Obama calls on youth to be future leaders at Oakland My Brother's Keeper event

OAKLAND (BCN) Accompanied by Grammy-winning musician John Legend and Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, former President Barack Obama sought to empower and inspire an audience of young men to change society for the better during a national gathering Tuesday of his My Brother's Keeper Alliance in Oakland.

Obama, who began My Brother's Keeper five years ago to support boys and young men of color in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, celebrated the alliance's accomplishments in developing hundreds of local programs throughout the nation aimed at reducing gun violence, building  mentoring relationships and improving life opportunities for vulnerable groups.

Most of all, however, he emphasized the role the young people in attendance at the Oakland Scottish Rite Center must play in tackling systemic societal problems, both for themselves and others.

"You can have a bunch of politicians and celebrities talk all they want, but ultimately what actually will bring about change is when all of you go back to your respective communities and activate and educate yourselves and then insist whoever it is who is in charge of making those decisions is making them on behalf of communities for the right reasons and in the right way," he said. "And if there aren't people who are doing that, they should be replaced, and if there's nobody to replace them, you should step up and prepare yourselves to replace them."

The three-day MBKRising! gathering, which began Monday with a day of community service, concludes Wednesday with sessions featuring film director Ryan Coogler and actor/producer Michael B. Jordan. Sessions are scheduled from 9:30 to 11 a.m. and 3:30 to 5 p.m., and will be live-streamed at www.obama.org. The event is not open to the public.

Sitting alongside Curry and surrounded by 23 boys and young men of color, the former president addressed topics such as mass incarceration, single-parenting, masculinity and student expulsion rates during an hour-long panel discussion that followed a performance of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going 
On" by Legend. A common theme among his comments was the need for societal change to come from the bottom up.

More than once, Obama, who began his political career as a community organizer in Chicago, mentioned the limitations of federal power in tackling issues that are front and center for urban communities, ranging from police oversight to education policies.

"You are the ones who are going to make a difference and make an impact," he said. "This is not going to be me. It's going to be you. All we are doing is providing a platform for you to meet each other, learn from each other, and as Stef said, get the confidence in your own voice and your own capabilities so that you can lead us into the future."

Obama and Curry both shared their own struggles and challenges as young black men trying to find a sense of direction and faith in themselves. Despite his upbringing as the child of an NBA star, Curry told the audience that he often doubted his abilities growing up.

"Self-confidence was something that wasn't always natural for me," he said. "I always tell people, you've got to be your biggest cheerleader, but that's harder to do than it seems at times. The swagger and confidence you see on the court right now, it wasn't always there. Wherever you are in that process, just keep fighting."

Obama shared the resentments he felt as a teenager growing up in a broken family without a relationship with his father. 

"I was all kinds of screwed up when I was in high school," Obama said. For me, I was a good kid in the sense that think I was always kind to people, I didn't have a mean spirit. But I did not have a clear purpose or clear sense of direction during a big chunk of my high school years. Some of it was anger about my father not being there."

The difference, Obama told the audience, came when he stopped thinking just about himself and started focusing on how to help others. 

Before his performance, Legend conducted a panel discussion with three women who lost their sons to gun violence: Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Martin, who was shot and killed in 2012 by a neighborhood watch captain in a gated Florida community; the Rev. Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, 
who was fatally shot by a BART police officer in Oakland in 2009; and Rep. Lucy McBath, whose 17-year-old son was fatally shot in 2012 by a white man who complained McBath's son and his friends were playing music too loudly in their car.

"This is a club no one wants to be part of," said McBath, who was elected to Congress in November. "I think we understand that God is using our families and our tragedies for a larger purpose. We are leading the charge in what I call this modern day civil rights movement."

Fulton said, "Because Trayvon was a sacrifice and Jordan was a sacrifice and Oscar Grant was a sacrifice, we need to stand up and be a voice for the voiceless."

Like Obama, Johnson urged the young men in the audience to be the agents of change: "You are our tomorrow, and you are the ones who will lead us, you will be the ones who are on the front lines."

Curry closed Tuesday's session by noting how fitting it is that Oakland should serve as the host for the first national gathering of My Brother's Keeper.

"This is a place that has a lot of history in terms of producing changemakers, and we want to keep that going."