Valerie Jarrett

“While you have the baton, run with it as hard and as fast as you can,” said Valerie Jarrett, who joined Michael Nutter for a Black History Month Fireside Chat at the Harris School of Public Policy that explored perseverance, resilience, and the work that must be done to achieve change.

Jarrett — CEO of the Obama Foundation — and Nutter — a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Harris and the former mayor of Philadelphia — covered a lot of ground in their Feb. 17 conversation. They discussed politics and policy and shared personal and professional anecdotes that took them back to the White House and City Hall as the audience traveled along virtually.

Michael Nutter

Their “Racism vs. Humanity: Can the Movement Transcend the Moment?” discussion was the third in a series of Harris Black History Month events, all of which center on the power of social movements.

“We are proud to host several events in honor of Black History Month with the simple goal of educating and elevating issues of relevance to the African-American community,” said Michelle Hoereth, Harris’ Assistant Director, Diversity and Inclusion. She introduced Jarrett and Nutter, noting the many contributions they have made, and continue to make, on social justice issues.

Nutter launched into conversation with a mention of former President Barack Obama, for whom Jarrett was a senior adviser, reflecting on Obama’s presidency and his “Yes We Can” slogan.

“President Obama helped us as a country and I think as a world, first as a candidate and as the first Black president,” said Nutter. He “helped us to believe in ourselves. And that trust is being heavily tested today.”

The test, Nutter said, comes amid political division in the aftermath of the Trump administration. And amid a pandemic.

“I think that this pandemic has laid bare some systemic challenges that have been there for a long time,” said Jarrett. She pointed to health-care disparities in communities of color — communities hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19. She and Nutter spoke of other challenges, such as how women still have primary responsibility for child care in most U.S. households. Many left the workforce when schools and day-care centers shuttered. They spoke of how many small businesses, which employ nearly half of all U.S. workers, closed. And how schoolchildren, thrust into remote learning during the pandemic, suffered learning loss and  were disconnected from friends and teachers. 

“The curtain has been pulled back,” Jarrett said. “And then, on top of COVID-19, you had the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.… And the impact is that people are feeling traumatized.”

Michelle Hoereth, Assistant Director, Diversity and Inclusion

Traumatized and more, said Jarrett, who described the terror she feels about the state of American democracy for reasons including the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the United States Capitol. “When we see what happened Jan. 6, and you hear people describe that as an ordinary interaction with their government,” she said, “you just can't let that stand.”

“You need leaders at a time like this,” she said, “that are pulling us together and not separating us.”

Yet, Jarrett said, “there are still kernels of great hope out there. And a lot of it rests with the young people who are the change we have been waiting for.”

She described a meeting she’d had the day before with David Hogg, who survived the Parkland school shooting and four years later is working on gun control and registering young people to vote.

“I'm glad you made mention of these young people,” said Nutter, also an urban policy professor at Columbia University, “because you know, it would be so easy to despair.”

Young people, he added, “energize me, all the time. I keep learning from them. They're not gonna slow down. They're not gonna stop the way they deal with issues of race and gender and representation and identity and politics. They are not gonna put up with some of the nonsense that we've seen in previous years. I mean, they will call you out.”

Those same young people, Jarrett said, are one of the reasons she enjoys running the Obama Foundation, whose mission “is to inspire and empower and connect that next generation of leaders to go out and help force change.”

Such change, she said, is never easy. And it always takes longer than it should. “You just have to be resilient and pace yourself and recognize,” she said, paraphrasing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that the arc of the moral universe is long “but it does point toward justice if you push.”

One example, she said, is same-sex marriage. When Obama took office in 2009, same-sex marriage was legal in two states. By 2015, the year the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, it was legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia. A lot of people will say, “Oh my gosh. That's a lot of change in six, almost seven years. Wow,” Jarrett said, But, she said, “No, no, no. The people who were working on that had been working for decades to try to get that done.’” 

“It felt like a thunderbolt,” she said, until the length of time spent on that state-by-state strategy is considered.

Another example, she said, was put into focus with a gift from President Obama. He gave her, she said, a framed copy of the Petition for Universal Suffrage, which was signed in 1866, along with a copy of the 1919 congressional resolution to amend the Constitution to give women the right to vote. The dates were 53 years apart.

“The women who engaged in hunger strikes and demonstrations and were incarcerated, whose husbands left them back in the mid-1800s, they didn't live to see the 19th Amendment,” she said, “but … It would never have passed without their effort.”

“You have to have the humility,” she said, “to recognize that we may not get the thunderbolt on our watch. But history will look kindly upon us if we do the work.”

“Absolutely,” said Nutter. “Just do the work.”