“Extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people” This was how the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced President Barack Obama as its choice for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, praising his active stance against nuclear non-proliferation and engaging the Arab world in the search for peace and security. Barack Obama’s emergence in 2009 was at a very crucial time in world history- shortly after the economic recession. As the President of the United States of America from 2009 to 2017, he represented the new dawn of international politics -one driven by the multilateral desire to find new ways to solve global challenges. President Obama is a record-breaker in many respects- the first African-American President of the US who enjoyed a stellar political career as an Illinois state senator from 1997 to 2004 and a US senator from 2005 to 2008. He however had to overcome several hurdles in his march to becoming the American President and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4, 1961, to an American mother, Ann Dunham, and an African father, Barack Obama Sr originally from Kenya who was on a scholarship at the University of Hawaii. He soon moved with his parents to Seattle before the parents divorced in March 1964. Obama then spent four years in Indonesia where his mother moved to after she remarried in March 1965. On his return to Honolulu in 1971 to live with his maternal grandparents, he attended Punahou School and went on to Occidental College after winning prestigious scholarships. Obama graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Columbia University in 1983 and eventually with a law degree from the Harvard Law School in 1991. Meanwhile, he had worked as a community organizer as well as a summer associate in between his educational pursuits. Obama lectured at the University of Chicago from 1992 to 1996 before beginning his political career with an election to the Illinois Senate in 1996.
Obama’s life and times should cause peacebuilders to ponder on the following lessons :
1. Turn early setbacks into successes.
Just as one of the holy books note ‘not to despise the days of little beginnings’, Obama faced severe challenges in his childhood. From an absent father to frequent changes in learning environments in the US and Indonesia to his experiments with drugs and alcohol in his teen years, he could easily have passed for a troubled teen with a very bleak future. Instead, Obama transformed his absentee father reality into a vow to be present for his children, and with excellent grades and dogged perseverance worked his way up to become the first African-American President of the United States! As youth particularly in the Global South of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America, we may have experienced societal deprivation in our formative years. However, if we start with the little resources available, we can positively influence our environments and become the change we seek. Rather than dwelling solely on your issues or shortcomings, look beyond your affairs and consider how you can become a solution to the injustice or pain in your local communities. Obama had doubts about who he was and no doubt encountered racism and bullying on his mixed heritage. He did not allow any of these stop him as they only made him stronger and more determined to excel and impact his community.
2. Set audacious goals and work to achieve them
Obama’s life reminds us of the importance of setting a high bar for our accomplishments. He had barely any significant political experience when he ran for Illinois state legislature and won in 1996. Some years earlier, he had only organized a political advocacy campaign called Project Vote that galvanized African-Americans to vote in Chicago. Despite his inadequate political experience, he aspired for a high political post in his state and won it. Characteristically, Obama met with remarkable success later as the US Senator in 2004 before finally breaking the glass ceiling in 2008 with his emergence as the 44th President of the United States. As young people, it is important to remind ourselves not to let our inexperience keep us from reaching for the stars. While it is advantageous to have experience in a particular field of endeavor, it is more important to be passionate and committed to whatever cause you are involved in. At Building Blocks for Peace Foundation, we are passionate about transforming young people into agents of peace in their local communities. We are driven by our firm belief that young people can take the lead in peacebuilding to ensure peace and security first in Nigeria which is our context and then in Africa and finally in the world. Obama’s life teaches us that it is okay to have little or no experience as far as you have a blueprint of how you want your life to turn out and you start working on it from the start.
3. Build a strong support system to get you through the tough times
The journey is long and tough. Everyone is bound to get tired at a point and consider throwing in the towel. This is why having a support system is crucial to make you realize why you set out to accomplish great things in the first place and to help you get back on track. Family is one support system that Obama has always relied upon. Despite being raised in a broken home, he bonded with his maternal grandparents as well as his Indonesian step-father and drew comfort and solace from his mother and Indonesian half-sister. Since then, the family he created has been a source of strength for him. Obama married Michelle in 1992 and has two daughters, Sasha and Malia who he constantly praises for providing him with a renewed sense of purpose as seen in his autobiographies- Dreams from my Father and Audacity of Hope. A support system in peacebuilding is also very important to avoid burning-out and straying away from the course you have charted for yourself. At BBforPeace, we draw our strength from the incredible team of volunteers who have become like family- each giving their all selflessly to advance the cause of peacebuilding. We also draw support and encouragement from fellow youth peacebuilder in Nigeria. In 2011, Obama announced his re-election campaign for 2012 in a video titled “It Begins with Us”. The earlier we started understanding that change begins with us, a better world begins with us, the faster we will get things done and the earlier we’ll achieve our goals. Just like Obama, Peacebuilders all over the world should not be overwhelmed by happenings around us but instead say, YES WE CAN!
Media Team Member,
Building Blocks for Peace Foundation.