There is something unique that happens when I enter a room filled with people of all races and ethnicities, socio-economic status, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, or disabilities and proudly say—
“On behalf of our President Barack Hussein Obama, our First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama, and my colleagues throughout the federal government, I thank you for supporting the learning and development of African American students.”
“The Obama effect,” as some researchers have called it, is especially apparent when I am in community with young people. Black children, in particular, sit up a little taller, smile warmly with glittering eyes, and lean in whenever I talk about the efforts of the First Family to support their learning and to provide greater access to opportunity. For youth who have grown up with Obama, the image of the American president will never be the same. And unlike any other time I can recall, our First Family has managed to make education cool.
From the very beginning, President Obama has championed the importance of education. With stellar academic careers at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, President Obama firmly believes in the power of a quality education. His stance on education has remained consistent: If our nation makes the investment in education, children will have greater opportunities to compete in a global market and lead happy and productive lives.
In July 2012, President Obama established The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, the program I have the humble distinction of leading. The Initiative was established to be intentional and unapologetic in working to close the opportunity and achievement gaps that often serve as barriers to success for African American students of all ages.
In addition to championing and supporting President Obama’s priorities, our work has included increasing access to high quality early care and accelerating post-secondary success; working to buttress his efforts to improve access to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics careers and the establishment of AfAmWomenLead.
The Initiative also works to reframe positive, asset-based narratives about African American students, families and communities; highlight research that has been proven to support the cognitive, social and emotional development of African American students of all ages and to give students—the experts in their lived experience—a platform from which they can make recommendations to ensure that they thrive.
President Obama’s impact has also inspired millions of proud graduates. I have had the pleasure of being the commencement speaker at numerous commencements and the Obama effect is overwhelmingly palpable at graduations. At these momentous occasions, President Obama often recalls his own journey from law student to community activist to Senator and encourages students to plan their visions of success with others in mind, as he did at his May 2013 commencement address at Morehouse College: “To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table; that everybody, no matter what you look like or where you come from, what your last name is—it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they are willing to work hard enough.”
The President has increased funding provided to post-secondary institutions including specific funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as through innovative grants such as First In The World, which supported colleges and universities in doing the work required to recruit, retain and successfully graduate students from communities that have historically had challenges successfully completing post-secondary programs of value. In addition, the President and this administration have simplified the process of completing the free application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA), improved the student loan process to and also increased support for two-year community colleges.
President Obama’s effort to make education cool was evident to me during a roundtable discussion I had with brothers from the Chabot College Striving Black Brothers Program in San Jose, California. The Striving Black Brothers talked passionately about appreciating how President Obama looks out for boys and men of color, citing the My Brothers Keeper Initiative as an example of his commitment to supporting brothers who look like him. They candidly spoke of drawing strength from the graceful ways the President deflects the haters while maintaining an authentic sense of self citing the President’s remarks after Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested attempting to enter his home and the fact that the President said “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon [Martin]” as examples.
Although President Obama has enlisted the help of educators, celebrities, athletes, and other elected and community leaders to close opportunity and achievement gaps, his strongest and coolest ally has been, of course, First Lady Michelle Obama.
First Lady Michelle Obama makes smart look easy. With an equally accomplished and stellar academic background and career, Mrs. Obama has occupied the role of First Lady like no other.
Our First Lady, as I refer to her, emphasis on OUR, has dunked on the Miami Heat, hit the Dougie with Ellen, and shared the importance of healthy eating and exercise all in an effort to advance policy and practice that impact students and schools.
Michelle Obama has been intentional in leveraging her position as First Lady of the United States to advocate for students who are often neglected and ignored. To celebrate students striving towards their education, the Better Make Room campaign promotes college awareness to increase college access and completion. The campaign works in partnership with the Reach Higher initiative, which inspires and equips students with the tools and knowledge to attain the highest levels of college success. Recognizing that equal educational access is a global challenge, First Lady Michelle Obama also champions the Let Girls Learn initiative aimed at helping adolescent girls attain a quality education and reach their full potential. Michelle Obama epitomizes smart, Black girl magic and will continue to captivate young people everywhere long after she leaves the White House.
The Obamas know what it means to be young, gifted and Black and have spent the last eight years helping the world understand the spirit of philosopher Asa Hilliard, who taught me that we will never meet a Black child who is not a genius and there is no secret to how we support them. We first acknowledge them as human and we second treat them with love.
I am honored to be a part of the Obama legacy, having led an Initiative that has worked to support the administration in part, by centering and celebrating the experiences of African American students, students who like President Obama and First Lady Obama simply needed opportunities to demonstrate all they know and have learned—a stage upon which they could shine. All of our work is aimed at ensuring African American youth position and envision themselves as experts and leaders—maybe even President of the United States.
The ability to envision dreams that have not yet been dreamt is the essence of The Obama Effect. It is the sacrifice made by ancestors who risked their lives to learn to read by candlelight and moonlight so that we would have the opportunity to pursue our passions as the First Family has. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s leadership, accomplishments, and commitment to education show us that being smart is the new cool. I smile knowing the legacy, much like the essence of Black cool, is here to stay.
David Johns is the Executive Director, White House Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans and an education policy advisor to the U.S. Senate. He is also founder of DJJ Consulting.