After her inspiring day on campus with President Obama, we caught up with University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholar Mara Heneghan. As an economic justice advocate, it was a day that expanded her perspective on how misinformation is creating barriers to her work and the importance of meeting people where they are.
Growing up in a large Irish family, where you always knew there was someone you could rely on, led UChicago Obama Scholar Mara Heneghan to pursue a career in public service. As Mara puts it, “Some combination of doing good work and making sure that I was helping others have that same sense of security and community that I had felt growing up really called me.”
It’s a passion that led Mara to work in local government creating and implementing policies that promote economic justice. As the recent Director of Policy in the Office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Mara was integral to launching the nation’s largest publicly funded guaranteed income pilot program—providing unrestricted monthly payments to residents for more than a year.
“I believe that the unconditional part of guaranteed income really gives people agency. It goes against the stereotype that the government knows best what resources people living in poverty need.”
In Mara’s work, building community trust and getting crucial information to the people who will most benefit from guaranteed income is critical. But in an era where there’s an increasing lack of trust in institutions and information sources, that can be more challenging than ever. That’s where Mara’s work intersects with a critical issue for President Obama.
President Obama came to the University of Chicago to participate in the Institute of Politics’ Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy conference. But before taking the stage for his keynote discussion, President Obama spent some time with Mara’s UChicago Obama Scholars cohort.
“The day of the event, we all were feeling a lot of excitement. I tried to take some time in the morning to remind myself of all of the connections I see between my work and what I knew we were going to talk about regarding disinformation and democracy.”
At the roundtable, Mara was able to get the President’s perspective on the challenges she personally faces in trying to meet people where they are. “His advice was to make sure we are finding sources of information that communities trust. If you can build a relationship with these trusted sources, they can help you have an entrance into that community. And that can be in person or digital.”
After an inspiring session, the Scholars were off to attend the President’s keynote—where the conversation expanded to the global threat misinformation is having on democracies and the responsibility that tech and media have in both creating, and solving, the problem.
“One of his remarks talked about how we need to build new ways of civic engagement in the digital space. And that really resonated with me. There are benefits to tech and there are benefits to being able to spread information quickly—we see that in protest movements around the country.”
But for Mara, one of the best parts of this inspiring day was the opportunity to share the experience with her fellow Scholars. Ending it at one of their favorite campus spots, the group reflected on their day together. “We thought about what it meant for our work. It was really nice to be able to have time with just us. And it’s funny to walk into a local bar dressed up in the outfit you had just worn to meet the President.”
After nearly a full academic year together, this felt like a culminating moment. Mara first applied to the UChicago Obama Scholars program because she was seeking community. What she found is a diverse network of changemakers and friends that has broadened her perspectives and deepened her passions.