Obama Makes Opportunity a Priority

Thaddeus Ferber
October 3, 2013

If you have ever taken a look at the president's official schedule, you will see that his day is not organized by hour long blocks or even half hour blocks. It is minute by minute. So it was significant when a group of experts were convened in the White House Roosevelt Room for an 8-minute meeting with President Obama. It was even more significant that he didn't end the meeting when the allotted 8 minutes were up. Nor when 10 minutes were up, nor 20 or 30. And as his staff frantically typed on their blackberries, rearranging the rest of his day, the president sat asking more questions, focusing deeply on the answers. And when he finally stood up, it was not to adjourn. It was to lead the experts into the Oval Office to continue the discussion.

President Obama at th Youth Jobs+ Champions of Change event, September 2013

Was the topic North Korea? Syria? Health care reform?

Nope. It was meeting with young people who have transformed their lives and communities though the AmeriCorps service program.

Why did the President give so much of his time to this meeting? As Jonathan Greenblatt, Special Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, explained at the Aspen Institute a few days later, it was because it lies at the nexus of two things the president is passionate about: disconnected youth and service.

The story of that AmeriCorps meeting came to mind as I sat in the White House last week for the Youth Jobs+ Champions of Change event honoring five adults and four youth who embody the president’s call to better connect young people employment and professional development opportunities. (Learn more about these nine leaders in nonprofit and faith-based organizations, students, and activists here).

Because once again, President Obama took time from his busy day to show up and personally emphasize his support for disadvantaged young people. Just as he did the year before at the first Youth Summer Jobs+ Summit, and as he has at every White House event I have attended focused on disadvantaged youth.

The surprise arrival of the president in our small auditorium was thrilling for the audience, not to mention the moment of a lifetime for Deshawn Shepherd, the 19-year old Champion of Change from Chicago who got to introduce him. But it goes much deeper than that: where President Obama goes and how he spends his time sends signals to his advisors, cabinet secretaries and political appointees about the issues they should be focused on.  

Time after time, the President has shown them that there is nothing more important than, as he put it, “prying open the doors of opportunity” for disadvantaged young people.  And to make sure this lesson sunk in as he concluded his remarks, President Obama looked up at the audience and his staff, and declared that “our work is not done until everyone who is out there and has a dream and is willing to work for it can have pathways to make it a reality.”


Thaddeus Ferber is vice president of policy advocacy at the Forum for Youth Investment and co-founder of SparkAction.org.