The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama says he believes in community organizing. He should listen to Chicago’s South Side.

A new presidential library could help neighbors — or help displace them.

President Obama delivered his farewell remarks at McCormick Place in Chicago. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)
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CHICAGO — Last week, I stood with thousands of other Chicagoans in a darkened room in the city’s McCormick Place convention center, feeling solemn and uncertain as President Obama bade farewell to the nation. Urging Americans to resist cynicism, Obama called on the country to instead turn toward political actions big and small. “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.”

This choice of words was a clear nod to the president’s much-discussed origin story as a community organizer. But as he looks beyond the White House and toward his legacy, Obama would do well to listen to some community organizers in his very own back yard. On the South Side of Chicago, residents are demanding that the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center enter into a community benefits agreement, ensuring that the library and museum will strengthen and support those who call the surrounding area home, rather than displacing them.

Community benefits agreements, or CBAs, have emerged over the past decade and a half as a strategy for residents and businesses in cities to make sure that large development projects help them, not harm them. CBAs are legally enforceable contracts and may require developers to meet a number of local demands. The nation’s first CBA was drafted in 2001, when Los Angeles residents, businesses and organizations agreed to support the construction of the Staples Center in exchange for community benefits such as local park improvement, residential parking, a job training program and affordable housing. Since then, CBAs have been implemented across the country, from New York to Oakland, for projects ranging from a research hospital to a casino. Each CBA is different, responding to the perceived needs of the community and the resources the new development might be able to offer — from a transit developer agreeing to preserve historic buildings in Atlanta, to a wireless provider in Minneapolis offering free Internet access in public locations.

In the case of the Obama Presidential Center, what do residents want? A coalition of South Side organizations has created a list of development principles that include setting aside jobs for young people and formerly incarcerated people, guaranteeing a living wage for employees, partnering with local public schools to provide educational programming and free admission for students, and improving nearby public transportation. When the Obama Foundation first announced that Chicago would be home to the Obama library, foundation chairman Martin Nesbitt dismissed journalists’ questions about a potential CBA: “This whole initiative is a community benefit, right? That’s what this is about.” But without a written commitment, the definition of “benefit” is likely to be a slippery one, left to the city’s most powerful to determine at the potential expense of those whose actual lives are most affected by the library.

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If city leaders and those planning the center — which is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, to be raised from foundations and private donors — are willing to consider a CBA, the benefit to the South Side could be tremendous. An economic impact study commissioned by the University of Chicago in 2014 suggested that the library and museum could bring more than 3,000 jobs to the area. A CBA would help direct these jobs to those most in need. Woodlawn, the neighborhood surrounding the Obama Presidential Center’s planned site, has a per-capita income of less than $19,000 a year and an unemployment rate more than 1.5 times that of the rest of the city. In a city where only 1 in 4 public schools has a library (with that number threatening to shrink every year), access to a world-class research library could be a major resource for Chicago children.

Does the Obama library need a CBA to be a commercial success? Almost certainly not. Assuredly, visitors from around the world will flock to Chicago to celebrate the life of the nation’s first black president. But the question of moral or ethical success is another matter. There is a troubling irony in the fact that the CBA organizers must now push so hard to be heard.

In his remarkable memoir “Dreams from My Father,” Obama calls his time among South Side organizers and residents one of the most profoundly influential experiences of his life. As he listened to his neighbors, Obama writes, he found that their stories “helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for.”

The website for the center itself reinforces this message, proclaiming that the new institution will be an inspiration because it is “located in the city where a young organizer once inspired his community to take action.”

But as the center moves closer to becoming reality, the question is whether Obama can honor this influence with action. Are his nods to his history of community organizing merely lip service? Or will the soon-to-be-former-president listen attentively to the voices that shaped the man he is today as they dream of a better tomorrow?

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