Former President Barack Obama, in his first public appearance April 24, since leaving office, chaired a panel of young people, including an Indian-American, to discuss how to shape the future.
The meeting held at the University of Chicago included 6 youth, among them Harish Patel, deputy director of New America Chicago, a non-profit. During the introductions, Patel said he came to the U.S. at the age of 14 with his mother and sister, and attended public schools. After graduating, he became an “organizer” – similar to the direction President Obama took in his early political life.
According to his resume on the website newamerica.org, Patel is an advocate for connecting innovative and inclusive local policies to regional and national political movements.
Patel was a candidate for the U.S. Congress from Illinois’ 40th District in 2015, and lost. President Obama asked him what lessons he took away from that defeat. Was he discouraged, or was it worth it? Obama asked, noting that he also lost one race for the U.S. Congress in his political life to date. Patel in turn, asked the former President how he dealt with his defeat and how young people can fight stereotypes about them, particularly as a result of high technology and social media.
“Worry less about what you want to be and more about what you want to do,” said President Obama.
“Failure – it’s terrible,” Obama said. “But if you are going to put yourself out in some way – there will be times when you screw up and don’t succeed.” But there are also times when one may do everything right and still fail, Obama said. When he lost to civil rights leader Rep. Bobby Rush in the 2000 Democratic primary, Obama said, it was probably the only time in his life that he ran because “it was the next thing, rather than what it was I wanted to do.”
The most important takeaway the former President said, was to learn from the failures and to have a sense of resilience, and look at why and how one did not succeed.
Patel has advocated for policies that improve the lives of immigrant, refugee, and religious minority communities. He co-founded Chicago Votes, a non-profit that works to engage young voters, and successfully pushed for the passage of two landmark voting rights laws in recent years in Illinois.
Previously, Patel worked as an anti-violence organizer on Chicago’s Southwest side and as Illinois coordinator for Accelerate Change, helping immigrants rights organizations test new models for large-scale, financially ,” sustainable citizen organizing initiatives. Patel is also an entrepreneur, co-owner of a fair-trade and organic clothing line, ishi vest.
The Indian-American activist has a Masters degree in urban planning and policy from the University of Illinois, Chicago.
During the discussion panel, Patel said he became engaged protesting against the Iraq War even though he could not vote at that time. He also criticized what he said was a “cult of personalities” and “cult of politics” that young people may get drawn to. “I ran for office to see what is the best way to live my life … and to make people of color believe they can do literally anything,” Patel said. He took a shot at the Illinois politics, which he said was sometimes run by few families and zipcodes. “I wanted to say that is not the way w should move forward,” when he ran for office.