Supporters inspired by Obama’s call to action

Audience Watches Obama
An enthralled audience watches President Obama’s farewell address. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)

By Katie Watkins and Ritu Prasad

Joyce Brown still vividly remembers celebrating with the crowd in Grant Park when America elected its first black President.

“It was surreal. It was like a fairytale,” said Brown, 68, reminiscing as she watched McCormick Place empty slowly after President Barack Obama’s farewell address Tuesday night.

Brown, a South Sider, said she has attended all of Obama’s major speeches, from Grant Park to both inaugurations and felt privileged to hear his parting words. For Brown, Obama’s newfound frankness was particularly moving.

“He was more real in calling out the issues of racism, of sexism, all the things he’s been so diplomatic about,” Brown said.

She said also she was motivated by Obama’s appeal to supporters to continue his legacy. “I know that the people are not going to let all of the things he’s accomplished die. Shame on us if we let it die,” Brown said.

For many of the thousands in attendance, Obama’s urging against prejudice and his call to action left them feeling inspired and more hopeful for the future.

Chris Pilat, 34, who left a business trip early to fly in for Obama’s Chicago farewell, said the speech left him feeling energized.

“I’m super optimistic,” Pilat said. “We’re the change. It’s not one person, it’s people and our ideas…I think currents are stronger than little ripples here and there.”

Yet, Obama’s message of a positive future didn’t quell Kate Evans’ fears about the new administration, especially given the anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding the 2016 election.

“It’s dark what comes next. And listening to [Obama] speak so eloquently really made that feel real,” Evans, 34, said. She added the president’s remarks on the current situation of immigrants in America resonated deeply.

“I think we’ve forgotten that we’ve all come from somewhere else. People who are coming here now, they’re just like my great-grandfather was. …They’re the same,” Evans said, biting her lip to hold back tears.

Evans wasn’t alone in shedding tears: As Obama wiped his eyes on stage, the crowd at McCormick Place joined him.

“I didn’t expect to feel emotional,” said Arielle Rosen, 39, who flew in from California with her partner to watch the speech.

“It’s been hard to not stay in that place of anger and fear, but rather to be in a place of action,” Rosen said. “His words are reminding me that that’s where there’s power.”

Moving young Americans to act was one of the strongest parts of the president’s message.

“This generation coming up – unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic – I’ve seen you in every corner of the country. …You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands,” Obama said.

Father and Son After Speech
Skully Andrews and his son Colby attend the speech together. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)

Skully Andrews, 42, a parent of an interracial family and a middle school teacher in Champaign, said he was glad Obama pushed America’s youth toward getting involved with politics.

“[Obama] put it the best way — if you don’t like it, get a clipboard and get out there and run yourself,” Andrews said after the speech. “That was the message that I got here, that it’s not over yet.”

For 19-year-old Yasmin Affey, Obama’s presidency was her first “real one.” The Chicago native flew in from college in Connecticut for the speech “to be part of history,” after waiting in line to get tickets for hours in freezing temperatures.

Like Brown, Affey said she fondly remembers election night eight years ago when she celebrated Obama’s first presidential victory with family and friends.

“The energy [in my house] was the same energy that was in Grant Park,” Affey said. “My family loves Obama so much.”

Affey admitted she was fearful about America’s future after the results of the 2016 election, but that Obama had inspired her once again.

“I’m a little bit more optimistic,” Affey said. “After hearing President Obama’s speech about how we inspire each other, and just sitting in the room with all these people who are probably very open-minded and very accepting of others just made me a little more optimistic about the future of this country.”

Photo at top: Thousands gather Tuesday at McCormick Place where  President Barack Obama delivered his farewell address to the nation. (Ritu Prasad/MEDILL)