Valerie Jarrett speaks at annual MLK Breakfast

MLK Winter
The "Stone of Hope" is seen at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Former Obama White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett spoke Monday at the 2023 MLK Breakfast in Minneapolis. The annual event is presented by UNCF and General Mills.

Jarrett is now CEO of the Obama Foundation. At the breakfast, she talked with Twin Cities attorney Abou Amara about the inspiration she takes from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., when she first met Michelle and Barack Obama and what to expect from the new Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s south side.

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Audio transcript

SPEAKER: Thanks for joining us on this Monday afternoon on MPR News. For Minnesota Now, today we're listening to a selection from the annual MLK Breakfast, held this morning in Minneapolis. The annual event is presented by the UNCF and General Mills.

This year's featured speaker is former Obama White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. She spent eight years in the administration and is now CEO of the Obama Foundation. She spoke this morning with Twin Cities Attorney Abou Amara.

ABOU AMARA: Good morning, Ms. Valerie Jarrett.

VALERIE JARRETT: Good morning, Abou. How are you?

ABOU AMARA: It is an honor to be here.

VALERIE JARRETT: Thank you. It's an honor for me.

ABOU AMARA: I will keep my fangirling to a minimum.


VALERIE JARRETT: All right, that's good.

ABOU AMARA: But I'll do an honest level set. You are in the Twin Cities, the home where George Floyd was murdered, just miles from here, where a police precinct burned just a couple of miles from here, where babies are hit with bullets in their home just miles from here. That's the context in which we are here today. And so as you look at those words, "Keep moving forward," in that context, what do those words mean to you?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, that is a very sober message to begin with. And I will say, the world is watching and has been watching what's been going on right here. And I'm honored to be here today as we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. And what those words mean to me, in the context of his words-- using his words-- were we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice.

And I say that because when you say keep moving on, you recognize the shoulders upon which we all stand. What happened and has been happening in our country is over that long arc. And what I hope you all recognize is that there is a mighty stranglehold on the status quo. It's one of the many lessons I learned in Washington. And the only way that change happens is when we, the people, demand that it happen. And we can do that non-violently.

We can do that with our voices, with our actions. But it takes time. And I was thinking earlier about the remarks about-- in this era of social media, where everything happens so quickly, our expectations are that the thunderbolt happens when we're here. Where is our humility? Where is our appreciation that you have the baton and you run with it, just as those foot soldiers did under the leadership of Martin Luther King and John Lewis and so many more.

You run with that baton as hard as you can, while you can. And then you turn the baton over to someone else. And over that long arc, we move towards justice when we do it together and keep moving forward. That's what it means to me.

ABOU AMARA: So talking about the beginning of that arc, let's talk about your beginning of your arc.


ABOU AMARA: You have a great duality, it seems to me. On one level, you are deeply rooted in community and the political realm here in America, but you have an international background context that gives you this duality, a sense of something bigger than yourself. Can you talk a little bit about where you were born, the time you spent abroad, and how that informed who you are today?

VALERIE JARRETT: All right, so my road begins with Barbara and Jimmy Bowman, in terms of where I was born. My parents, who grew up-- were born in the '20s, grew up in the '30s and '40s. And obviously, during Jim Crow, my mom, Chicago-born and bred, my father, Washington, DC-born and bred, met, fell in love. My father joined the military.

And when he was leaving the army as a physician, having gone to Howard undergrad and Howard Medical School, he could not find a job at a major teaching university in the United States comparable to what his white counterparts were. So he and my mom-- who were a little crazy, I might add, back then-- decided to look for opportunities outside of the United States and found a job to start a brand new hospital in Shiraz, Iran, and chair the Department of Pathology-- a job that was not available to him in this country.

And they knew nothing about the country, the culture, the language. I don't think they'd been out of the United States except maybe one point, by that point. But this was an opportunity for him. And so off they went. And I was the second baby born in the hospital that he helped start. They practiced on some other baby first.


