On Tuesday, September 28, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined President and Mrs. Obama at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center. Check out former First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks below.
Well, let me just say, that – Zell, you are amazing, girl. You are my mini me, and you are making me feel under dressed. I am so proud of you. I am so excited to have been introduced by another “girl from the South Side." Just keep doing you. This is why we are here. We’re so very proud of you.
And I want to thank everyone for joining us to celebrate this special milestone, as we are thrilled to be back in the city that we call “home.” You know, I’ve done a lot in my lifetime. I’ve earned a couple of degrees, I had a short but meaningful career in the law, I worked in city government, I’ve run a small nonprofit.
I’ve met and married the love of my life. I have birthed and raised two amazing, now young women. I’ve had the profound honor of serving as our nation’s First Lady, where I’ve traveled the world. I’ve dined with heads of state, kings, and queens. I’ve shaken hands with two popes. But here’s the thing. No matter what I’ve accomplished, who I’ve met, or where I’ve gone, one of the greatest honors of my life is being a proud Chicagoan, a daughter of the South Side.
I still lead with that descriptor. I wear it boldly and proudly, like a crown. See, to my mind, this great city, this neighborhood, it courses through my veins. It defines me at my core. It makes me who I am.
To this day, the experiences I had growing up in this city and in this neighborhood, all the lessons I learned from in this special place, they shape my values and guide my actions to this day.
So, I’m not just a daughter from the South Side, but a mother from the South Side, a lawyer, an executive, an author from the South Side. I am a First Lady from the South Side of Chicago, and that is why this project is so incredibly important to me and my husband. It allows us to live out one of those values we learned, right here, and that is to give back something big and important and meaningful to the community that has given us so much.
So, for us, the Obama Presidential Center means a lot more to us than just creating a space to house memories from our eight years in the White House. This investment, this substantial investment in the South Side will help make the neighborhood, where we call home, a destination for the entire world. But more importantly, this project, as the governor and mayor have said, will be a vital resource for the people who live here.
The OPC will be a place where folks can find work, where kids can learn and grow and envision bigger lives for themselves, where families can take a walk and ride a bike or have a reunion in the grass, where everyone can find calm and beauty and peace and safety.
See, when I was a little girl, even younger than Zell, growing up here on the South Side, we didn’t have a lot of places like this in our own backyard. I remember that whenever me, my mom, dad and my brother wanted to do something special, to see art, to hear music, take in a new museum exhibit, we had to get in my dad’s Buick 225, take Jeffery Boulevard to Lake Shore Drive and head north to go downtown.
And even as a child, I understood this disparity. I understood that whenever there was a huge investment of resources in the city, a new park or infrastructure improvements, or any other beautification effort, it just rarely in our neighborhood.
Now, we did have the Museum of Science and Industry, one of my favorite museums on the planet by the way, and we had that right here in Jackson Park. But the park itself? Well, for the most part, it didn’t call us in. It didn’t always feel like a place for kids like me.
Too often, this gorgeous park felt like something to drive through or go around to get somewhere else. And as I grew up and left my neighborhood to attend Whitney Young, I gained greater exposure to this magical city, riding hours, and I mean hours, every day, back and forth on the Number 6 Jeffery Express, I was able to see more of what Chicago had to offer, but I continued to ask myself, why didn’t we have more places to gather and connect in our neighborhood? Why didn’t our part of town draw people from around the world, just like Grant Park or Navy Pier or the Art Institute. Why wasn’t there more investment in us?
So, when it came time to decide where we’d build the OPC, Barack and I knew this was a unique opportunity to change that narrative, to help elevate the way kids, like me and like Zell, felt about their neighborhoods and, in turn, about themselves. Because this center is not about us. It’s about the generations that came before us, the folks who did the heavy lifting, the ones who made Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama possible.
It’s about reimagining this beautiful park. It’s about making it a place that welcomes people in, and not just folks from around the world, but families like mine who live right down the street. It’s also about supporting the existing restaurants, stores, the neighborhood organizations, the schools and churches that are the lifeblood of this community, and therefore the life blood of this city and this state.
And not so long from now, when we come back here to replace these shovels with a big pair of scissors to open up this center – and I long for that day, I can’t wait for that day – we will walk through a world-class museum. We will stroll down the beautiful, redesigned pathways. We will open up a playground with a state-of-the-art jungle gym for kids to climb on. And best of all, for me, is that we will look out and see a big sledding hill for kids to slide down when it snows, which it still does a lot of here, something that I always dreamed about when I was a little girl.
That’s what this is about. All the hoopla, the lights, the temporary inconveniences, it’s about giving a little something back to the place that we absolutely, truly love, because to me, this doesn’t feel so much like building something new. It feels like we’re helping to reveal what has always been here.
So, I want to thank you all for joining us today, for supporting this project, to everyone who is doing the hard work of making this possible, for honoring this park and this corner of town, and making sure that it is seen and felt for generations to come. We can’t wait to see this place come to life.
Thank you all so much.