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Obamas in town as foundation seeks to pack City Hall for Plan Commission hearing

Barack and Michelle Obama stopped by Chicago on Wednesday, a day before a critical Chicago Plan Commission hearing on the proposed Obama Presidential Center that Obama Foundation officials are hoping to pack with supporters.

The former president and first lady met separately with members of the first class of Obama Foundation fellows at the Stony Island Arts Bank — a block away from the future Obama Center site.

“This has been a really exciting time for the foundation in part because we are very close to the location where ultimately we’re going to be building the Presidential Center,” Obama told the 20 fellows, according to a press pool report. “I’m really excited about the fact that we’ll be presenting our plans to the planning commission tomorrow.”

Obama did not make any public efforts in support of the project on the eve of the presentation for zoning approval, though he held meetings at the foundation offices, including with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“These are two old friends and they did what old friends do, shared a few laughs, swapped a few stories and caught up on their families,” Emanuel’s spokesman Adam Collins said. “Sure, they talked about the Foundation, the Obama Center, and incredible academic progress happening at CPS — but mostly it was two dads catching up.”

Glad to see my friend and Chicago’s favorite son @BarackObama at the @ObamaFoundation today after he welcomed the first class of Foundation fellows to the South Side. pic.twitter.com/LuGn8bTnBb

— Mayor Rahm Emanuel (@ChicagosMayor) May 16, 2018

The foundation has been pushing hard in recent weeks with its efforts, including a postcard-writing campaign, to demonstrate public support for the project. They’ll cap it with an early morning rally complete with T-shirts and buttons outside City Hall before the 10 a.m. Plan Commission meeting, according to an email to foundation boosters obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The foundation will “be packing the lobby and waiting areas of City Hall with our supporters before the meeting kicks off,” according to the email.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama meets with fellows of the Obama Foundation on Wednesday at the Stony Island Arts Bank. | Photo provided by the Obama Foundation

“We’ll have snacks on hand to keep energy levels up,” foundation officials said in the email, saying they expect the meeting could drag into the early evening.

Almost no one in Chicago is against having the Obama center located in the city where Obama started his political career, though a group filed a federal lawsuit seeking to halt the development in Jackson Park.

At issue are a variety of details as to how the project will be executed, whether there is a community benefits agreement, how much parkland has to be repaved, and whether Cornell Drive should be closed for the project as requested by the foundation in order to connect the center to the Museum of Science and Industry.

Here are the former President Barack Obama’s full remarks to Obama Foundation fellows:

“You could not find a more exciting group of young people than the folks who are gathered here. I want to welcome them all to the South Side of Chicago. They’ve been spending some time out at Starved Rock, so they’ve been getting a little tour of Illinois, even as they are spending time together here.

“This has been a really exciting time for the foundation in part because we are very close to the location where ultimately we’re going to be building the Presidential Center. I’m really excited about the fact that we’ll be presenting our plans to the planning commission tomorrow. The support that we’ve been able to marshal from the community and the city generally to make this a hub for training the next generation of leadership not just (from) here in Chicago but across the country and the world is extraordinarily exciting.

“Ultimately, however, this is not just about buildings. It’s about people. When Michelle and I asked ourselves how could we make the most meaningful, most impactful contribution after we left the White House we both concluded that what we wanted to do is invest in people who are already making change in communities, in all kinds of remarkable ways.”

“And then how do we cultivate young people who have the idealism and ambition and drive and the compassion to start their own journey to bring about meaningful and positive social change.

“What we wanted to do is figure out ways in which we could not only support that next generation of leaders and build the kind of civic engagement and habits that ultimately make any society work, we also wanted to bring them together and figure out ways that they could meet and learn from each other and network so that over time, five years from now, ten years from now, twenty years from now, we now have seen an entire network of remarkable people from across places, across disciplines, learn from each other, share experiences, support each other. And reinforce the values that we think, not only we need here in Chicago but we need all around the world.

“This group typifies the kind of talent that’s out there … I can’t go through everybody’s biography but we have activists who are organizing women in South Africa to stand up for themselves, give voice to their aspirations.

“We have folks from right here on the South Side who are giving young people opportunities that they haven’t had before, to make sure they not only get through school but they also are able to set their sights higher. We have people who are harnessing the inner-generational talents of very young people and very old people, rebuilding communities that so often are divided … so that people can learn from each other and appreciate each other across generations.

“We have individuals who are in working in refugee camps, dealing with some of the most difficult circumstances and providing mental health support and counseling so that people can start rebuilding their lives after they’ve fled war ravished countries. We have a whole group of folks from Africa and Europe who are systematically focusing on making sure that citizens have some insight, that there is some transparency into how governments work.

“We have one individual who is revolutionizing how we think about inclusion for deaf Americans and increasingly not just Americans, but building the kinds of tools that will allow those of us who are obviously not as intelligent in sign language to start getting up to speed. So the kinds of work that’s being done here is already extraordinary. This particular group … what we want to do is figure out how we could invest in them so that they can scale up, come up with ways in which they can enhance the work that they’re already doing before.

“But as I said, to some degree, these folks don’t need inspiration, they just need money. (Group laughs and claps) I knew that would get some applause. They need contacts, they need space for them to develop their ideas, but part of their job here is also going to be to help us train the 18-year-olds, the 25-year-olds who is just getting started, and to coach even younger change agents. This is the kind of work that I think ultimately makes a real difference.

“When I think about what first brought me to Chicago, I think it was imagining that somehow, I could have an impact, make a difference. This city gave me that great gift, allowing me that first sense that if I worked with other people, that I could have an impact. So it’s fitting that we are, through our foundation, we are able to spread that idea, cultivate where it’s happening …

“Thank you, Chicago, for your wonderful hospitality. Thank you for allowing us to show off our city to this extraordinary group.”