• Urban Educator logo

Valerie Jarrett Urges Educators to Promote Civic Engagement

  • LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama for his two terms in the White House, had a clear message for her audience of urban school leaders: teach civic engagement, teach citizenship and help young people understand “there’s a social compact that goes along with being a citizen of our great country.”

    As a keynote speaker at the Council of Great City Schools’ 63rd Fall Conference, Jarrett shared her life story and vignettes from her days working in the White House. At the heart of her message were the importance of civic engagement and her concerns about young people’s seeming unappreciative, blasé attitudes and cynicism toward the electoral process.

    “It’s both the best of times, I think, and the worst of times. We live in a pretty toxic environment right now. I think social media … everybody … should have a pause button before they tweet,” she said, decrying cyberbullying. Educators, she said, can enhance the conversation by talking about civic responsibilities and a duty to be informed and to vote.

    Jarrett has joined an initiative headed by former First Lady Michelle Obama called When We All Vote, a nonprofit, nonpartisan effort to register 18- and 19-year-olds to vote. In a typical presidential election, barely a quarter of eligible voters in that age group participate. “This is nonpartisan,” Jarrett stressed. “To change the culture, we need to be inclusive, we need for all of our young people to be invested, to care about their democracy.”

    Jarrett has a new book, Finding My Voice, describing her youth; her time working for the city government in Chicagohow she met (and hired) Michelle Obama, who was a new law graduate; and several behind-the-scenes events with the Obamas as they first considered and then won the presidency.

    Jarrett also described how her family stressed the importance of education. Her mother was a co-founder of Chicago’s Ericson Institute, a graduate school in child development, where she still is active at age 91. Her father was a physician and a professor of pathology and genetics at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. A great-grandfather was the first African-American student admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    “I had the benefit of growing up in a family that valued education and invested in me,” Jarrett said. She was born in Iran, where her father had opened a hospital, and the family frequently travelled abroad in her childhood.

    She told the story of how she was miserable working at a tony private law firm and then decided to join Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s administration. “Once you consider local government, you’ll be a part of something bigger than yourself,” she recalled someone telling her.

    “And that’s where the adventure began,” Jarrett said. “I learned what it means to be a public servant. And those of you who are in local government, who are on school boards, know exactly what I’m talking about. Your constituents are proximate, to say the very least. … It taught me a lesson. It taught me to care.”