As America’s first Black commander-in-chief and one of the most popular U.S. presidents in modern history, former President Barack Obama, alongside his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama, has dedicated much of his post-White House career to inspiring a new generation of leaders worldwide to carry out his core mission of changing the world through civic engagement.
This month, just days before Obama’s 62nd birthday, the Obama Foundation unveiled its inaugural Leaders USA cohort of changemakers throughout the United States and its territories. The 100 people who made the cut were carefully selected by the foundation with the clear intent to further develop the nation’s next generation of leaders.
TheGrio recently chatted with the head of the Obama Foundation’s Leaders USA, Phillipe Cunningham, who shared more about the program’s intent and how it came to be. The following is a transcript of that conversation.
Editor’s note: This interview transcript was lightly edited and condensed for editorial clarity and brevity.
TheGrio: Tell us about how the Obama Foundation’s Leaders USA program came to be and its primary mission.
Phillipe Cunningham: Leaders USA is an exciting new program, and it’s part of President and Mrs. Obama’s commitment to supporting the next generation of leaders, not only here in the U.S. but globally. The program launched in Africa in 2018, with our Leaders Africa program, then expanded in 2019 to the Asia Pacific region, which includes 44 territories and countries, and then expanded to Europe in 2020. So taking these lessons learned globally and from the programming we’ve done within the United States, President Obama tasked us with launching Leaders USA with an annual cohort of 100.
What we’re hoping to achieve through this program is to provide these incredible values-driven change-makers from across the country with a set of practical tools that they can use to navigate this hyperpolarized environment in which they’re trying to lead positive social change. What we want to do is to help give them the tools to build relationships across differences, to be able to find that common ground in which we share a vision of a better common good, and that being able to be achieved, really, through these concrete skills.
We have folks from the private sector, the public sector, nonprofits, and the like. No matter what sector you’re in, you play a role in strengthening our democratic culture and democracy more broadly. And so we want to make sure that they understand what that looks like in practice so that they can take that back to their sector and begin that work as well.
TheGrio: Tell us about the process of selecting these leaders. I’m sure that process was a very rigorous one.
Cunningham: Leaders were selected through a competitive open application process. We look for value-driven change-makers with at least three years of traction and demonstrated impact in their field. We want to encourage folks from all sectors and fields to apply because it adds diversity of thought and experience to make sure that we serve communities typically underrepresented in similar programs and make the learning experience relevant for everyone we hope to serve.
We hit the ground in road trips through the Deep South Delta, Black Belt, and Appalachia, meeting with incredible leaders in cities and rural communities who are making a difference, but many aren’t necessarily visible nationally. If you’re doing incredible work in a town of maybe 13,000, you don’t necessarily have a national profile or think that you are Obama Leader material. And so we hit the ground to engage with folks directly to make sure that they saw themselves in this program as well. It’s fair to say that those efforts are reflected now in our final cohort.
TheGrio: Is there a cohort of the Leaders USA program that stands out to you?
Cunningham: We have Abdirahman Muse in the Twin Cities area. He was born and raised in Somalia, was a refugee during the civil war and came here to the Twin Cities, and has just done incredible work around worker rights. He led some high-profile work around the Amazon workers in the state. Many workers there are East African, so he has done a lot of work focused on that. And he is now the executive director of Awood Center and serves on the Metropolitan Council, which is [a] regional planning commission. We’re just really grateful to have local representation from Minneapolis in this cohort.
You can go to the Obama Foundation website to see the profiles [of program participants] there. We also highlight on our social media platforms their stories and impact as well, so highly recommend going to check out their stories as the global leaders are doing phenomenal work.
TheGrio: When you think about the legacy of President Obama, in what ways do you see it reflected today?
Cunningham: Through the Obama Foundation, President Obama is dedicated to building and strengthening democratic culture in the United States and around the world by developing leaders and organizations who represent those democratic values and the work so essential to our democracy. And right now, democracy is facing challenges everywhere. We see this as instances of conflict between democratic systems and the rise in polarization and disinformation affecting our discourse, culture, and elections around the world, including in the United States. So right now, these leaders’ going on to put in the work of strengthening democratic culture is certainly, we hope, a positive extension of President Obama.
TheGrio: Does it seem like the country has moved away from President Obama’s message of hope and change? Do you think we can get back to that?
Cunningham: One of the reasons why President Obama tasked us with launching Leaders USA is because of the fact that right now, more than ever, we need values-driven change-makers who are leading work and positive change and helping us be able to bridge those divides.
President Obama said, “We need to build democracy for the future, not the past.” And what gives me hope is the promise and potential of the next generation of leaders who are coming up, young people who understand that the future of democracy and, in fact, the very planet that we live on, hangs in the balance. These young people are ready to do the work, and many of them are already deeply engaged in a project of rebuilding our democracies. This program is directly connected to addressing that work.
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.
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