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Obama adviser preaches to hometown choir

Wed, Mar 5, 2014

Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama Valerie Jarrett came home to Chicago to “speak to the choir” a message of volunteerism and the importance of mentoring disadvantaged young men and women.

“I know each of you serve on a wide variety of boards. Part of what makes our country unique and strong is the appreciation we are not here on our own, we have a mutual responsibility to each other and there is never too much you can do in service to our community, so thank you for all you do,” Jarrett told 250 corporate and civic leaders as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel during a Feb. 10 breakfast meeting of World Business Chicago (WBC) at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center.

Valerie Jarrett

Presidential Adviser Valerie Jarrett visits with an audience member after her appearance at World Business Chicago Feb. 10. (Photo: Suzanne Hanney)

Jarrett focused heavily on private sector involvement in her Q&A about “Strong Cities, Strong Nation” with Julia Stasch, vice president for U.S. programs at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Coming about two weeks after President Obama’s Jan. 28 State of the Union address, the speech was a continuation of his focus on making 2014 a “year of action” ensuring opportunity for all Americans to boost the economy, according to prepared materials.

As Obama alluded Jan. 28, he will ask the nation’s business and foundation leaders to give young boys opportunities in return for their hard work so that they avoid incarceration that can derail their lives. “How about we get them on the right track so that they don’t go to prison in the first place?”

She described how Education Sec. Arne Duncan is trying to close the “disparity and discipline gap” in which boys of color can be penalized more harshly than non-minority youth for the same kinds of infractions. “When you enter the juvenile delinquency system, the chances of you moving to the adult penal system grow dramatically. Let’s keep those boys in the classroom. Let’s not give up on them.”

Jarrett shared President Obama’s Father’s Day followup at the White House with students from Hyde Park Academy’s Becoming A Man (BAM) program whom he had met in February. He astounded them with tales of his boyhood activities – none of which Jarrett said she would share with the audience.

Obama told the boys, “I lived in a more forgiving neighborhood. I did all the things you are doing to get in trouble but I had a safety net that kept me from getting imperiled the way you are.”

First Lady Michelle Obama’s experience of discovering Princeton only because her brother played basketball there led to an initiative with U.S. mayors to improve summer job experiences for young people so that their education becomes meaningful. “You can’t just say get an education, they have to have something they can aspire to and actually achieve.” Mentorships, enrichment programs, getting speakers on campus and then following them up with support networks in school would lead to a more productive workforce.

“It’s in our collective responsibility, our self-interest that all our young children succeed. It shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code.”

As an example, Jarrett cited Xerox CEO Ursula M. Burns, whom she said grew up low-income but talented as a mechanical engineer. Burns started at the company as an intern in 1980. “If she hadn’t that initial work experience, she would never have materialized to the incredible leader she is today.”

The White House on its own convened 80 university and college presidents (including the U of C’s Robert Zimmer) to ask how they would help disadvantaged young people to “aspire, apply, get accepted and succeed in colleges.”

“You don’t need a big federal program, you just need cooperation,” Jarrett said. Workforce development should also require early childhood education, improved schools and colleges and a means of bringing down the cost of tuition.

What about apprenticeships? Jarrett said that the construction industry would create 100,000 jobs for returning veterans. The private sector is tremendously interested in hiring veterans – and has stepped up at Michelle Obama’s request — but it does not know how to translate military skills, Jarrett said. “You would think somebody in Iraq is responsible for transportation, that is completely translatable back here but you have to help the companies use it.”

Jarrett spoke also of two Obama Administration legislative successes: the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). One in 4 young women suffer rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, half of them before age 18. VAWA strengthens federal penalties for repeat offenders.

The ACA has had three million signups. Since half the remaining uninsured are in 150 counties across the U.S., officials are targeting their efforts.

“My experience at the U of C Medical Center [as chair of its board of trustees] told me that too many people still use the emergency room. It’s not designed to be primary care. Think of all the people who wait until their symptoms are acute before they go to the hospital.”

On the other hand, people are already benefitting from the ACA. Jarrett told of a woman who signed up on Jan. 1 and was in acute pain Jan. 2. She was able to be treated at a hospital. “Without it she would have been in bankruptcy.”

Jarrett held positions in Chicago’s public and private sector before joining the Obama Administration five years ago. She was chief executive officer of The Habitat Company; chair of the Chicago Transit Authority; commissioner of the City of Chicago Department Planning and Development and Deputy Chief of Staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Chaired by Mayor Emanuel, WBC acts as a liaison between the public and private sectors as it leads the city’s business retention and expansion efforts and its plan for economic growth and jobs. WBC’s board of directors includes prominent leaders. Its work receives assistance of City of Chicago Department of Business Affairs & Consumer Protection (BACP) and the State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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