On November 4, 2008, the United States elected Barack Obama as America's first black president.
Nearly nine years later and out of office, Obama has returned to two questions he asked himself decades ago while in college: "How can I have an impact?" and "How can I make a difference?"
On November 1, Obama hosted the first Obama Foundation Summit. Over 500 rising and established civic leaders from around the country and the world arrived in Obama's hometown of Chicago for a two-day series of talks and panels.
In a speech during the opening session, Obama said it was while he was in college that he "began to develop a social conscience."
"Or at least, all those values that my mother had whispered in my ear started to come back to me," he said.
He listed three of those values that his mom had shared with him:
- Be kind and be useful and caring about people who are less fortunate than you
- Be a peacemaker rather than an instigator
- Try to lift people up instead of putting them down
It was after that moment that he asked himself, "How can I have an impact?" and "How can I make a difference?"
Obama said he was inspired to take action because of the American civil rights movement and learning about the young people who went door to door to try to register people who had never been able to vote before.
Although he said there weren't any movements around at the time he graduated college, he continued to follow the values his mother gave him. He sought out a community organizer position with a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago.
"I didn't really know what a community organizer was, but I arrived here and for the next three years I traveled all through the South Side and worked with leaders in churches and block clubs and community organizations," Obama said.
There, Obama said they took on what, at the time, were considered risks: they tried to build a new park in a neighborhood that had been ravaged by the drug trade. They tried to build after-school programs so that young people could aspire to college. They worked on environmental issues in a public housing project that was near a landfill.
"And I didn't really set the world on fire, I didn't lead a movement," Obama said, "but what I did learn was that ordinary people in local communities can do extraordinary things when they're given a chance, when their voices are heard, when they come together, when they recognize themselves in each other."
He added that thanks to his community involvement, he learned "everybody has a story in them that is sacred."
Even after he left community organizing, all the lessons that he learned about people, about being rooted in communities, listening to and sharing stories and "creating power from the bottom up rather than the top down to bring about real change" never left him.
"I carried those lessons with me even after I had become president of the United States," Obama said.
As he traveled the country and the world, Obama said he would meet young people who were just like him, "who had asked themselves how could they make a difference," and followed the steps that he had taken upon reflecting on his mother's values.
"Throughout my presidency, whenever I got down, whenever I got cynical, whenever things got tough," Obama said, "the one thing that I knew would always pick me up was when I met those young people with that vision and that talent and that motivation, that desire to have an impact and make a difference."
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