Not sure what happened there. But I was born. And we lived there until I was five. And my father did some research in Iran that caught the attention of people at the Galton Labs at University College of London. And they offered him a year fellowship. But my parents were getting a little homesick, so they said, well, let's go to London for a year. We can always go back to Iran.

Well, he gave a paper at some international conference, from London. And don't you know, the dean of the University of Chicago Medical Center was at the conference. Now, the University of Chicago is located in Hyde Park in Chicago, the neighborhood where my mother's mother and her sister and her entire extended family live. Well, the person-- the dean-- offered him a job.


VALERIE JARRETT: This is six years after he left the United States. And so he's offered this job and becomes the first Black tenured professor at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Now, the lesson that I grew up with, that I've gained a better appreciation for as I have-- over the arc of my life, is, number one, he used to always say to me, the shortest distance to where you want to go means you better be prepared to take the scenic route.


If he hadn't gone to Iran and done that research there, it wouldn't have caught the attention of the folks in London, and it wouldn't have led to the job back in the United States. The other thing I learned in Iran was to get along with everybody. I grew up in a hospital compound where there were kids from the United States, from France, Italy, Great Britain, Iran. And kids are kids. We learned to play together. We all spoke French and English and Farsi, sometimes in the same sentence--


--because we walked in, and we expected to find what we had in common and not our differences.


VALERIE JARRETT: The other thing I learned outside of the United States is as challenged as things are, oh, my goodness, if you can imagine a very underdeveloped country back then that is not a democracy, where women did not have rights-- my mom was the first woman to get a driver's license in the city we lived in-- clean water, clean food, absence of illnesses for which there were no treatments, an appreciation for the United States.

And the final lesson I learned there, Abou, was that the United States is an incredible country. But hey, guess what, everybody, it's not the only country on Earth. And we can learn a great deal if we're willing to be curious and look outside of our own shores.

ABOU AMARA: Absolutely.


So it seems, there's a thread there with your parents that education was central.

VALERIE JARRETT: Education was central.

ABOU AMARA: And so you get your education. You go to law school. And as someone who's gone to law school and questions it from time to time--


--what drove you to want to get into law?

VALERIE JARRETT: Couldn't figure out what else to do, honestly.


I mean, I will tell you the truth.

ABOU AMARA: Very common answer, by the way.


VALERIE JARRETT: Everybody in college had this 10-year plan. And so I thought, well, I better have a plan too. And I just decided-- well, my best friend was two years older, and she was in law school. She said, go to law school. Buy you some time. And I confess this to you because it's probably not the best reason to go into the law.


And for six years, I was just kind of doing what everyone else thought I should do. I was the first lawyer in my family. My parents were very proud of me. I had a very beautiful office looking out on Lake Michigan in a high-rise in downtown Chicago, very prestigious law firm. And I would wake up, and I would say, this must be somebody else's life because I was not meant to be this miserable.


And I'm telling you all my secrets because I feel like I'm at home here with you all, right?


I have to tell you, I was meeting with Amy Klobuchar, the lieutenant governor, earlier. And Amy said, good thing you're wearing your purple glasses. I said, do you think it will make me feel at home? She said, absolutely. Keep up with the purple glasses here. Plus, Prince is my favorite. But anyway, now, I've completely lost my train of thought.


ABOU AMARA: So the moral of the story is think about going to law school before you actually go to law school.

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, that is the moral of the story. But also, what motivated me to leave that big law firm, in addition to being really miserable-- and I was about to tell you about at the same time as I'm miserable in the law firm, I had a baby and came back from maternity leave. I was in the middle of a divorce. And I would look at this baby, who's now 37, and I would say, am I doing anything that she will ever actually be proud that I'm doing?

And my mom was a working mom. And I was so proud of her. I was proud of everything that she did in her career. And also, she made me feel like the most important thing in the world. And I just did not believe, if I kept at that law firm, Laura would ever really be proud of me. And then what happened was Mayor Harold Washington, who was the first Black mayor of Chicago, was re-elected to office. Thank you. Oh, my lord.


