by Gabriel Piemonte
Barack Obama never made a secret of his understanding of the role of the people in the political process. “You cannot make change from the inside,” he explained during discussions about health care reform. “You can only change it from the outside.” On more than one occasion, while in office, he urged the American people to pressure national politicians, including him, in order to make change. He seems skeptical that without that component, without the people pushing, any change happens.
The development of the Obama Presidential Center thus far has not been an open process, despite the fact that it is being built on public land, and despite the Obamas’ vision that the Center will teach and inspire citizen engagement. There have been so-called citizen participation opportunities, but they have mostly been gimmicks: adding a couple of neighborhood members to the board overseeing the Center; conducting cell phone-based polls at meetings. The robust engagement that is promised in the vision articulated by the Obamas has yet to materialize, and I believe it is up to us to make it happen.
We have to proceed as if the Obama Center is going to be fundamentally different from any other presidential library and from any other museum. Museums have a relationship to the public but are not civic spaces. Presidential libraries began as repositories for important papers for scholars of American history. This must be a space in which the civic and the inspirational are conjoined. Otherwise, we have to fight against its presence on public land – even now, even when it seems set in stone. Should the people of Chicago determine that this is a mistake, that this is not going to be an institution with a special relationship to the people, then we must reject the campus’ presence on the people’s property.
But we should not begin there. Optimism is the appropriate point of departure, and we should be guided by the hopeful implications of the Center. We must also recognize that these considerations extend well beyond the Center, to every other aspect of the changes proposed in Jackson Park and those that will be coming in the adjacent neighborhoods. The approach we establish for engagement with the Obama Foundation must be replicated everywhere else. All development following on the coattails of the Obama Center must take on the special civic obligation that is concomitant with that advantage. South Side projects being presented now have the advantage of an aggregate promise of revitalizing the South Side, an effect of the Center’s siting. That advantage should be balanced by a cost to developers as well: enhanced civic participation. Elsewhere I have argued this should continue in perpetuity through the establishment of local development councils. Here I am simply explaining how the most accurate reading of the purpose of the Obama Center puts the people in the center of the story.
Local politicians and others are acting as though we are a barrier to this process. Not true: the process assumes us. Otherwise, there is no reason to add this structure to a park established for all the people; the lakefront parks are the spaces that, perhaps more than any other geographical feature, define Chicago and its democratic ideals. If an institution that amplifies the voice of the people is put into the people’s lakefront, then it deepens our commitment to the best ideals that animated the formation of the city. To achieve this, we must look past the small-minded bureaucrats and politicians who see this as a personal stepping stone. We have to look past the tyranny of mediocre expectations and allow ourselves to believe in, be moved by, and act upon our best civic-minded aspirations.