Earlier this week, the Obama Foundation announced that Barack and Michelle Obama will be attending the launch of the foundation’s inaugural Leaders: Asia Pacific programme in Malaysia. The gathering, which will take place in Kuala Lumpur from Dec 10 to 14, will convene 200 emerging leaders between 24 to 40 years old from 30 nations and territories across Asia Pacific. These leaders were selected as part of a year-long virtual leadership programme that seeks to build a network of ethical, value-based changemakers eager to drive positive change in their communities.
The KL event will include plenary sessions, skill-building workshops, leadership development training and opportunities for networking. After the launch, the leaders will return to their communities – the virtual support at this point includes technical trainings, educational workshops, action plan guidance, and support and amplification from the foundation. The Obama Foundation is a Chicago-based nonprofit organisation that sets out to inspire, empower and connect young people to change their worlds for the better and it is where the President has chosen to invest time in after his presidency. In an interview with Options, the Obama Foundation’s CIO Bernadette Meehan spoke about the goals for the Leaders: Asia Pacific programme, why Malaysia was chosen for the launch as well as her experiences working closely with the Obamas.
Options: Tell us more about the Leaders Asia Pacific Programme.
Bernadette Meehan: The Obama Foundation’s mission overall is to inspire, empower and connect people to change their world. President and Mrs Obama have always felt that their most powerful positions are as ordinary citizens and they want to spend their post-presidency focusing on emerging leaders around the world and helping them move into the spotlight and make positive changes in their community. We started by launching the Leaders programme in 2018 in Africa. We had about 6,000 people from Asia Pacific take our eligibility quiz and move through the application process for a total of 200 spots. They will come together for this one-year Leaders programme and the goal is to develop ethical, value-based leaders who want to change their communities and their world for the better.
The Obama Foundation model is that to improve communities, you really need to bring people to the table who work in government or the public sector, including entrepreneurs, the civil society and NGOs; and only by including all of those people in these conversations can you really make systemic change. We have folks working on adolescent girls’ education, creative start-ups, indigenous cultures, human rights, the environment, climate change, food security, public health — so it is a really diverse group of individuals.
How involved were the Obamas in the programme or selection?
They were not involved in reading the applications but they have been involved in shaping what the programme will be like and the issues that they have felt that are important to them. President Obama has been making many international trips on behalf of the foundation since he left office, but this will be Mrs Obama’s first. She felt very strongly that the work she is doing to support the girls and shining the light on adolescent girls’ education was an important reason to come to the region.
Why did you choose Malaysia to launch the programme?
We were looking for a place that is diverse in its culture and Malaysia certainly has a lot of diversity and people from different backgrounds. Malaysia has recently had a democratic election and we are excited about the direction the country is moving in. A lot of what our value-based leadership is based on is inclusivity and diversity, so the ability to go somewhere where we feel like our diverse cohort will be welcomed was very important to us. And Kuala Lumpur is a vibrant city. There is a lot going on there and I think when you look at the future of Asia, we certainly see Malaysia as a pivotal player in the future of the region.
What did the applicants in the African programme have in common with the ones from Asia Pacific, what was starkly different?
The issues young people care about around the world are very similar. But we also found that young people have this desire to be connected to other young people doing similar work. In terms of the differences, it won’t surprise you to know that they are really context specific. In Africa and Asia, the governing and political models are very different and so when you dive down under the surface, the specific needs of leaders in different regions are different just because the cultures and customs and political systems are different.
Will you maintain a relationship with the 200 leaders after the one year?
Absolutely. The Obamas feel very strongly that once you are accepted to the Obama Foundation community and the network we are building, you are part of a network of global changemakers for as long as you are continuing to do a positive work in your community. So we are working on a very robust alumni programme, where we hope to be in touch with all 200 of these leaders for many years to come.
What is the long-term goal for the Leaders programme?
We want The Obama Foundation’s Leaders programme running in Europe, Latin America and South Asia. And over time, the goal is to make this a global network. Imagine, for example, someone working on climate change issues in Borneo connected to someone in Manaus doing the same thing in the heart of the Amazon.
You have worked with President and Mrs Obama for a long time. Why do you think they attract such a global following and are so well-loved?
I have been with President Obama now for over seven years. I started with him at the White House and I will say people ask this all the time, and the honest answer is they are as genuine and real and down to earth as they appear. They are humble, loving, kind and generous. What you see is what you get with them. They are ordinary people who have done extraordinary things and as someone who has worked with them and come into contact with them on a regular basis, I should say they genuinely want to make that possible for others also.
Stay tuned for updates.