In meetings with young black men, Obama tries to leave a mark

Kerron Turner sat with more than a dozen other teenagers in a classroom at Hyde Park Academy High School on this city’s troubled South Side, nervously settling in for an unusual meeting with the president of the United States.

They told their stories: Turner worried about the gangs he passes on his way home from school. Robert Scates had dropped out of high school and was working to catch up in time to graduate. Lazarus Daniels feared what would happen to his anger if he couldn’t play football anymore.

Eventually, it was President Obama’s turn to check in — to say how he was feeling emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

Obama’s quiet visit a year ago to the “Becoming a Man” program for inner-city youth in Chicago, along with a follow-up meeting several months later, would test whether Obama could transform the symbolism of his presidency into something more personal, one young man at a time. The meetings left a mark on the president, who has used them as motivation for a forthcoming White House initiative on young men of color that he promised to launch in this year’s State of the Union address.

Back in Room 208 of Hyde Park Academy that winter afternoon, Obama told the group he tries to exercise every day but was feeling the aches of a 51-year-old. Emotionally, he was always thinking about his daughters, and he said he feels intellectually challenged all the time. Spiritually, he said, he prays every night.

Then Obama was asked to tell his story: How did a black man become president? He talked about his anger as a young man growing up without a father in the picture. When he was a teen in high school, he partied too much, ignored school too much. He confided that he drank and smoked pot.

Daniels struggled to grasp what the president was saying. That could not be the life of the man who became a president, Daniels thought. He half-raised his hand, and asked, “Are you talking about you?”

It wasn’t a question the president was expecting. “Yeah, I’m talking about me,” Obama said. “None of this is a secret. I wrote about all of this in my book.”

Obama has recounted his meetings with the young men as among the most raw encounters of his tenure. Now, as he uses his second term to address race and the fortunes of urban youth more directly, the president’s experience with the young men, and their experience with him, offer an intimate look at the promise and limitations of his presidency.

The encounters last year showed the first African American president trying to improve the lives of young black men — a group he has sometimes been criticized for not focusing enough on. But it also revealed how the notion of a black man in the Oval Office, although a reality, remains a distant abstraction for those who might want to imagine following in his footsteps.

Longtime Obama aide Michael Strautmanis, who was in the classroom that day a year ago, said he was struck by how the moment was unusually personal yet also distant. “They all had that in common — race, gender, being of Chicago, being of the South Side of Chicago,” he said.

But, he added, “They saw him as apart and having had a separate experience from them. He couldn’t have had any trouble as a young person, because young people who get in trouble can’t become president.”

In the past year, Daniels, 19, made it to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., where he’s studying math and trying to heed Obama’s lessons. Turner, now 19 and a senior at Hyde Park trying to graduate on time, worries about “getting killed” and his little sister being attacked on the bus.

And Scates, also 19, is struggling to attend community college and continue his retail job, unsure of what will come.

“I’m glad I was able to meet the first black president. I’m glad I was able to chill with the president,” Scates said. “But at the end of the day, I still have to come back to the life I was living. I was glad for that period of time. When I came back here, now what?”

Hanging on by a thread

When Scates first heard rumors that Obama would be visiting Hyde Park, where only about half the kids graduate in five years, he had no expectation of meeting him. “I was kind of mad,” Scates said. “I just thought it had to be special students. Your grades gotta be in a certain range, attendance gotta be a certain length, things like that.”

Scates was hanging on by a thread. Bouncing from his mother’s home to his father’s home to his grandmother’s home, he had faced constant suspensions for being late and dropped out of school for months. He blamed his bad behavior on getting “abandoned by my family,” not being “loved as a child should be loved.” And when that anger rose to the top, “like a balloon, it just explodes.”

That led to gang life, he said. “I was surrounded by know-nothing people. People who didn’t want to do anything with their lives. You see the violence. You see the — excuse the language — hookers. You see the crackheads. You see the crack babies.”

That day last February with Obama, Scates sat directly to the president’s left and told him how he grew sick of street life and returned to school, striving to graduate on time.

“What motivated you?” the president asked.

“I just told him that staying focused, committed, the BAM program helped me out along the way, as well,” Scates recalled. “I wanted it for myself.”

Obama had his own motivational ideas to share. He recalled how when he was young, he would lose his temper, often filled with anger about his father’s absence. But he learned to think through the emotions. “Okay, why did I act that way? What was it that made me do that?” Obama said to the group, according to Strautmanis.

One of the best-known men in the world also urged them to think beyond fame in sports or music. The president did the odds for the young men — calculating how many professional basketball athletes there are and the probability they’d make it that far. “You’ve got to have a Plan B,” he told them.

Later that day, advocating for new measures to curb gun violence and help poor communities in a speech at Hyde Park, Obama reflected on the meeting.

