By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The young man who introduced former President Barack Obama spoke with authority.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola was his name. A Nigerian, Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a University of Chicago student, who was articulate, and at times, funny. Tall and impeccably dressed, he was the only Black male who shared the same stage with the nation’s first Black president during a forum on April 24.
The event was held at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center Performance Hall on the Hyde Park campus. After ten minutes, Omonoiyi-Shoyoola was done. To a thunderous applause, Obama emerged on stage while Omonoiyi-Shoyoola vanished into the audience.
For the next hour-and-a-half, nearly 500 people who packed the room would not find a single Black male among six bright, young professionals and students. It was Obama’s first post-presidential appearance since he left the White House in January after eight years in office.
Monday’s event was called a “Conversation about Civic Engagement.”
“Although there are all kinds of issues that I care about and all kinds of issues that I intend to work on, the single most important thing I can do is to help, in any way I can, prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world,” Obama said.
“Because the one thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that, yes, we confront a whole range of challenges from economic inequality and lack of opportunity to a criminal justice system that is too often skewed in ways that are unproductive to climate change; to issues related to violence. All those problems are serious; they’re daunting, but they’re not insolvable. What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life,” he said.
Obama kept the dialogue free of controversial issues. He drew praise for his usual inspiring and optimistic demeanor. Among the forum guests were Dr. Tiffany Brown and Ayanna Watkins, a senior at Kenwood Academy—two ambitious Black females seeking to impact an increasingly fragmented America.
All of the guests were ambitious individuals who shared insight on the state of America. They also offered ideas on how to get more young Americans more involved in the community at a time when discouragement and distrust in the political establishment are problematic. Obama questioned the panelists as to how to boost voter turnout and get more young Americans involved in government, the political process and community activities.
Watkins, the Kenwood Academy senior, said, “(Lack of) awareness holds a lot of our youth back from getting involved. I think the youth feel like they don’t have voice.”
When asked what is it that would make a difference in getting youth more involved, Watkins replied, “Having a strong support system to bring the youth up. For instance, in school, we are taught social studies, but we tend to focus on mathematics, science, English [sic] because that’s what we’re always brought up on because of tests, exams, etc., so social studies and civics tend to be pushed to the side. I feel like it should be encouraged in the school system.”
Brown said, “I agree with Ayanna because I went to Kenwood, too… I think funding after-school programs and summer programs…helps keeps [sic] the kids off the streets, so hopefully in Chicago, we’ll have less violence since they’ll have something to do and they’ll have something enriching their lives.”
Many of the students who attended the forum were Black males who watched the forum and may have found it difficult to relate to someone from a different ethnic and socioeconomic background.
Marsha Johnson, a senior at Chicago State, who is graduating in May with a degree in communications, attended the forum. While Johnson praised the diversity of the panel, she was surprised that there were no Black males on the panel.
“I found that pretty odd,” stated Johnson. “We never got a chance to hear the Black male side. As an African-American male, he gave us scenarios and stories of being African American, but we didn’t hear something from someone who has actually lived it or overcome the obstacles.” Still, Johnson said she connected to what the president said at the forum.
It’s unclear what criteria organizers used to select the panelists. Kevin Lewis, a spokesman for Obama, did not return an email from the Crusader as of press time Wednesday.
Still, Johnson said she learned more about Obama at the forum. “I thought what he said was enlightening. It really was. It was real personal, which I really like, because it gave us a sense of who he is other than being just a president.”
Obama did, however, meet privately with at-risk young men on the South Side to talk about gang violence, job skills and employment. The men were participants in Chicago CRED, which stands for Create Real Economic Destiny. The program was created by Arne Duncan, Obama’s former Secretary of Education.