Q: WHY DID YOU COME TO CHICAGO?
LOST INTERVIEW FROM 1994 WITH YOUNG BARACK OBAMA
Obama: (00:00) I had just gotten out of college. I was at Columbia University in New York. And Harold Washington had just been elected in 1983. And I was very much interested in seeing what could be done in terms of the inner city, what the possibilities were for progressive politics in the black community and Chicago was the most exciting thing going on at the time. : 28
So I hooked up with a church based community organization out on the far south side, called Developing Communities Project and ended up directing their organizing efforts for about 4 years. I guess. :42
We were involved in range of things. We worked on setting up job training programs in the community, we set up counseling programs to get them into college. We set up projects where people would clean up their streets, remove vacant buildings, a whole range of different community issues that really taught me a lot about the both the possibilities and the problems that confronted the black community in Chicago. (1:14)
So I consider that one of my best decisions coming to Chicago originally, and I have stayed there ever since, (although in the interim I went to law school. (1:24)
Q: TALK ABOUT PROJECT VOTE!
(1:30) The way that came up, I had just graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991 and I had been fortunate enough to get a contract to write a book. A series of essays about civil rights law and some personal reflections about the situation of African Americans in Africa, since my father was from Kenya. He has passed away now. (1:55) So, I was in the middle of writing this book when I got a call from a person named Sandy Newman who directed a national organization called Project Vote. And they were very eager to have me direct their voter registration effort in Chicago. (2:13)
Project Vote nationally is geared to registering minority and low-income voters. The idea being that people can only impact the major decisions that are effecting low income and minority communities if they are participating in the political system. And historically, the African American community and low-income communities tend to be under-registered. 2:32. I was interested but because I had this commitment to write this book I initially declined, but two or three weeks later Carol Mosley Braun won the nomination for the Democratic senate nominee. At that point I realized that this presented an opportunity in Illinois to enfranchise and engage a lot of American voters who had previously not been involved. So as a consequence, I agreed to take some time off from the book I was writing, much to the dismay of my publishers, and decided to head up the Project Vote effort all the way through the general election in November. (3:22)
: WHY DO YOU THINK YOU WERE ABLE TO REGISTER THE VOTERS THAT YOU DID?
That’s right, we ended up registering close to 150,000 voters, and I guess I think there were number of factors were at work. First of all I think it was a critical election. Not only did you have Carole Mosley Braun as the first African American senator from Illinois, and the only one in the senate generally. But you also had a major threshold election taking places where the Democrats had the opportunity to challenge Republicans for the White House, and although Project Vote was a non partisan effort, we did feel, was that given that both parties anticipated a close election, the interest and the concern and the enthusiasm and energy the that could be generated out a close presidential contest was going to make registration easier. So that was a major factor.
The second thing that I think had a major impact was the participation of the black business community in the city as well as the participation of the black media outlets in the city. We had major support from a number of black business in the area, particularly Soft Sheen products, Mr. Gary Gardner, the president and his fathered Gardner his sister Terri Gardner, were all extremely supportive. They designed a terrific media campaign with beautiful posters and buttons. They were able to negotiate with the major radio stations like DCI and VON to really drum up a lot of support for voter registration. So I think that in addition to making the point that politics effected people lives on the street, we were also able to reach out to young people and show that registration was hip, was popular, and was trendy. And though you’d like to think that folks would register because it’s their civic duty, in the media age like this you really have to appeal to young people where they are. And I think that’s what Soft Sheen and Brainstorm and the media stations helped us do. (5:51)
VOTER TURNOUT HIGH?
(5.55) You know, I think there is the old story, when America is sick, black folks have
pneumonia. And I think there is a general trend for Americans to remove themselves from the political process. We are all very cynical about politicians, about politics about Washington. And I think that since black folks are suffering even more than the general population, more anxious, their lives are unstable, what that means we are even more cynical and more skeptical about the political progress. So I think this is an ongoing problem. The key components to keeping voter participation up and political participation up is for leadership to assert itself and make clear to the general population that politics does matter, that very concrete life choices are effected by what happens in Washington, D.C., or Springfield or the city council That it can make a difference in terns of a benefits check, it can make a difference in terms of school funding and that citizens can’t just remove themselves from that process they actually have to engage themselves and not just leave it to the professionals. (7:26) Whether it’s participation in voting. Participation through community organizations or what have you, that we’ve got to get involved if we are going to make a difference. And that’s an up hill battle and I think the bu on all the political leadership in the black community to operate with clarity and integrity to make that message clear at the grass roots level. (7:51)
Q: TELL ME THE ABOUT THE BOOK THAT YOU ARE WORKING ON.
It’s actually changed quite a bit. Originally it was going to be very much an academic book, focusing on civil rights laws and civil rights policy and how it’s changed going into the 21st century. As I wrote it, it ended up becoming much more of a personal reflection on what it means for me to be an African American and what my relationship is to this community and to Africa. And a reflection on my father, in particular, who I didn't know very well and who passed away quite a while ago. It ended up being a reflection on what it means to be a black man in America and issues of fatherhood and issues of how we can be strong and respectful and keep our families together. So it’s ended up becoming more of a personal reflection on men and families and what that means for the black community. (9:11). So hopefully it will be finished in the next couple of months and in the meantime I am still working on my law practice. (9:20)
Q: WHAT TYPE OF LAW DO YOU PRACTICE?
Well, the firm that I work with focuses on a variety of civil rights work. We take on a lot of voting rights cases, we do a lot of employment discrimination cases. We also represent a lot of not for profits in the city, community organizations, church groups who are doing a range of different and ex citing projects, building low income housing, how to create black businesses in the community so we represent them, essentially acting as their commercial lawyers. And so it’s a terrific practice insofar that it relates to what my previous interests were. There is a continuity with the work that I did with Project Vote, with the work that I did as an organizer that originally brought me to Chicago, and the work that I am doing now as an attorney (10:23) And so I’m very excited about it.
Q: DO YOU HAVE ANY PLANS TO RUN FOR POLITICAL OFFICE?
Not at the moment. I have only been married a year, so I need to spend a lot of time with my wife, and hopefully that will continue, that’s a pleasure I am still working at my law practice. I teach a course at the University of Chicago on civil rights law. That keeps me pretty busy; I have a real full plate at the moment. My general view about politics and running for office, if you end up being fortunate enough to have the opportunity to serve, it’s because you have a track record of service in the community And I think right now I am still building p that track record and if a point comes when I think I can do more good in a political office than doing the things that I am doing now, then I might think about it, but that time is certainly in the future.
Description: 1994 interview with young Barack Obama
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