Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama broke ground on the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago on Tuesday, beginning one of the final steps in the long delayed project.
During an event at the center’s construction site on Chicago’s South Side, the former President spoke about his desire to make the center more than just a “static museum,” but for it to strengthen democratic ideas at a time when Americans are “seeing more division and increasingly bitter conflict.”
“What we’ve seen is that in the breach, a culture of cynicism and mistrust can grow. We start seeing more division and increasingly bitter conflict. A politics that feeds anger and resentment towards those who aren’t like us and starts turning away from democratic principles in favor of tribalism,” he said.
“But the good news is we can reverse these trends. I don’t believe it’s inevitable that we succumb to paralysis or mutual hatred or abandon democracy in favor of systems that reserve power and privilege for the few as has been true throughout our history. I believe we have it in us to re-imagine our institutions. To make them responsive to today’s challenges and rebuild our societies in a way that give more and more people a better life,” Obama added.
The Obamas were joined at the event by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who, along with the former first couple, helped break ground on the center by ceremonially overturning a shovelful of dirt.
The 44th President also spoke during Tuesday’s event about beginning his political career in Chicago and what the city has meant to him and his family, saying it “taught me that change doesn’t start on a global scale. Change starts one person at a time.”
“We want this center to be more than a static museum or a source of archival resource,” Obama said.
“It won’t just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards, we want to look forward, we want this to be a living, thriving home,” he added.
The Obama library has been a controversial project ever since it was announced in 2015, when the Barack Obama Foundation officially said Chicago’s South Side would be home to the project. He also considered his birthplace of Honolulu, Hawaii, for the library, but Chicago, the longtime favorite for the library, won out.
The project, however, has been slowed by lawsuits and some local complaints. In 2019, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that tried to prevent the library from being built in Jackson Park and said that construction should begin immediately. The lawsuit was brought by environmentalists who took issue with public land being used for a private project.
Obama selected Chicago because, as he put it in the 2015 video announcing his selection, it is the place where “all the strands of my life came together.” He noted that he began his career in the city as a community organizer, launched his political career there and, eventually, claimed victory in the 2008 presidential campaign. The city is also where the Obamas met.
“The people there, the community, the lessons that I learned – they’re all based right in this few square miles where we’ll now be able to give something back and bring the world back home after this incredible journey,” Obama said at the time.
The former first lady also delivered remarks at the event, saying the center’s goal is “a lot more than to house memories of our eight years in the White House,” but rather to give back to the South Side and their former community.
“No matter what I’ve accomplished or who I’ve met or where I’ve gone, one of my greatest honors is being a proud Chicagoan. A daughter of the South Side. I still lead with that descriptor. I wear it boldly and proudly like a crown,” she said.
President Joe Biden also delivered remarks ahead of the event via a video message in which he reflected on his time serving as Obama’s vice president and what the center will mean for the South Side of Chicago.
The President said Obama’s slogans of hope and change “were not just slogans, but an expectation.”
“That’s what today represents. It’s not just breaking ground on a new building. It’s breaking ground on the very idea of America as a place of possibilities,” Biden said.
Prior to Tuesday’s groundbreaking, the Obamas met with a group of workforce trainees during their welding class at the Chicago Women in Trade training facility. The group is a part of the workforce the Obama Foundation has implemented to help build the center.
CNN’s Devan Cole contributed to this report.