Valerie Jarrett on Inspiring Change
As the keynote speaker at the Rustandy Center’s On Board Chicago conference, the Obama Foundation CEO explored how to strengthen nonprofit board service, create new opportunities, and embrace differences.
- May 18, 2022
- Rustandy Center - Nonprofit Board Service
When Valerie Jarrett quit her corporate law career to work for Chicago Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s, her entry into the public sector was both meaningful and jarring.
“You learn how to go to community meetings where everybody is screaming at you, and you just keep showing up,” Jarrett, now chief executive of the Barack Obama Foundation, told attendees during the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation’s On Board Chicago conference.
This year, the annual conference explored how the nonprofit sector could strengthen social change in Chicago. And as the keynote speaker, Jarrett, who is also a senior distinguished fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, traced her own career path into the Obama White House and shared advice and life lessons with conference goers.
She spoke with moderator George Wu, the John P. and Lillian A. Gould Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth, about the importance of unlikely partnerships, aiding serendipity, and embracing the power of diversity. Here are key takeaways from their conversation about what it takes to promote both local and far-reaching social change.
Orchestrate Partnerships—Even When It’s Difficult
Don’t focus on the differences. Embracing just one similarity can connect individuals to accomplish a joint goal. Bridging these divides is even more important as a catalyst for change, says Jarrett, who spent eight years as a senior advisor to president Barack Obama. “In this climate, you have to push against the momentum that’s going toward polarization,” Jarrett says. “Resist the temptation to stay in that echo chamber. Behind that rhetoric is a human being with whom you can get stuff done.”
Create Opportunities for Serendipity
Going beyond formal meetings and interviews to less scripted conversations is key. A strategy that Jarrett employs whenever possible is inviting colleagues and others to her home for dinner. For instance, she first met President Obama over a meal when she was eager to hire his then-fiancée, Michelle Robinson, for a local government position. “There’s something about breaking bread together that breaks down the barriers,” says Jarrett.
Change Happens on the Ground
“We need to help people on the ground take change to scale and give them a sense of empowerment,” Jarrett says. She added that organizations that create impact locally can be instrumental in leading change across a wider population. This is why the Obama Foundation is investing in developing changemakers in the United States and worldwide through the Obama Foundation Scholars Program at the University of Chicago and Columbia University.
Boardroom Diversity Sparks Creativity
Diversity in the boardroom means much more than having a variety of voices. For boards, the ability to examine problems from different viewpoints—especially due to gender, racial, and ethnic differences—can be a powerful marker of success, Jarrett says. “There’s a certain creativity in that friction … it gives you a competitive advantage,” she says.
Use Stories to Inspire Change
When giving advice, Jarrett often sticks to her personal mantra of telling her own stories and making time to hear those of others. Sharing personal stories can be an instrument for change and builds long-lasting connections. “One of the most effective techniques for sparking change is storytelling,” she says.
Working to solve societal problems can be especially draining for those who are leading change. It’s important to recognize this and address ways to prevent burnout starting from the top, she says. At times that means spending more resources to enable those leading organizations to deal with stress. “It can be exhausting, and you see a lot of pain throughout the course of your day,” Jarrett says. “We need to be recognizing that this work is hard and thinking about what can be done to make it easier.