U of C Students Attend Obama Foundation Youth Training Day

150 participants took part in civic engagement workshops, as part of the Obama Foundation’s Youth Training Day pilot program.

By Emma Dyer, Co-Editor-in-Chief ('20-'21)

University of Chicago students attended the Obama Foundation’s inaugural Youth Training Day in Chicago recently, an event the Foundation hopes will energize youth involvement in local civic engagement, according to the event's description.

The Chicago Training Day served as a pilot for the series of Training Days across the country, with upcoming days in Tempe, Arizona and Boston.

The Obama Foundation’s mission for the Training Days is to “teach young people how to put civics into action where they live.” The Foundation invited 150 participants between the age of 18 and 24, where they were split into small groups led by peer advisors and participated in activities and workshops.

In addition to the day’s planned schedule, former President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at the event to speak about the potential of local civic engagement. “He spoke about mapping power and resources…and thinking about addressing opposition when creating a social justice campaign,” said first-year student at the Harris School Kiran Misra (A.B. ’17).

“When President Obama arrived, the room was electric. It was clear that he arrived as a civic leader ready to challenge attendees and inquire about our ideas, rather than to take selfie photos,” said third-year political science major Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola.

The training days invited 18- to 24-year-olds both with and without previous local-level community engagement experience through an application process open to anyone within the age group. Omoniyi-Shoyoola attended the conference with little previous experience organizing in Chicago. However, he had worked as a complaint counselor with the ACLU of Missouri and is interested in criminal justice system reform.

“The Training Day was advertised as an opportunity for young people in the Chicago area with or without organizing or civic engagement experience, with the goal of learning firsthand about leadership, how change happens, interpersonal skills, as well as how to track the underlying causes of community problems,” Omoniyi-Shoyoola said. 

Other attendees at the training day have been more involved in Chicago communities. Misra attended the Chicago Bound pre-orientation program before her first year, which aims to promote community awareness and civic engagement for incoming students. Misra credited the program as “the catalyst for [her] formal civic engagement in Chicago.”

Misra said she has made civic engagement part of her academic path, and described her position consulting for the Chicago Housing Authority and her thesis on South Asian American civic engagement.

“Civic engagement can be an integral part of anyone’s academic experience. Civic engagement has been a core component of my studies,” she said. Currently, as part of South Asian Americans Leading Together’s Young Leaders Institute, Misra leads civic engagement trainings for South Asian American students on campus.

While at the Youth Training Day, Misra found the diversity of attendees to be a focal point of the program. 

The peer advisor group structure of the training day was met with mixed reviews from Misra and Omoniyi-Shoyoola. “Seeing peer leaders around my age helped me feel more at home as a young person interested in civic engagement,” Omoniyi-Shoyoola said. “[But] other youths may not be quite as confident in themselves to lead a full day’s worth of activities.”

Misra agreed that the peer advisors’ youth and inexperience was noticeable. “The peer advisors were coming to the work of the Obama Foundation pretty new to the Obama Foundation work, like the rest of the participants were. My peer advisor mostly really felt like another Training Day participant,” Misra said.

One activity paired participants together and made the partners each share a story they believe shaped their life. After sharing the story with each other, each person shared their partner’s story from a first-person perspective to the whole group.

“It felt incredibly daunting to trust my story to someone I had just met and even more daunting to have to accurately represent another person’s life experience in the first-person, which reminded me of the incredible responsibility activists and organizers have to the communities they are working alongside—to tell stories clearly, fairly, and empathetically while fighting against oppression and exploitation,” Misra said.

As it was the first time the Obama Foundation has held an event like the Youth Training Day, Misra and Omoniyi-Shoyoola both found places the program can improve.

“I’m not sure if the program instilled a real sense of urgency and only time will tell how lasting the connections I made through the training will be, but I definitely consider it a valuable experience,” Misra said.