President Barack Obama on Tuesday visited N.C. A&T, the nation’s largest historically black university, answering questions from students and encouraging them to stay involved in helping to change the country.
The discussion was hosted by ESPN’s The Undefeated, a website that focuses on sports, race and culture. During the town hall meeting, students got a chance to ask the president questions that ranged from advice on social justice issues, to furthering their education, to taking hold of their future. Here are some of the highlights:
‘Realize what you’re doing is bigger than you’
Obama was asked if he had ever felt defeated while president and had to pick himself back up. He said he hasn’t felt defeated since becoming president, but had before — particularly when he lost an election for a congressional seat just eight years before he was elected to the White House.
“What is true about politics that is similar to sports, though, is when you lose, you lose publicly,” the Democratic president said. “Everybody knows and everybody is talking about you. And it’s a hard feeling because I thought I had something to offer and it turns out I didn’t. And yet what I understood, maybe not the day after, but in the months that followed, had I not gone through that experience, that I couldn’t have been successful running for the U.S. Senate.”
“And it may be that God has chosen another way for me to serve, but I can still serve,” Obama said. “When you have an attitude that this is about something bigger than me, then your individual victories or defeats become less important than the broader project.”
On athletes taking a stand
Obama was also asked what he thought about athletes taking stances on social justice issues.
Obama said the two most influential athletes who shaped his perspective on what it means to be a man were boxer Muhammad Ali and tennis player Arthur Ashe. He said the two were total opposites. Ali was brash and controversial. Ashe was buttoned down, spoke proper English, “conjugated his verbs,” and was perceived as very gentlemanly. Yet, both were transformational, Obama said.
He said they were both effective creating change in society in their own ways.
“How you do it, is less important than your commitment to use whatever platforms you have to speak to the issues that matter to people,” Obama said. “To speak to issues of not just racial justice, to speak to issues like discrimination against Muslims, or sexual assault on college campuses, a whole host of issues we confront on a day-to-day basis that makes us fall short on our ideals.”
He recommended that young people get engaged, involved and educated about the issues that affect their lives, then figure out the best way to make a difference.
My Brother’s Keeper
Obama talked about his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative he started two years ago, and asked more people to get involved.
The initiative encourages mentorship for young males, particularly in communities of color. It was intended to be a call to action for mayors, Native American tribal leaders, county executives and other municipal leaders to address persistent opportunity gaps for young men of color and help them reach their potential.
He said it’s important for youth to be given second chances, and to realize they can have a second chance when they make a mistake.
“It does not take a lot to transform the life of a young man,” Obama said.
Lack of support for HBCUs
Asked how he responds to critics who think his administration could have been more supportive to HBCUs, Obama said his administration has increased funding for HBCUs.
“It is my belief that having incredible institutions like N.C. A&T (producing) engineers, doctors, dentists, is a foundation stone for building the kind of black middle-class wealth and ultimate success that will be important to the entire nation,” Obama said.
He said shortfalls and cuts to some programs come from trying to minimize debt for students and their parents. He agreed that HBCUs are struggling. But he deflected the blame onto states that have made cuts to higher education or raised tuition. He said some states are worse than others.
“North Carolina is a prime example,” Obama said.
He encouraged students concerned about the lack of resources at HBCUs to vote.
“If you don’t vote, then you will not have any say in the decisions that are made in state capitals or in Congress about the kind of support you will receive,” Obama said. “You don’t have to be an engineering major to figure out the math on this one.”
Shootings and police violence
One student asked the president what advice he would have in developing future activists and leaders in the community.
Obama said change happens when enough people come together at a grassroots level. He highlighted some of the officer-involved shootings around the country in recent years.
He said once a protest is over, activists should participate in the work necessary to achieve their goals.
In the case of police-involved shootings, he pointed to efforts to make sure people are being treated fairly and that there is transparency.