Chicago biking advocates have big hopes for Valerie Jarrett and the Obama Foundation

May 7, 2018

by Michael Andersen, PlacesForBikes staff writer

Center for Neighborhood Technology vice president Jacky Grimshaw, Obama Foundation adviser Valerie Jarrett and Go Bronzeville leader Ronnie Harris in Indianapolis last week.

Chicagoans living and working on their city’s south side have fought for decades for their fair share of transportation investments. Now, with former President Barack Obama’s presidential center and foundation putting down roots in Jackson Park, some see an historic opportunity.

Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and collaborator of the Obama family who has served as senior adviser to President Obama and now to the Obama Foundation, brought a focus to some of those hopes when she spoke last week at the PlacesForBikes conference in Indianapolis.

In an on-stage conversation, Jarrett talked fondly about days as a young parent, riding bicycles through south Chicago with her daughter and the Obama family. Among other things, she said, the need to build biking and walking into the fabric of U.S. cities is economic.

“We need an active, athletic healthy citizenry if we’re going to compete in a global marketplace,” Jarrett said.

But active transportation — moving around in closer connection with one’s surroundings — is also a way to build Americans’ civic lives, Jarrett said.

“I want these young people to talk to people who grew up in a different place than they did,” she said. “To push them outside their comfort zone.”

Ronnie Harris, a prominent Chicago biking and transit advocate who leads the transportation outreach campaign Go Bronzeville, said after Jarrett’s talk that he sees the Obama Foundation’s planned “campus for active citizenship” as a chance to build on Jarrett’s stated goal to get more young people involved in civic life.

Harris called Jarrett, who was raised largely in Chicago by her African-American parents, “the perfect example of why Go Bronzeville exists. We exist to transform worldview perspectives about walking, biking, and multimodal transportation, so to encourage leaders like Valerie, who tells the story of how she was encouraged by her parents early on, the value in the ways biking contributes to a more flourishing life.”

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