On Saturday, June 16, around 50 young adults, ages 18 to 25, gathered in the Richland Main Library in Columbia. All of them, in some capacity, were activists, hoping to gain the skills to influence change in their own communities with the training of the Obama Foundation as members of its newly minted Community Leadership Corps, or CLC.
Throughout the weekend, participants were guided by speakers from Obama Foundation partners, such as Antionette Caroll, the founder, president and CEO of Creative Reaction Lab. Caroll founded Creative Reaction Lab in response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, and works to educate and train young people to engage with communities and work toward racial equity. During one of her sessions with the participants, she led with ground rules for group, which the participants took turns reading to the room: Lean into discomfort. Address the issue, not the person. Be honest. Caroll called these “rules of respect.”
“We always start with rules of respect,” she said, before leading them in team-building exercises. “Because we acknowledge that we’re going to talk about some serious things, and we come from different backgrounds and different perspectives.”
Columbia is one of just three cities where the Obama Foundation is kicking off its CLC programming, along with Chicago and Phoenix. According to Obama Foundation Community Associate Kelsei Wharton, geographic diversity was a factor in choosing these cities.
“The Obama Foundation is focused on inspiring, equipping and empowering the next generation of civic leaders as well as community citizens. That story is one that takes on a lot of different diversity across this nation. There’s a story to be told in each one of these cities, and we’re just super excited to be engaging with young folks in Columbia,” he said.
While fielding applicants for the CLC, the foundation looked for young adults who were already getting to work.
“We want to see that you have a commitment to civic engagement already. Is there something that gets you really fired up, and inspired to get active?” said Wharton. “And then also—fearlessness…are you willing to get out there, and put your hand up, and say, ‘Hey, I see an issue!”
One of the youngest chosen participants is Danny Flores, a 19-year-old graduate of Dreher High School, who now works as a full-time Spanish Interpreter at local hospitals. Originally from Mexico, Flores is a DACA recipient, and has focused his past civic efforts on passing a clean Dream Act. He said that he’s also worked on behalf of the LGBTQ community, and hopes to continue to do so.
“I really want to create a community here for queer Latinx people like myself, because I feel like we’re not represented. I feel like there are a lot of queer Latinx people here in Columbia, but they’re just too scared to come out to their families and friends. And so I really want to create a community for us, and unite that community,” said Flores.
Fellow participant Hazel Bridges, a 25-year-old student at The University of South Carolina School of Law, said she jumped at the opportunity to work with the Obama Foundation because of her memories of the 2008 presidential election.
“The 2008 election was a coming of age for me,” said Bridges. “That was about the time that I was in school and learning about civics and government, and I got a project to follow the election, all of the candidates, and just understand their platforms. I wasn’t able to vote, but I was able to learn more about democracy, and the privileges we have here in America with democracy. So moving forward, in 2012 when I was able to vote, and cast my ballot and take part in the democratic process, I realized the importance of it.”
That experience also helped fuel Bridges’ passion for education, which she said she wants to focus on with the foundation’s support.
“I come from a family of educators, so I know that in South Carolina we have our challenges when it comes to education. So being able to create collaborative solutions, to think about, ‘What is the future of education? What do we want our students to learn?’ That is hopefully what I would like to change, and create a project centered around the youth and their education and mentorship moving forward.”
Bridges, Flores and the other Columbia CLC participants will each recruit two peers in the coming months to help implement a community program of their choosing before reconvening at later in the summer to discuss their progress.
In the meantime, Wharton said he’s confident that they’ll have no trouble hitting the ground running in Columbia.
“The work that’s happening here is inspiring for us,” he said, “because we get to see what that leadership and youthful energy looks like here in this city. We’re really proud to be here in Columbia.”