President Barack Obama on Tuesday invoked a time-tested message on the virtues of productive social activism and idealism to a group of mostly Black college students. Obama, who has fewer than 100 days left in the White House, paraphrased Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s visionary presidential campaign theme from 1968:
“Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not.”
With that semi-pep talk, the president drove home the point that, although he soon will leave the Oval Office, he expects young folk and the generations to come to make a positive difference in our society. Once a youthful and idealistic community organizer himself, a reflective Obama told the students: “It’s young people who drive change and progress.”
Obama was speaking during a special town hall meeting titled “A Conversation With the President: Sports, Race and Achievement” on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University. The meeting focused largely on national issues facing Black communities as well as historically Black colleges and universities, of which N.C. A&T is a member. The forum was sponsored by The Undefeated, a micro-site sponsored by ESPN that launched on May 17, 2016, with a mission statement to focus on the intersection of sports, race and culture.
As Obama implored the students to get involved in something larger than their own personal lives, he also iterated that he and First Lady Michelle Obama will continue to help them and others after his presidency. Michelle launched her “Let Girls Learn” initiative in March 2015; the president launched his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative in February 2014, seven months after the highly publicized verdict that acquitted George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager.
“My Brother’s Keeper” was designed to help reduce the life-achievement gap that haunts many young boys and men of color as well as give them alternatives to the street life, the criminal justice system and destructive behavior. Emphasizing community mentoring and improved educational access to such paths as STEM, high-tech coding and entrepreneurial pursuits, MBK programs have been set up in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and 19 Tribal Nations.
Monetary aid for MBK has more than doubled to $600 million since its first-year anniversary because of private-sector support and philanthropic grants, the White House noted. And more than 80 percent of the recommendations the MBK Task Force—chaired by Broderick D. Johnson who attended the N.C. A&T event Tuesday—sent to the president in 2014 have been completed or are on track for completion.
Obama said, with the help of programs such as MBK, the economy could grow by an additional 2 percent if people of color gained a full stake alongside White folk in employment and educational opportunities in the United States.
“Two percent doesn’t seem like a lot,” the president explained, “but it would mean trillions of dollars of additional wealth for everybody.
“So if they’re unemployed or underemployed, if they’re in prison, that is bad for all of us, not just for them.”
At that point, ESPN anchor Stan Verrett, a Howard University graduate who served as moderator for the forum, interjected: “So this isn’t a people of color challenge; it is an American challenge.”
The forum mostly featured students asking questions of the president, including one from Nhawndie Smith, an admitted soldier with a social conscience who inquired about foreseeable changes in police tactics in the Black community. In response, Obama spoke of his President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that submitted recommendations for reform in 2015, led by Charles Ramsey, former police chief in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
“They put together a report that outlined some concrete steps to be taken,” Obama said. “When you look at police shootings, you should have an independent investigation. There also should be training in de-escalation. We’ve been trying to get cities and sheriff’s offices around the country to adopt these recommendations.”
Sam Hunt, a redshirt junior basketball player at N.C. A&T, asked the president to name the athletes he most admired in the realm of those striving for a higher cause than sports. Obama chose two polar opposites: the loud and bombastic Muhammad Ali and the soft-spoken and bespectacled Arthur Ashe. But as the president indicated, “Yet both of them were transformational figures.”
That was their common bond.
Obama also spoke of inducing change through grassroot movements with cogent and articulate goals in mind, regardless of the method. “Some people may say it’s about the protest,” he stated. “Others may say it’s time to mentor. My advice is that it’s not one way to bring about change.
“What I tell young people is not to criticize other people and how they are doing it. Focus on what you can do, how you can make an impact.”
When Obama faced a query about financial budgetary issues severely affecting HBCUs—a situation that critics have often alleged that the Obama administration has done little to address—he said to check state governments first and then vote in state elections. “The reason college debt has gotten higher and college costs have gotten higher is because states have cut their budgets for higher education,” the president said. “And it’s only so much that the federal government can make up (to bridge college budget shortfalls).”
Obama added that his administration has increased federal funding to HBCUs to more than $4 billion per year and Pell grants from $523 million in 2007 to $824 million in 2014. “This isn’t a political forum, but if you are concerned about HBCUs, then you had better vote,” he said. “If you don’t vote, then you will not have any say in the decisions that are made in state capitals or in Congress about the kind of support that you receive. You don’t have to be an engineering major to figure out the math on this one.”
N.C. A&T produces more Black engineers than any school in the nation. It also is home for the “Greensboro Four,” the four A&T students who tried to desegregate the Whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counters in February 1960 during the Jim Crow era. The four freshmen’s determined desire to achieve racial equality in the then-segregated South has been honored with a statue erected in front of Dudley Memorial Building on the A&T campus.
In a story titled “The Big Obama Exit Interview,” renowned presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reported for the November issue of “Vanity Fair” magazine that the president intimated that his own activist persona will be revealed once he leaves 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
He told Goodwin that there are “things that in some ways I suspect I’m able to do better out of this office.” He added that, because of the “institutional constraints” of the White House, “there are things I cannot say.”
An unshackled Post-Presidency Obama, needless to say, should be most interesting, indeed. No Republicans to obstruct his wishes; no Congress to veto his ideas.
However, on Tuesday during The Undefeated town hall meeting, Obama seemed gleeful as he talked about a little R&R come Jan. 20, 2017, saying:
“I’m going to sleep for two weeks and then I’m going to take Michelle on a really nice vacation, because she deserves it. She’s been putting up with me for quite some time. And then we’re going to continue to work on the issues we care deeply about. Most prominently, we’re going to be interested in figuring out how we can develop the next generation of leaders.”
Like those bright-eyed students at HBCUs, such as North Carolina A&T.