Image credit: Dave Howells Photography
Two countries, Canada and the United States, came together on stage at the Mile One Centre in St. John’s, NL on the evening of Tuesday November 12, 2019 as social entrepreneur Zita Cobb moderated a conversation with President Barack Obama. Hosted by the St. John’s Board of Trade and spearheaded by Shorefast Board member Josh Quinton, the President’s visit dovetailed with stops in other Canadian cities, including Halifax, Ottawa, and Montreal.
The conversation started off with a shared sense of place; that of islands: the island of Newfoundland and Cobb’s home of Fogo Island off its Northeast coast, and Obama’s birthplace of Hawaii. The two leaders remarked on these shared island origins as they settled into chairs made by the Woodshop on Fogo Island. Known as the Bertha chair, designed by Donna Wilson and named for Canada’s first female supreme court justice Bertha Wrenham Wilson, the seats received the presidential review of “very comfortable.”
Beginning with an acknowledgement of his many accomplishments during his eight years in office, Zita asked the 44th President what he might have focused on had another term been possible. Greeted with enthusiastic cheers from the audience, Mr. Obama replied by noting the “extraordinary threat” of climate change, a topic that would be revisited throughout the hour-long conversation.
The pair discussed the role and responsibilities of the presidency, with Mr. Obama remarking that his “steady temperament” served him well in dealing with the realities and anxieties of the position. When asked what young people might do to prepare themselves for leadership, the President’s advice was clear: “worry less about what you want to be, and worry more about what you want to do.”
Peppering in plenty of personal anecdotes, President Obama spoke about having worked to build a White House culture “based on facts and reason and logic” in which to make decisions. When the conversation returned to climate change, he was careful to note the economic and technological barriers standing in the way of a global climate solution while reiterating that “people should not feel hopeless.” The President encouraged activists and everyday citizens to focus less on the debate about climate change (no longer a debate, in his view), and instead expend energy on finding and implementing solutions.
Zita turned the discussion towards business by asking, “what can we do to deepen and strengthen the relationships between corporations and the communities they operate in?” President Obama observed that, “we do not have a handle on how globalization is rapidly changing the relationship between capital, labour, and communities, and we are going to have to rebuild how we think about a responsible capitalism to maintain the democratic structures we have.”
When Zita asked, “How can individual citizens be most effective in tackling societal issues, both local and global?” Obama replied that “the action is at the local level” before going on to note that there are some issues that call for a wider response, such as climate change. But he was clear in his description of how this process can work: “develop models locally that you can then bring to scale,” and made mention of how Jane Addams’s settlement house movement around the turn of the twentieth century in Chicago laid the groundwork for a range of programs around social housing. Zita summarized, “so, be a contagious example?” to which the President replied, “absolutely, I like that.”
The conversation closed with some final words around connection, community, and belonging. “We hunger for connection that is true and real and tangible,” said Mr. Obama, “…the more we can create and sustain communities, the better.” He stressed the importance of adaptability and openness when he noted: “there will always be shifts that affect communities and their ability to thrive… we can preserve our core values without closing ourselves off to change.”
Echoing this sentiment, Zita made sure to present the President with an open invitation to return to Newfoundland and Labrador, saying, “now that you’ve been here, you know the way back.”