Obama Foundation Annual Report 2018




Ana Maria Gonzalez-Forero had found her calling. As the Chief Sustainability Officer of a foundation in Colombia, she works with indigenous communities to help them understand their rights and ensure that any developments that are built on their land are designed inclusively and benefit everyone. Having witnessed so many development projects take advantage of the land and resources of the people who’d lived there for centuries, she wanted to ensure everyone had a seat at the table.

Thousands of miles away in London, fate set Fatima Zaman on a different but clear path. On July 7, 2005, she was sitting in class when she heard the explosions from bombs that killed 52 people, the result of a devastating terrorist attack. The immediate chaos was terrifying, but it was the aftershocks that rippled through her Muslim community— the mistrust that erupted, the radicalization that surfaced, the cohesion that began to wear away—that convinced her to become a counter-extremist.

The two young women both knew how they wanted to spend their careers. But they also wanted the experience and expertise needed to advocate for change at the highest level. So they dedicated a year of their lives to learning, reflecting, and refining their work as Obama Foundation Scholars.

Ana Maria and Fatima became two of our first class of 37 Obama Foundation Scholars, embarking on a course of graduate level education at either the University of Chicago or Columbia University in New York. The programs are designed to give rising leaders with a proven commitment to service the opportunity to hone their skills in the classroom and connect with experts outside of it through technical trainings, community engagement, and mentorship provided by the Obama Foundation.

Rather than offer them a typical school orientation, we invited our Scholars to Chicago for a week so they could develop their own sense of community with each other. The Scholars participated in workshops focused on storytelling, engaged in exercises to envision “the world as it should be,” beefed up their presentation skills through performances and public presentation work led by our friends at the Second City Theater, and sat for a conversation with President Obama.

After hearing from the President, we also offered them a literal chance to walk in his footsteps. We took them to breakfast at Valois restaurant, the President’s favorite greasy spoon while he was a law professor at the University of Chicago. We gave them a tour of Jackson Park, reliving its rich history as the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and examining the future site of the Obama Presidential Center. And we introduced them to two of President Obama’s earliest mentors, Reverend Alvin Love, who worked with a young Barack Obama in his earliest days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, and former President of the Illinois State Senate Emil Jones Jr., who supported his burgeoning political career as a State Senator.

Obama Foundation Scholars Alice Barbe and Mahmoud Abouelnaga present work they have done over their year with the program.

At the initial Chicago gathering, Scholar Patricia Conlu meets with her classmates.

But the most important part of the Scholar’s orientation was a day of service—37 community leaders from countries all over the world, all getting their hands dirty as they worked with local residents to clean up and beautify the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.

That spirit of service marked the tenure of the Scholars throughout their year in the program. Through organized dinners with local community members—and community outreach efforts they planned themselves—the Obama Foundation Scholars spent much of their school year working to improve their temporary homes. Bonaventure Dzekem, a medical doctor from Cameroon, led a community health workshop for Chicago’s African diaspora. And Stanley Ndambakuwa, who runs a community fund for education in Zimbabwe, hosted a conference on girls’ education with the Chicago YWCA.

Outside the classroom, the Scholars also gathered on a weekly basis to participate in technical trainings or speaker series. And they met again as a class for a November workshop to develop action plans that they have committed to implement once they return home.

They gathered again in Washington, D.C. in early March 2019 for another cohort-wide training and the chance to engage with development institutions and global leaders based in the nation’s capital who can help them propel their work forward after they graduate.

Now, as they approach the end of their year with us, Ana Maria, Fatima, Bonaventure, Stanley and the rest of the first class emerge ready to return to their home countries to approach complex global problems with an entirely fresh perspective, new networks, and a deeply rooted community that is committed to helping them achieve their vision for the world they would like to see.

Scholars Trisha Shetty and Alice Barbe help beautify Chicagoʻs South Side; Scholars gather for a selfie in front of the Lincoln Memorial on an educational trip to Washington, D.C.; President Obama addresses the Scholars during the program kickoff; A moment of connection between two Scholars after a gathering in Chicago

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