News Brief

Obama: “Listen to People First”

We can’t make progress on sustainability unless we meet people where they are, said former president Barack Obama at Greenbuild Atlanta.

Sustainability has to be for everyone or it won’t get real traction, suggested former U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking at Greenbuild 2019 in Atlanta.

Obama speaking at Greenbuild Atlanta

President Obama speaks at the 2019 Greenbuild conference in Atlanta.

Photo: Oscar & Associates
Connecting the two most daunting issues of our planet—climate change and economic inequality—Obama noted, “It’s hard to figure out how we solve sustainability and deal with climate change if you also have huge gaps in wealth and opportunity and education.” He continued, “What happens—and we’re seeing this around the globe—as wealth gets and more and more concentrated, and more and more is used by up the few, the many become resentful. It undermines our sense of politics and our sense of community. It is hard for us then to mobilize the body politic around taking collective action.”

This is not merely a global issue, though. Obama used the example of California’s stringent building codes pricing low-income and even middle-class people like teachers and police officers out of housing in California cities. Eventually people “are going to push back against anything about sustainable building codes,” he cautioned. “If we want to think about sustainability, we need to do it in a way that’s also thinking about affordability,” or it’s “not going to get enough pickup.”

What’s the key to inclusion, though? Listening, said Obama.

“One of the things that makes an architect really terrific is if they actually care about your opinion,” he joked. “I’m paying for the darn building!”

“The same is true for neighborhoods,” Obama said. “The same is true for cities, and you have to pay attention to where are people at right now and what’s important to them and how do you shape a sustainable agenda around those concerns.”

We all have an individual part to play, he said, but that must lead to strategic collective action. He used the example of the Obama Foundation, which is designed to train young leaders to tackle big problems—not just by protesting but also by making small but important inroads into places of power. “It’s not just passion and marching; it’s also strategy and tactics,” he said, noting that Rosa Parks didn’t just sit down on the bus because she was tired. She was a trained protester, he pointed out. “This is going to be a movement that comes from the bottom up, not the top down.”

Obama concluded by saying he was optimistic that change would come, ending with, “Keep up the good work, everybody!” before being lauded with a standing ovation.

Published November 20, 2019 Permalink

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