Activists Press Obama Foundation to Do Right by Obama’s Home Community

By Charles Edward Miller from Chicago, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

July 27, 2018; Chicago Tribune

The Obama Foundation has announced that its groundbreaking on the controversial Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park in Chicago will be delayed until 2019. The center, originally targeted to break ground this fall, requires a now-delayed federal review process—an assessment of the overall impact of the build—thanks to Jackson Park’s historic status.

The Obama Foundation’s plan to build a sprawling center in the South Side’s Jackson Park—with a blueprint that, in addition to the planned Obama presidential library, includes a museum, community workspaces, and a public library branch—has received mixed reactions from the Chicago community. Community activists are concerned that the center might displace current residents from the neighborhoods surrounding Jackson Park. They’ve pushed the foundation to sign a community benefit agreement (CBA), which would ensure that the construction project incorporates considerations for the economic wellbeing of current community residents. The Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition includes the Chicago Jobs Council, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Black Youth Project (BYP) 100, the Poor People’s Campaign, and others.

To date, the foundation has declined to sign a CBA, but has said it supports the core idea of integrating—not ignoring—the locale in which is sits. The foundation has started a scholarship program for civic actors with the nearby University of Chicago, integrated a public library branch to increase use for residents, and, perhaps most substantially, hired a staff member and black-owned consulting firm to ensure that hiring of workers involved in the center’s development focuses on women and people of color from the surrounding neighborhoods.

Still, community members argue that stronger policy measures are needed to truly ensure that current low-income residents benefit from the development. These measures would include a mandate that 30 percent of newly constructed housing be affordable, a property tax freeze for current residents, and an independent review of the center’s hiring choices during and after construction. While the federal review process that’s causing the delay doesn’t overlap with the measures activists are trying to push through, its timing creates a new opportunity for those community members to push forward their agenda during the upcoming midterm elections.

Parrish Brown, an activist with Black Youth Project 100’s Chicago chapter, released a statement underscoring that intent. “We have a new window of opportunity before the next election to protect the most vulnerable people in our community.  We’re gathering to make sure Mayor (Rahm) Emanuel and the local aldermen do the right thing, or we’ll have to elect people who will.”—Danielle Holly