“What I explained to them was I had issues, too, when I was their age. I just had an environment that was a little more forgiving,” he said. “So when I screwed up, the consequences weren’t as high as when kids on the South Side screw up. So I had more of a safety net. But these guys are no different than me, and we had that conversation about what does it take to change.”

A White House visit

About three months later, the teenagers received an invitation to meet Obama again, this time at the White House.

For many of them, it was their first time on an airplane.

In the State Dining Room in their BAM T-shirts, the 15 young men sat as Obama made his way from table to table during a Father’s Day luncheon. He asked Daniels, a football center, how he was feeling — a car accident had threatened his game — and whether he had worked on changing his attitude toward sports.

“I used to play football because I was angry. Knocking someone down and hitting them felt good,” Daniels had told Obama back at Hyde Park. The president had shot back: “What happens when you get older and you can’t hit people anymore?” Obama told him that the other players on the field were probably going through the same struggles.

In Washington, Daniels said he told Obama he had changed his motivation. “I stopped playing football for hurt but playing for the joy of the game,” he said.

As the lunch was winding down, a White House staff member told the group to gather outside. The White House was adding something unexpected to the schedule: a private tour and meeting with the president in the Oval Office.

The young men moved to the Roosevelt Room, decorated with portraits of the room’s two presidential namesakes, and sat around the long table where Obama does much of his daily work.

Excited and exhausted from the day so far, they started to get noisy. So they began breathing exercises, a skill BAM teaches its students. For five minutes, sitting across the hall from the Oval Office, the 15 young men took deep breaths, counting to four then exhaling. Complete silence.

Finally, it was time for them to join Obama. The president showed them the copy of the Emancipation Proclamation hanging on his wall and explained its significance. One of the students asked him about the health of then-ailing Nelson Mandela. And then Obama brought the guys to his private study just off the Oval Office, because he wanted to show them the pair of boxing gloves that Muhammad Ali had given him.

“I’ve actually never seen him do that with visitors to the Oval Office because that’s his private office,” said Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime adviser.

At the end of the meeting, the young men presented Obama with a Father’s Day card. For many of them, there, in the Oval Office, it was their first time marking the holiday.

“I never really knew my own father,” Obama has said. “It’s something that leaves a hole in a child’s life.”

Obama has brought up his two meetings with BAM as an example of who he is trying to help with new policies to aid urban youth. When he sat down with foundation heads last fall to discuss a new initiative to better help young men of color, he began with the story of that February day at Hyde Park.

“When you go to the South Side of Chicago and you sit in a room of 15 people, that’s the tangible evidence of why you’re working so hard,” Jarrett said. “I don’t think any of those young men will ever forget that day, and I don’t think the president will, either.”

Back to reality

“Okay, let’s circle up,” BAM counselor Marshaun Bacon said one day late in October. Turner, a senior who had visited with Obama, stopped playing a game on his phone and took off his Dr. Dre headphones, sitting down with six others in a Hyde Park classroom.

Bacon began with a quick lecture before the young men checked in. “A lot of you are not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” he told the students. “It’s about saying ‘I’m lost, and I don’t know what to do.’ Becoming a man is tough.”

It had been five months since Turner had written “Good job, keep it up” on Obama’s Father’s Day card and left Washington. The card remained with Obama for a time before heading to the National Archives. Now it was back to reality in Chicago, and Turner was anxious.

“Last week, I had trouble getting out of bed,” he said to the BAM circle. “My mom had back pains. And I’m scared she’s going to die. And I wake up really scared.”

“That’s really powerful,” Bacon replied.

Turner has relied on BAM to stay out of trouble and on course. That day, Bacon passed out a piece of paper to each of the BAM guys asking them to engage in what he called “visionary goal setting” — setting objectives for the year. Turner wrote that completing high school was his goal. “My mom always wanted to see me walk across the stage,” he wrote.

After school the next day, Turner rode two buses to his home — a modest walk-up that housed him, two siblings and his mother. The Turners were living in territory dominated by four gangs: the Black Disciples, Conservative Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples and Black P Stone. There have been dozens of murders in the area in recent years.

“No drug trafficking,” read a sign on his street.

Turner was primarily concerned with graduating. He has put off, for now, the idea of college and, contrary to the president’s advice, is hoping for a career in music. “He said, ‘Don’t let music be your only option,’ ” Turner said. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but I like music a lot, so you might as well make it.

“Then again, like he was saying, I should have a fallback plan,” Turner said. He’s still thinking about what it would be.

Scates, too, continues to plan a career in music. “I want to be able to run my own record label one day,” he said.

But right now, living with his grandmother, he’s struggling to balance a job as a clerk at the local liquor store while testing out a community college. “College isn’t for everybody,” he said. “I just want to see if it fits who I am.”

He still thinks about the meetings with the president, but less each day.

“Those are good moments, but what is it? It’s a memory, that’s all it is,” Scates said. “I remember when I went to see the president. But now what do I do? I’m still living the life I’m living.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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