CHICAGO (CN) – In his first public appearance since turning over the presidency to Donald Trump, a still gray-haired but relaxed Barack Obama shared the stage with a group of young community leaders Monday at the University of Chicago to discuss civic engagement.
Obama said he came to Chicago’s South Side at 25 years old “filled with idealism and absolutely certain I was going to change the world.”
“I am the first to admit that I did not set the world on fire,” he joked of his time as a community organizer. “But it did change me.”
“Ordinary people when working together can do extraordinary things,” the former president added of the small changes that can happen over time.
Obama said he has decided that his next job should be “preparing the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and take their own crack at changing the world.”
The group gathered for Monday’s discussion, mostly Chicago college undergrads, talked about the political rift that has taken over the country and how to bridge the divide.
Max M. Freedman, a student at the University of Chicago, said he sees a “significant empathy gap” between people who are different from one another.
“It’s not just that we’re reading different news, it’s that we don’t talk to each other,” he added.
Freedman called being a Republican on a liberal college campus “sort of an honor,” showing other students that their ideas about him were wrong.
“That does change people’s assumptions, when they get to know somebody directly,” Obama chimed in, touching on campaigns he ran in the mostly red downstate Illinois.
The group agreed that it’s not just ordinary people who need to meet and listen to each other, but their leaders as well.
“I think it should go back to the old school,” said Ayanna Watkins, a high-school student. She said politicians don’t reach out to communities anymore, instead relying on advertisements and social media.
“It starts door-to-door,” Freedman agreed.
Dr. Tiffany Brown told the story of her first meeting with Obama, when she was singing in her high school choir at an event.
Brown said one politician she tried speaking to brushed her off right away, but Obama took the time to ask her name and talk with her for a few minutes. She said she felt like she mattered.
“There’s a reason why I’m always optimistic…and that is because of young people like this,” Obama said of his co-hosts.
Although he didn’t say specifically what the Obama Foundation would be doing to encourage people like Monday’s speakers to get involved, Obama gave some advice to start them off.
“Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do,” he said.