“Being a journalist, it’s your ticket into any room,” said Lauren Smart as we sat at a downtown hotel coffee shop next to her gorgeous black dog, Lilo. Lauren was the professor who had gotten me the Dallas Observer job over a year ago, and we get coffee every once in a while to catch up. I had just told her I was going to cover an event with President Barack Obama.
“I’m not interviewing him,” I laughed, clarifying a misconception some people had when I had posted on my Instastory in all caps I AM COVERING AN EVENT WITH BARAK FREAKING OBAMA. Yes, I misspelled the President’s name. No, I didn’t notice until too late, I was drunk with excitement at the time. “I’m just going because I can, basically,” I said.
My editor had asked me to cover a breakfast with America Ferrera at a Diversity conference at the Hilton Antole in Dallas, so I was in the email thread when the conference’s PR had asked the Observer if our editor in chief wanted to cover that night’s keynote speaker, by the name of Barack Obama. (See? I know how to spell it, I promise.)
The Observer turned it down, but since lil’ ol’ me saw the email chain, I asked my arts editor if I could cover it. She said they probably didn’t need an article but that I could just go for fun. I promised I’d write an article anyway but just really wanted to go for the experience.
That day was crazy. Of course, I still had to cover the America Ferrera breakfast, which was fun. I hadn’t ever done a job that involved free food before. I was, however, running excruciatingly late and ran frantically in my heels and the borrowed blazer from my mom to get there. The breakfast was at 8, and I think I got there around 8:20, but luckily I was told by the PR people that America was still in her dressing room and I was fine. Gosh, Dallas traffic. I wrote about the Ferrera breakfast, and that article was published.
After the breakfast I had to book it to my 11am Typography class at SMU. I had back-to-back lectures and had to turn in a final project, and was finished around 4pm. I then camped out at La La Land Kind Café, a new favorite, before I headed back to the hotel to see Obama.
My pants were very tight all day, that’s mainly what I remember from this period of time. But the most satisfying part of the day? There were thousands of people in line to get into the President’s speech, all having to go through metal detectors and bag checks. But I got to walk past them all with my “Media” badge, and that felt nice.
The VIP guests got a red carpet in front of our metal detector, and there was no line. Perks. I was told to walk in with an influencer who didn’t really know what was going on half the time and was told to get off her phone a lot.
Eventually I was seated in the VIP row. The only person sitting in front of me was the President’s personal guest and friend, a former mayor of New York and former member of his cabinet. Barack Obama and I made contact many times as a result of me sitting right behind his friend, directly in front of him. In a room of over 3,000 people, I was right there in front of the 44thPresident of the United States.
I did write up an article on this, but since there were lots of changes going on with the arts editors at the Observer at the time and I was never officially given an okay to write it up, it didn’t get published. So here it is, my Obama article!
Who better than President Barack Obama to speak at the 15thAnnual Diversity & Leadership Conference? Thursday, the former President came to the Hilton Anatole to inspire thousands of leaders towards facilitating more inclusive workspaces.
The Trinity Ballroom at the Anatole was set up with seating for 3,000 people, and still there was not enough room. Up until the last minute, hotel staff were scrambling for chairs for some of the highest VIP ticket holders. Companies like Amazon, Toyota, and more had their leaders seated at the president’s feet.
Dennis Kennedy, the chair of the National Diversity Council who started the organization in Dallas which led to a nationwide movement that caught the attention of the President, moderated the event. He introduced Obama, as a “name synonymous with change.”
When President Barack Obama stepped out onto the stage, the cheers were not unlike when a boyband heartthrob appears at a concert. It had been exactly 811 days after he left office, according to Kennedy.
“What have you been up to?” Kennedy asked when the crowd finally settled down.
The President mentioned catching up on sleep and spoiling his wife Michelle, saying, “Whatever she wants, I do. I owe her that.” He has also spent a lot of time with his girls and is working on writing a book.
“I’m a little behind Michelle, she’s about 30 million copies ahead of me,” he joked.
After the brief catch-up, the President spoke on the big topic of the conference, diversity. He began with the fact that we must “overcome these instincts that there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ and start moving toward a ‘we’.”
In a time where it feels like left and right millennial-bashing is trending, Obama was quick to point out something to learn from them. “You’ve got a generation coming up that instinctively understands and respects inclusion, they appreciate this instinctively,” he said.
The President gave practical examples on how organizations can better their inclusivity. He had to speak up about wanting a diverse staff during his time at the White House. He wanted to make sure he had different types of people in the room, going through a process of making sure it wasn’t only white men as candidates for jobs. “Once you do that process, you may not have people with the experience in which you can elevate them to a higher level. So we implemented something at the White House,” said Obama. Since he noticed minorities weren’t given the same opportunities and so weren’t always qualified with the same experience as others, he made sure the “hot shots” as he called them, who had potential and not as much experience were trained “to be qualified to fill in those senior spots later.” Then he added, “be patient, it doesn’t happen right away.”
“You have to shut down the idea that diversity and inclusivity is an opposition to excellence,” said the former President. He went on to talk about gender equality. “Every study shows that an organization that is made up of half or more women outperforms the organizations that don’t… Performance shows women will get the job done.”
He made sure to point out the different types of diversity. He wasn’t just talking about race, because diversity is so much more than that. He emphasized the importance of having people of different socio-economic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and more. “We each come to the table with blind spots,” he said, stating that the goal is that “everyone comes to cover each other’s blind spots.”
He talked about the different ways in which he tried to be inclusive in the situation room or with his cabinet members as well as things he learned about leadership during his time as President. “I learned that I like having people smarter than me in the room.”
Obama never directly talked about the current White House administration, though he did say that when he was at the White House, “we didn’t have scandals or people going to jail… people might make stuff up, but we didn’t.”
The former President was also asked for marriage advice. He kept the audience laughing with funny anecdotes of the ups and downs of one of the most famous marriages in the world.
And then, probably the most controversial topic of the night- barbeque.
During a rapid fire miscellaneous questions segment at the end of the night, Dennis Kennedy asked Barack Obama who had the best barbeque, “Kansas or North Carolina?”
The audience got heated.
“What about Texas?” Obama asked. “Let me say, there’s some good barbeque in Texas… without naming a place, the best barbeque I ever had was in Texas.”
And with that, the audience was satisfied.