wave from the balcony with Pope Francis (C) in an arrival ceremony at the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Dyer said her work from that historic era continues as she along with other women alumni of the Obama administration are funding scholarships for women to get into politics.

Another champion of women for the Obama White House, Valerie Jarrett, explained the foundation’s vision for the center and reflected on her memories with TheGrio.

Jarrett, who was a senior advisor to President Obama and now serves as president of the Obama Foundation, told TheGrio, “part of what we want to do with this president [and] with the presidential center is to inspire that next generation of leaders” with “the same level of resilience and character and integrity and determination and authenticity and inclusive spirit and equip them with the skills that they need to go out and change the world.”

Reflecting on her time in the Obama White House, Jarrett told TheGrio, “I pinched myself every day for eight years … and I think I’m glad I was old enough to know this was an amazing privilege to serve serve a president who I not only respect and love, but who I thought was the perfect person for the job at that moment in time.”

President Barack Obama (R) hugs First Lady Michelle Obama in the Red Room while Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett
In this handout provide by the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama (R) hugs First Lady Michelle Obama in the Red Room while Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett (L) smiles prior to the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) at the White House on March 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

Jarrett added, “to have the relationship that I have with both he and his wife I know was unusual and gave me a ringside seat and an ability to participate in a way that I would never have dreamed of as a young person. So it kind of shows the infinite possibilities.”

Before the groundbreaking, former President Obama and former First Lady Obama connected with students, known Obama Scholars, in Chicago. They also connected with Obama White House alumni like Ashlee Davis, who now works as a vice president and senior diversity inclusion manager.

Davis, a Howard University graduate, told TheGrio that she connects her current life’s work with the work she did during the Obama years.

“I hope and pray that I’ve been getting into some good necessary trouble … it’s what President Obama is urging us to do as well,” said Davis. Recalling what the former president often says on their alumni calls, Davis said “he’s incredibly proud of the work that we continue to push in our local and national communities.”

Obama White House alumni like Ashlee Davis, theGrio.com
Obama White House alumni like Ashlee Davis. (Photo: Courtesy of Ashlee Davis)

Davis, who was specifically identified by Obama staff alumni to chat with the president before the groundbreaking, is a model of what the Obama administration promoted and worked for — those who were traditionally left behind.

As a queer Black woman from the South, HBCU graduate and member of the historically Black Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Davis places identity and diversity at the core of what the Obama Center will offer to residents in the Southside of Chicago.

“Whether that’s police brutality, women’s rights, that of our trans brothers and sisters who are being murdered in the streets, we have to come together and we can’t be one issue focused here,” Davis added, “and that goes for all of our coalition.” 

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