On Tuesday, hundreds of young men from across the US filed into an auditorium in Oakland, California, ready to be inspired at the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper event.
“For those of you who don’t know me, I am Michelle’s husband, Barack,” Obama quipped to the cheering crowd at MBK Rising, a two-day event promoting mentoring programmes for young men and boys of color. Surrounded by over 20 young men who had earned their seats through demonstrations of leadership and commitments to community, Obama was joined by Golden State Warriors basketball player Steph Curry.
“There is a movement. There is an awareness and responsibility that we are all buying into and tapping into and taking responsibility for,” Curry said responding to questions from Obama about what inspired him. “We understand how impactful that can be. My dad set that example for me, and I want to be able to give that back”.
The town hall between the two featured a discussion about fatherhood and mentorship, masculinity, a focus on issues of violence and policing, but it always circled back to the event’s tagline and key theme: “Arrive as Many. Rise as One.”
Before Obama and Curry took the stage, singer John Legend opened the afternoon’s event with a version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. He then interviewed a panel of mothers who had all been cast into the limelight after losing sons to gun violence. Congresswoman Lucy McBath, Reverend Wanda Johnson and Dr Sybrina Fulton – the mothers of Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin – answered questions and extended their well-wishes to those in the audience.
“I would not have sacrificed my son … because Trayvon was a sacrifice and Jordan was a sacrifice and Oscar Grant was a sacrifice, we have to stand up and be the voice for the voiceless,” Fulton said.
She brought her other son Jahavaris Fulton with her to the event and asked him to stand up.
“I am going to talk to your brother’s keepers. I just want you to know that although Trayvon is not here, for me to watch him grow, for me to watch him excel, to watch him be great,” she said through tears, “I want all of those things for you.”
It has been six years since her son was gunned down in Florida, an incident that sparked a global outcry and inspired Obama to develop the MBK community challenge. Since then, 250 communities have developed strategies to support black and brown neighborhoods where lives and livelihoods are most at risk, along with the data, metrics and resources to measure and achieve progress.
Out of that initiative, in 2015 the MBK Alliance was launched to build bridges between the communities, which now work together to ensure boys can see and understand their value. MBK Rising! was the first event, and kicked off with a day of service. Attendees flew in from cities across the country to participate, and spent President’s Day lending a hand helping community-based organizations in Oakland and San Francisco. They cleaned school buildings, worked in gardens and built small libraries, before reconvening for two days of town-hall-style talks, break-away sessions and idea swapping.
The attendees were sent by alliance organizations, which includes the 19 community challenge winners, programs that were awarded grants for serving as national models or impacting and improving the lives of boys and young men of color.
Also in attendance were MBK fellows such as 17-year-old Daniel Annam, who traveled to Oakland from Staten Island, New York, to be honored for the work he’d done in his community. “My project was based on how we can increase access for college and career choices so that my brothers and I will be able to have the resources we need to become successful in the future,” he said, sitting in the front row.
“I am just thankful that I was able to fly out here. It is an honor to be here, to see how much progress we have made. How my brothers and I have been able to unite and come from all over the country. It is a very humbling experience.”
While the speakers included big names such as actor Michael B Jordan, director Ryan Coogler and writer Edgar Villanueva, Obama emphasized the participants themselves were at the center of the gathering.
“The young men who are sitting on this stage and who are in the audience, they represent that kind of excellence”, Obama said, calling them the leaders of the future and saying their story isn’t told enough.
At times the atmosphere was somber and others light and funny. Obama poked fun at Curry, and joked about his preference for Kendrick Lamar’s album over Drake’s. He also responded to shouts from the crowd when he mentioned the cuts to some programs by Donald Trump.
“No, don’t boo! What do I always say?” he asked, which was seamlessly followed with an in-unison response: “Vote!”
“Don’t nobody hears your boos, they hear your vote,” the former president answered back.
Obama’s comments on confidence received the biggest laugh. He encouraged the men in the audience not to let their vulnerabilities define their actions.
“If you were really confident about your sexuality, you don’t have to have eight women around you twerking. You seem stressed that you have to be acting that way,” he said. “Because I have got one woman, who I am very happy with. And she is a strong woman”.
Strength is not to tear others down, he added, but, “show me how strong you are that you can lift somebody else up”. That’s what the program was about, he emphasized, and what he hoped would enable the young men to help themselves and each other.
“You matter. We care about you. We believe in you. And we are going to make sure you have the opportunities and chances to move forward like everybody else.”