Valerie Jarrett is a senior advisor to the Obama Foundation and media company ATTN: and a Senior Distinguished Fellow at University of Chicago Law School. Her memoir is "Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward." Under President Obama, Jarrett oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. Previously, she was CEO of The Habitat Company, Chicago Transit Board chair, Chicago’s planning and development commissioner, and the mayor’s deputy chief of staff. She spoke in the 2019 program track, American Reckoning, American Renewal.
We asked her about overcoming challenges in early adulthood, cherished memories from her time at the White House, and how she would advise the democrats running for president.
You’ve said about your memoir, Finding My Voice, “I hoped by telling my story, the circuitous path my life and career have taken, it would give others the courage to look at what’s inside of them and their voice, and have the courage to step outside their comfort zone.” College graduates entering the workforce sometimes struggle to step outside their comfort zone because of realities like job insecurity and the rising cost of living. What advice do you have for young people?
When I was a younger working mom, I tried to be superhuman and do everything on my own without admitting to myself or anyone else how hard it was. I always felt like I was holding on by my fingertips, yet refused to ask for help. Finally, when I was completely miserable, both professionally and personally, I began to listen to the quiet voice inside me. I swerved away from practicing law at a big prestigious law firm, took a leap of faith, and joined the public sector in Chicago city government — and I divorced my husband. I moved way outside of the plan I had made for myself ten years earlier. To all the young people today, my advice would be that you don’t have to be perfect and that asking for help is realistic, not a sign of weakness. The long-term plan you have in your head for your life is probably not the way things are going to turn out, and you will almost certainly be better for being flexible and learning to swerve outside of your comfort zone. The adventure of life begins when you embrace the zig and the zag.
You were the longest-serving senior advisor to President Barack Obama. Is there one particular moment during those eight years that you’ll carry with you forever?
One moment I will treasure forever was the day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. I rushed down to the Oval Office to tell President Obama the good news and he wasn't there, so I called him on the phone. He was upstairs in his residence working on his eulogy for Rev. Pinckney, who, together with eight of his parishioners, had been killed in a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. When I told the President about the marriage equality decision, he was thrilled and came down to the Oval Office, where he had to simultaneously finish the eulogy while preparing remarks about this moment where the arc of the universe bent towards justice. He delivered his remarks in the Rose Garden, which was uncharacteristically packed with young and old staffers who wanted to be there for such a historic moment. Then, we flew to Charleston, where President Obama gave an uplifting speech reminding us about the path forward and he sang Amazing Grace. When we returned to the White House that night, we watched the sun go down over the White House, and we lit it up in the colors of the rainbow. The photo of the White House that night was the most requested photo in all eight years.
In 1991, you interviewed and hired Michelle Robinson (now Obama) for a position in the mayor’s office. Years later, you became chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. With unprecedented numbers of women in public office now, what are the best ways to foster an environment where women can continue to feel empowered to pursue leadership positions?
First, we need better policies that support women and working families: equal pay, paid leave, workplace flexibility, protections against sexual harassment, and the list goes on. We also need to be sure to pull each other up and, if we are able, to ask for what we need. Sometimes when we earn our seat at the table, we are so busy protecting it that we forget we are actually stronger if there are more voices like us at the table. When I noticed that senior women were not speaking up as much as they could in the White House in 2009, I told President Obama and he focused attention on the problem. He said: “Let’s invite the 15 senior women over for dinner, and we’re going to talk about it.” In advance, I spoke to each of the women individually. I said, “Look, the President is going to invite us to dinner. You have to be honest with him. You have to tell him what you really think.” At the dinner, he listened to them, then said he needed them to speak up on their behalf. It was what their job required, and he valued their perspective. And it worked. The culture began to change.
You’ve expressed excitement over the current field of Democratic candidates. What advice do you have for them looking towards 2020?
Be genuine — let people know you. You have to earn their trust; they’re not going to just give it to you instantly. You need to recognize that nobody’s going to hand the most important job in the world to you; you have to go out and work for it, and you have to explain not only why your vision for America is right, but how you are competent to execute that vision. I think it is that level of trust that the American people deserve. Also, be kind to each other — we don’t want to hurt each other in the primary so that we’re all weakened by the time we get to one of the most important general elections ever.
In our current political landscape, people are succumbing to cynicism and political detachment. How can we move past bitterness and apathy and encourage people to vote and engage civically?
My biggest frustration with the 2016 election was that 43 percent of eligible voters didn't vote. Disengagement and apathy are powerful obstacles to overcome. But I remain hopeful because we are seeing new, exciting levels of political engagement throughout the country, especially from young people. I have seen the students from Parkland travel the country, encouraging people to vote. I have seen all the marches where people have come forward and advocated for rights for women, people of color, immigrants, and those in the criminal justice system, where reducing gun violence and sexual assault are front and center. I have marveled at ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They are all fighting for our democracy. To be forces for good. That helps me feel more confident that better days are ahead, and that bitterness and apathy will not win out in the end.
The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.