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Obama seeks to spark US civic activism with Chicago event

Obama addressed 500 young leaders from 60 nations and 27 US states at the first Obama Foundation gathering.

Former US President Barack Obama speaks at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, Illinois, 31 October, 2017. Picture: AFP.

CHICAGO - Former US President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that at a time of political divisiveness, more civic activism was needed to solve community problems across the United States.

Obama kicked off a two-day leadership conference in his hometown of Chicago by saying it marked the start of a wider effort to promote civic involvement, a cause that has emerged as a major emphasis of his post-presidency.

“Our goal here is not to create a political movement,” Obama said. “What we need to do is think about our civic culture. Because what’s wrong with our politics is partly a reflection of something wrong in our civic culture,” Obama said in remarks that did not mention US President Donald Trump.

Obama addressed 500 young leaders from 60 nations and 27 US states at the first Obama Foundation gathering. Speakers included Britain’s Prince Harry, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, former first lady Michelle Obama, Chance the Rapper and others.

While Obama has sought to defend policies that Trump has sought to dismantle - including the Affordable Care Act and deportation protections for young immigrants - the former president since leaving office has decided to focus on building a new generation of community leaders, he said Tuesday.

He likened the gathering to a brainstorming session to help civic leaders spark bottom-up change, a lesson he said he learned as a young organiser.

The conference was held on the South Side of Chicago, where the Obama Foundation plans to build a presidential centre near the neighbourhoods that gave rise to Obama’s own community organising and propelled him to two terms in the White House.

“I didn’t lead a movement. But I did learn was that ordinary people in local communities can do extraordinary things when they are given the chance,” Obama said.

Earlier Tuesday, Michelle Obama and Prince Harry surprised students at a high school near the planned presidential centre.

Prince Harry spoke about a programme he supports in Nottingham, England to combat youth and gang violence. He said listening to young organizers was key. “They have the solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems,” he said.

Other speakers highlighted issues such as rural poverty and economic inequality and argued that community engagement can bridge divisions.

“Closing borders and erecting walls are not the answer to today’s global challenges,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.

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