Living in Washington as a young Black teacher-turned-politico during Barack Obama‘s ascension was a thrilling time. I remember catching my first glimpses of the Senator at Congressional Black Caucus events as an intern, then years later, celebrating with my Southeast D.C. 3rd graders the day after his historic victory. I crammed six family members into every corner of my one bedroom apartment so we could hop the train and brave the cold together on that beautiful January day of his inauguration. My peers moved to the city in droves, all of us inspired, motivated and hoping to catch the “Yes We Can” spirit.
But it wasn’t a Washington insider pathway that took me into the White House. After six years in D.C., I returned home to St. Louis to run a major education organization. And on August 9, 2014, a student of our city was gunned down by police, unarmed and unprepared for what awaited him. Michael Brown‘s death and the brave freedom fighters of Ferguson, Missouri, changed the course of history, the trajectory of modern social movements and the direction of many of our lives.
For me, Ferguson led me back to Washington, and this time, to the Oval Office. Seven other Black and Latino activists and I prepared mightily for that day, the first ever meeting of its kind.
Upon entering, I reminded the group that the House we were entering was built by our enslaved ancestors. This was hallowed ground—and it was our ground. Our stage to tell the truth, no matter how powerful the audience.
Just like that first meeting, every engagement I have had with President Obama over the past two years has been candid on all sides. As a member of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, I remained an active protester. My simultaneous proximity to both the streets and to power begat in me a unique responsibility to continue to speak truth to power—literally.
President Obama garnered a great deal of my personal respect throughout this time for one simple reason: He wanted that truth. Our meetings would go hours beyond the allotted time. He took copious notes, identifying each speaker by name and returning to follow-up on comments that struck him. He was serious about wanting to hear solutions and not just complaint—and he directed his staff, in real-time, to take action on several items we mentioned.
Our aside conversations let me know this wasn’t political to him—it was personal. He scored no points with an obstructionist Congress and a deeply aggressive public by having activists sit next to him and discuss—let alone address—any of our issues. For all of the critiques that he didn’t go far enough, we must remember: He lost ground being close to us. Though he is mild-mannered and calm, he was drawn as a racially divisive, anti-police, anti-peace bully by those who hated us. But he did it anyway. Because it was right. And in his Black skin, Black family, diverse staff and with his heart for equity, he had to act.
In my time working with him, it became clear that he understands, as the best elected officials do, that this is the true work of public servants: To take up the will of the people, protect the marginalized and prioritize action for justice over rhetoric for political gain.
Embarking on his policing task force process, he wanted an interim report in less than three months. When we presented it, it was clear he had read it, and challenged us to push further. As the task force negotiated the final recommendations, I, Bryan Stevenson and others refused to relent on many things demanded by our communities, including the need for independent and external investigations and prosecutions in cases of deadly police violence, lobbying our task force colleagues to our side. The resulting recommendation helped provide guidance for major future decisions, like the federal intervention in the investigation of the killing of Eric Garner.
This doesn’t mean that everything we asked for was satisfied. Since the beginning, we’ve pushed for full-scale demilitarization of local police, which we have yet to see. But in my personal experience, President Obama’s legacy isn’t defined by the few places where we may differ politically.
For me, President Obama’s legacy is defined by his determination to intentionally execute those self-evident rights for all people, through action, with integrity and putting the people first. There are plenty of reasons to love the First Black President, and indeed, the entire First Black Family. Whatever your reason, our love for President Obama and our love for our people must translate into action to continually protect progress. Whether it’s proposed national stop and frisk policies that harm Black bodies, or the secretive repeal of Obamacare that will hurt Black families, its high time to once again catch that “Yes We Can” spirit and get to work.
“Be vigilant but not afraid.” That’s what our president told us. #ThanksObama for the inspiration.
Now, it’s up to us.
Brittany N. Packnett (shown in the above photo at the White House with President Obama and Rep. John Lewis) is an educator and activist. She is Vice President of National Community Alliances for Teach For America, a Co-Founder of Campaign Zero, an Aspen Education fellow and shares the #3 spot on Politico’s Most Influential list. She is Black, proud, vigilant and unafraid.