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Obama Takes on ‘Woke Culture’ at Annual Summit

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The third annual Obama Foundation Summit, held at the Illinois Institute of Technology on October 29, took on the theme “places reveal our purpose.” Notable speakers including civil rights activist, Dolores Huerta, filmmaker Ava Duvernay, Queer Eye host Karamo Brown, and author Zadie Smith joined youth activists to celebrate how even the small steps activists take can result in meaningful progress. 

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Former President Barack Obama’s views on this topic became particularly clear during an interview session between Obama, actress Yara Shahidi, and four Obama Fellows. In response to a comment on how activists must acknowledge and step out of privileged spaces in order to advocate for others, the former president mentioned he had noticed a worrisome trend among “young people, particularly on college campuses.” 

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” said Obama. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.”

The former president added that using social media to call out a wrong, and then sitting back, “[is] not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

Obama’s comments prompted a rare show of bipartisan support. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hi., tweeted “We all need a little more aloha spirit — being respectful & caring for one another. Not being so quick to judge. Not seeing everything as black/white.” And even conservative pundit Ann Coulter tweeted her approval, saying, “good for Obama,” adding that her tweet was “Not sarcastic!” 

But some responded to these comments with criticism as well. 

“Millennials and Gen-Zers are doing what we can to take down the Goliath many of our parents have been rightfully casting stones at for decades,” journalist Ernest Owens wrote in a fierce rebuttal in the New York Times. “We have a tool that has helped democratize public debates about these issues, and we hope it will move us to a more just world.

It’s called social media. And we’re going to keep using it.”

Beyond this controversial comment, Obama spent the better part of the session encouraging young people to find solutions and achieve concrete goals that result in change and community empowerment. For example, Obama highlighted the importance of the summit’s theme by explaining how he and former First Lady, Michelle Obama, decided to bring the Obama Presidential Center, which is a presidential library featuring historical records and collections from the Obama presidency, to Jackson Park in Chicago’s South Side. They did so, he explained, to help stimulate the neighborhood’s economy. The South Side also holds special significance for the Obamas as Mrs. Obama’s hometown and the place where Obama got his start as a community organizer. 

“Chicago is a wealthy city in the wealthiest country on earth. But there is a segment of this city that does not partake of that wealth the way it should,” he said. “And by bringing a multi-million dollar project here, one of our goals is to make sure that we’re able to create new opportunities for the young people who live here.”

According to the US Census, 20.6% of Chicagoans live in poverty. Gun violence has also plagued the city; although shootings and murder rates are currently at a four-year low, according to the Chicago Police Department. 

In order to combat these societal ills, Obama said, “Advocates for social justice cannot ignore economic justice. And it is important for us to constantly incorporate at least an awareness of what may be the economic impediments to injustice.”

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Cassandra Etienne is a freelance reporter and video journalist based in New Jersey. Her multimedia and documentary projects reflect an interest in cultural reporting, and in covering social issues such as civil rights, women's health, and education and healthcare reforms.