This weekend, we at improve it! had the unbelievable honor of spending our Saturday at The Obama Foundation’s inaugural training day at the Gary Comer Youth Center in Chicago! Our founder, Erin Diehl, and our Director of Talent, Cristy Mercier, were invited to lead an improv session for participants later in the day. But for me, I was there as a participant alongside 150 of my peers. The training day is the first of its kind for the Foundation, and it focused on identifying one’s key values and assets, sharing one’s personal narrative and practicing extreme empathy for others’ stories, and learning to identify root causes and implement solutions on important issues in Chicago communities.
Because of its contents, the day was an emotional one. Difficult and uncomfortable topics were brought up and we were encouraged to follow that discomfort until we found tangible solutions. improve it!’s session re-energized participants from the draining, but rewarding day. Erin and Cristy led activities to get the entire group moving with the chicken dance and practicing improv techniques within their small groups. It was amazing to see the group having fun and learning the importance of support in collaborating with others.
But as incredible as it was to see improve it!’s session, the day was far from over. The final session of the training focused on identifying an issue in our community, finding its root causes, and implementing a strategy to resolve it. Staff from the Foundation snapped pictures of some of our work and we all quieted down as the host of the event made an announcement about a special guest. The room went from complete silence to deafening cheers as Barack Obama walked out on stage and surprised us. He gave a beautiful speech about how this group of young people would make their mark and then stated that he would now workshop some of our plans with its creators. I froze and realized that was why the staff had taken pictures of my plan. Moments later, I was led to the mic and waited in line for my chance to explain the plan and answer questions about it.
As I stood there, I thought back to one idea we talk about a lot at improve it!: feeling like you belong in every room. I started the day feeling out of place around these incredibly passionate and motivated young people. A little voice in my head kept telling me that I didn’t deserve to be there. As I attempted to push that negativity aside, my final thought before stepping up to the mic was that if there was ever a time to fake confidence and composure, it was this moment. I went up, introduced myself, and we talked about my plan. He asked me questions about my outline, commented on the doodles I made for a storyboard, and gave advice on next steps. I walked away from the interaction still in shock, but also so grateful for what had just happened.
Having the opportunity to meet our former president and engage in a conversation with him is now one of my proudest moments, but I want to make a point about fear and uncertainty here. I think it’s okay to feign confidence if you don’t have it all the time. That notion that “action cures fear” is a real lesson in why we should push ourselves out of our comfort zones, even if we’re terrified of what we’ll encounter. If I believed that inner voice of fear, I wouldn’t have accepted my position at improve it! If I believed that inner voice of fear, I would have missed out on being a part of this empowering team, never would have been able to attend The Obama Foundation’s first training day, and never would have met Barack Obama.
I’m not sure we will ever be able to put into words what this day meant to us at improve it!, but this is my attempt at it. I am so grateful to have been in the company of young leaders and activists from all around Chicago. I will never forget meeting Barack Obama and hearing him speak. Thank you to the staff at The Obama Foundation and the Gary Comer Youth Center for organizing such a powerful day, the peer facilitators for inspiring me to no end, and every single participant for allowing improve it! to be a part of this unforgettable day.
Jenna McDonnell is a graduate from DePaul University, where she studied in the Honors Program with a double major in Organizational Communication and Media. Through internships in both the nonprofit sector and business world, she has two years of experience in social media and digital marketing.
At improve it!, she is the Client Experience Associate and focuses on building and maintaining client relationships.