A catalyst for change

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Obama’s adviser to appear in Ann Arbor on April 22

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Much of the work Valerie Jarrett has done over the arc of her career has been designed to improve the lives of other people.

“I stand on the shoulders of so many other people – women – that I feel enormous pride to have been able to contribute. I always put myself in the context of those who had to work so much harder before me; they really paved the path for me,” said Jarrett, 62, of Chicago. “At this stage of my life, I’m interested in paving the path for others to help them, so life is easier for them just as people did that for me. I feel like I get as much as I give.”

Jarrett, who has been named to Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list, was the longest-serving senior adviser to President Barack Obama from 2009-17. She oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs during her time in the Obama White House, as well as chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Prior to joining the White House, she served as the CEO of the Habitat Company in Chicago, chair of the Chicago Transit Board, chair of the University of Chicago Medical Center Board of Trustees, chair of the Chicago Stock Exchange, deputy corporation counsel for finance and development for Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, and deputy chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.
She recently published her first book, an autobiography called “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward” (Viking $30), which she’ll be signing at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on Monday, April 22, at 7 p.m. This ticketed event is co-sponsored by Nicola’s Books.

“Ann Arbor holds a very special place in my heart. I spent three extraordinary years there in law school. I learned how to think and argue and care deeply about social issues that are still pertinent in my mission today,” said Jarrett, a 1981 University of Michigan Law School alumna.

Jarrett was inspired to write “Finding My Voice” after her daughter Laura Jarrett, a CNN correspondent and Harvard Law School alumna, interviewed her for an oral history sponsored by Story Corp. The first question Laura asked her was “What would you tell a 30-year-old Valerie Jarrett?”

“I thought it was an interesting question. I answered it off the top of my head for the interview,” recalled Jarrett. “In the weeks that followed, we talked about many of the lessons that I have shared with her over her lifetime, and she encouraged me to share them more broadly. I thought that I would do it in the context of telling my story. I found my voice and what I’ve chosen to do with it after it became strong.”

 Jarrett found her voice in the late Washington’s administration. Previously, she was an attorney for a big law firm. Even though she had a fancy office with a nice view of the Sears Tower, she was miserable.

“A good friend of mine encouraged me to take a leap of faith and be a part of something that’s bigger than myself and give back to a city I loved. And I did,” said Jarrett. “In so doing, I became an advocate for the citizens of Chicago. I found that easy to do because many citizens weren’t used to advocacy on their behalf – that was very fulfilling,”

She continued: “I had a mentor (Lucille Dobbins), who was also my client, and she encouraged me to ask for a promotion. It never would’ve occurred to me to do. She said, ‘You should go in there and advocate for yourself. You’ve become an advocate for others, why are you not advocating for yourself?’ And so I did. Instead of getting a promotion, I got a double-promotion! I began to think, ‘With this platform, what do I want to do? What are the issues I care most about?’ That led me to the work that I’ve done since then. That was in 1989.”

In 1991, Jarrett – who had just been promoted to deputy chief of staff in Daley’s administration – first met the future First Lady, Michelle Obama. At the time, she was Michelle Robinson and engaged to the future President.

“She was a terrific young lawyer interested in the public sector,” recalled Jarrett. “I thought, ‘Oh, somebody from a big law firm who’s just as disheartened by it as I was.’ I was so blown away by her.
I remember when she first talked into my office, tall and confident. She shook my hand. She saw her résumé sitting on my desk and she never mentioned anything that was in the résumé; instead, she told me her story. It’s a story that’s now part of the American story that’s familiar to a lot of Americans as part of our history. I offered her the job on the spot.”

However, Michelle needed time to think about it. Several days later, she told Jarrett that her fiancé didn’t think it was a good idea to accept the job. 

“I said, ‘Who’s your fiancé and why do we care what he thinks?’ ‘His name’s Barack Obama. He began his career as a community organizer and is concerned about me going to work in the mayor’s office without any political background. Would you be willing to have dinner with us to talk about it?’” said Jarrett.

The three met for dinner and hit it off. In the end, Michelle did take the job in Daley’s office and Jarrett became lifelong friends with the Obamas.

“I’ve grown to be close to them both and consider them my younger siblings,” said Jarrett.

When Obama won the 2008 Presidential Election, he selected to Jarrett to be his personal adviser. She worked tirelessly to ensure equality for women and girls, advancing civil rights, reducing gun violence, allowing LGBT+ couples to get married, and improving the quality of life for working families, among many other accomplishments during Obama’s presidency.

“There were so many things (we accomplished) where I was so proud and honored to be there. There wasn’t a single day I wouldn’t have traded for any other, even on the worst days. I think the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the countless lives it has improved and, in fact, saved was extremely meaningful to me. The work that I was responsible for around gender equity and criminal justice reform, I’m also proud to have been able to play a role. I think that President Obama lifted up our country and made us all feel like we were part of something that was bigger than ourselves and we had more in common than we had differences. I thought that was important to our country and it was a symbol for democracies around the world,” she said.

In today’s polarizing political climate, Jarrett encourages citizens to vote in the next election. In fact, she and Michelle Obama launched a nonprofit organization called “When We All Vote” last summer in an effort to help raise awareness of voting to help change the culture. Other members include Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“(Voting) is our most basic responsibility as citizens. Elections have consequences that we all live with, and the only way that those who are elected represent our interests is if we get involved and support candidates whom we think can lead our country in a direction that’s consistent with our values,” she said. “Exciting people about their civic responsibilities is very meaningful to me. If we don’t like those who are representing us and the special interest groups are using a stranglehold to maintain the status quo, then the best tool we have is in the ballot box. It’s also heartening to see that so many young people are not only voting, but are running for office themselves. I think that’s just terrific. It makes me feel excited that they are running at the state, local, and federal levels.”

In addition to her work with When We All Vote, Jarrett serves as senior adviser to both the Obama Foundation and ATTN:, a Los Angeles-based media company. She is the co-chair of the board of the United State of Women and serves on the board of Lyft, Inc. She’s also a senior distinguished fellow at the Chicago Law School.

“I have a very busy plate, but everything I’m working on today, I care passionately about. I’m trying to use my voice to be a catalyst for change and empower others to discover the power of their voice,” said Jarrett. “I still remain very optimistic about our future. We are at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. There’s a lot of toxicity in the air, but I still believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things because I see it each and every day around the country. So I’m holding on to that enthusiasm and encouraging people to search for the good in one another and what we have in common rather than focusing on our differences is a part of my daily mantra.”

To purchase tickets or for more information about Jarrett’s appearance in Ann Arbor on April 22, visit http://michtheater.org/show/valerie-jarrett.

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