“I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.”
January 10, 2022 10:00 AM
Five years ago today, President Obama returned to Chicago to continue a presidential tradition that dates back more than 200 years to George Washington: the farewell address.
The speech offered President Obama a chance to reflect on his eight years in office and the challenges that lay ahead. But the President’s central message that night was the idea that first brought him to Chicago as a young organizer more than 30 years earlier — when ordinary people band together and get involved, they have the power to make change.
In his address, the President spoke about the need for people to show up, dive in, and recognize the power of their own voice to make a difference for democracy to function. That idea forms the core of our work at the Obama Foundation, which launched just 10 days later. It also informs the approach we’re taking to build the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side, which is set to become the world’s premier institution for developing the next generation of civic leaders and bring economic investment to support thousands of jobs in neighboring communities.
To mark the anniversary of the farewell address, here are a few of the people we’ve gotten to know over the past five years who embody the spirit of the President’s remarks both in Chicago and around the world.
Tiana Epps-Johnson, 2018 Class of Obama Fellows
The United States has one of the lowest rates of voter turnout in the developed world, with an electoral system spread across over 8,000 separate jurisdictions. That’s why Obama Fellow Tiana Epps-Johnson started the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that provides technology and data to help election administrators at the state and local level make it easier for people to cast a ballot.
Since her time as a Fellow, Tiana has continued to grow CTCL. In the midst of a pandemic that upended many voters’ plans to head to the polls, her organization established a COVID-19 Response Grant program that sent more than $350 million to over 2,500 election departments, to help cover costs like temporary staffing, election technology, and personal protective equipment.
Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya, Obama Administration Alumni
Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya met in New Hampshire while working on the 2008 Obama campaign. When Brian was unexpectedly diagnosed with ALS in 2017, they put their organizing experience to work, partnering with other ALS advocates and Obama alumni to start I AM ALS, a patient-led, patient-centric movement to find a cure for ALS and other diseases.
In the years since, they’ve grown the movement to accelerate research that will develop new treatments and cures. Just last month, the Accelerating Access to Critical Therapies for ALS Act was signed into law, devoting $100 million annually to ALS research and therapies. In signing the law, President Biden credited Brian and Sandra’s leadership with getting us closer than ever to finding a cure for ALS.
Consuela Hendricks, Chicago Community Leader
In 2017, Consuela Hendricks came to an Obama Field Day Training in Chicago. One year later, she became a member of the inaugural Community Leadership Corps, an Obama Foundation program to train future community leaders. Then she put those skills to work, co-founding People Matter, a community organization devoted to raising the voices of community members in neighborhoods across the South and West sides of Chicago.
Last year, when community residents needed more local COVID-19 testing sites, they partnered with the Illinois Department of Public Health to host three testing sites across Chicago’s Chinatown, Pilsen, and Bronzeville neighborhoods. They wrapped up 2021 having provided 800 meals to those in need, organized nearly 300 Chinatown residents around housing advocacy, trained nearly 200 Black, Latinx, and Chinese residents in leadership, and gave out over $13,000 in direct housing assistance to Chicago residents facing eviction.
Alice Barbe, 2018-2019 Obama Scholar, Columbia University
Alice Barbe, a French social entrepreneur, came to the United States as part of the 2018-2019 Obama Scholar class. In New York she had the chance to meet other civic leaders from around the world and receive guidance and mentorship directly from Obama Administration Alumni on how to target her efforts moving forward.
As a result of that experience, Alice was inspired to return to France and create a new non-partisan organization that trains young activists to run for elected office or enter politics. The Academy of Future Leaders launched late last year and Alice is currently supporting their first class.
Juan Carlos Monterrey-Gómez, 2018-2019 Obama Scholar, University of Chicago
Juan Carlos Monterrey-Gómez started seeing the impact of climate change as a young man growing up in El Pájaro, a small rural area in Panama, where droughts became more and more frequent. After being part of the inaugural 2018-2019 University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholars class, he returned to Panama where he focused his efforts on a constitutional reform effort related to climate change and founded his new NGO Climate Resilient.
In fall 2021, he was named head of the Panamanian delegation to COP26 in Glasgow, where President Obama met with him and other young leaders on the front lines of the climate crisis last November.
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