It's Possible to Make a Difference—Obama Foundation COO Says This Is Key

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Original Illustration by Stephanie DeAngelis

Like for many, the latest mass shooting in Texas has left me feeling helpless. I’m not a community leader but rather someone who is looking for ways to do more during a tumultuous time, so when I was invited to join the Obama Foundation’s inaugural summit in Chicago, I found myself in a unique position. I was able to ask some of the biggest leaders a question many struggle to answer at the moment: What can we each do to help drive real, long-lasting change?

Anne Filipic, COO of the Obama Foundation, says the key is to start small. “Often folks feel disconnected and are not sure it’s worth their time when looking at the state of civil society,” she told MyDomaine in an exclusive interview. “The best way you can make a difference is not to think about national issues but to look at your own community. The steps might feel small, but that’s actually how we make a difference, by starting in our own backyards.

To me, it almost seemed counterintuitive. When there are so many life-changing issues facing our country right now—like this weekend’s shooting in Texas—what’s the point of volunteering at the local animal shelter or donating to a nearby hospital? But then I started listening to stories from the notable names in the room—like President Obama, Prince Harry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Michelle Obama—and realized it’s really just about starting, even if you are starting locally.

Ahead, I quizzed Filipic about the mission of the Obama Foundation, engaging women in politics, and what we can each do to make a difference. Here’s what she had to say.

What is one of the biggest challenges we’re facing now as a country and society?

“One example is how do we engage young people? That’s really at the heart of what the entire Obama Foundation is about because we need this next generation of leaders to step up and to lead in the years ahead.

“[The Obama Foundation is] rooted in the belief that every person has the power to make change in his or her community. We want to inspire, engage, and equip the next generation of leaders to make that mark. Right now, a lot of what we’re doing is testing various programming, recognizing it’s not about this year or next year; it’s about building programs that will last for decades to come.”

How do you feel about women’s engagement in politics? Do you think women’s issues are addressed fairly?

“I think there’s a long list of communities that haven’t been equally represented in civic life, and certainly I think there are lots of examples of how that’s true for women. That’s part of the conversation we’re having here—Rashida Jones is leading a conversation with Susan Rice and Dolores Huerta—about how we make sure we’re creating space for women. And it’s not just hoping that happens, but it’s actually, as leaders in our own right, making sure we create space for ourselves and for each other. Yes, I think that’s a really important issue and something we’re thinking about.”

Are there specific issues you’re personally passionate about and are focusing on in your work?

“One of the things we’re giving a lot of thought to is the idea of connecting across difference. This is something that’s core to the Obama’s perspective and part of the way they’ve approached their lives and their work. Research has shown when you look at the inhibitors in culture that might prevent us from having a strong civic society, one of the issues is lack of connection. People tend to see the differences between us instead of the commonality, and that, to me, seems very relevant right now. It’s one of those things that can seem intangible but is really core to our ability to build the kind of society we need to tackle the biggest issues we face.”

How can people who can’t attend events like the Obama Summit find ways to be involved in their communities?

“That’s part of what we’re really going to be developing at the foundation, not just these gatherings for a select group of folks but how we engage beyond that. For example, 20,000 people requested to attend the summit, so we’re thinking not only how we engage participants at the summit but also the folks who we, unfortunately, weren’t able to include. We’ll be building programming that can be accessed online and will be about fostering connection. We want to push each other to think big because we think that’s what’s required to solve some of the biggest challenges we face as a country and as a society.

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