And any of you who know Chicago, nobody believed he could get elected once, let alone twice. And when he was re-elected, a dear friend of mine saw how miserable I was. And he said, Valerie, why don't you take your legal skills into local government, where you will be a part of something bigger and more important than yourself. And something about that resonated with me.

And he said, your clients won't just be these big corporations. They will be the citizens of Chicago. And I took this enormous leap of faith. I left that beautiful office. I walked into city hall my first day. And my boss said, let me take you to your office-- with air quotes-- it's never good when you get those air quotes, right?


He takes me to a cubicle with a window facing an alley. And I will confess to you, I did gulp. And I said, what have you done? My mother said, I spent all that money on tuition, and you're going to go work in city hall? And honestly, I've never looked back. It was the best thing I could have done.


ABOU AMARA: And so you leave private practice. You go to city hall. And a couple of years later, in 1991, a resume crosses your desk by the name of Michelle Robinson. Walk me through. You see this application. It looks great. You're hearing good things. Walk me through that whole experience.

VALERIE JARRETT: Yeah, so by that point, Mayor Daley is in office. And he promotes me to be his deputy chief of staff. And after 10 years total of practicing law, I will say I thought twice about that. And I thought, well, I didn't enjoy the first six years, but I really loved those last four years. And so here I am, in the mayor's office, trying to recruit staff. And as you said, Abou, I received this resume. And I looked at it, great credentials.

So I call up Michelle Robinson. And I said, would you like to come in for an interview? And I can still see her walking in my office. And she was tall and elegant, but simply dressed. Her hair was all pulled back, barely any makeup, shakes my hand, looks right at me-- and she's like 27 years old, this kid walking into the mayor's office-- and I thought, well, you're awful confident.


ABOU AMARA: For good reason, we find out.

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, as it turns out.


But I did not know that then. So she sits down. She sees her resume on my desk. And she never mentions a word about Princeton undergrad, Harvard Law School, Sidley Austin. She tells me her story, which I encourage anyone to do in an interview because that's how you get to know a person, right? Her credentials were like table stakes. I needed to know who she was and what was motivating her to leave her law firm or to consider leaving her law firm.

And she said the story you all know now-- she was working class family, parents hadn't gone to college but valued education, instilled in she and her brother Craig this sense of excellence and responsibility to give back. And she also shared with me that her dad and her best friend had died in the prior year. And the finality of that made her realize, am I leading a purposeful life?

Am I doing what I was put on this Earth to do, to the best of my ability? And she said, and so I want to see if this is a place for me. Well, I was blown away. I gave her an offer on the spot. I didn't have any authority to give her an offer. I gave her an offer.


Who could resist, right? And so wisely, she demurs. And she said, let me think about it. So a few days later, I call her. And I said, well, I thought we bonded. We clicked. We, you know-- I'm trying to make my daughter proud. You're trying to live up to the expectation. She said, well, I got bad news. My fiancé doesn't think it's such a great idea.


I said, well, who is your fiancé, and why do we care what he thinks? So she laughed, just like you're laughing at me. And she said, well, Valerie, he started his career as a community organizer. And he's not the biggest fan of the mayor. And he wants to know, who's going to be looking out for me?

And so people have often said to me, when I tell them this story, well, isn't that odd that she's so worried about her husband, because then she says, well, will you have dinner with us and we can talk about it? And I will say to you what I have learned in the 31 year since that dinner, that they've never made a decision that involved either of their lives, where they weren't both involved in the decision-making process.


So it was not sexist of him. In fact, he's made a lot more decisions where he needed her at the table. I digress. So anyway, we have dinner.


We have dinner. And he says, where are you from? I said, Chicago. He said, did you grow up here? I said, yep. He said, were you born here? And let me tell you, you know it's going to be a story when you have to explain why you were born in Iran. And I kind of take a deep breath. And I was like, well, I was born in Iran. And he said, well, that's interesting. I said, it is?

And he goes, I lived in Indonesia for a while. And I went, well, that's interesting. And we started comparing our experiences. And those three lessons I told you I learned in Iran, he said the same thing about Indonesia. And so we clicked. And so to make a very long story short, she did come and join me in the mayor's office. And well, the rest is history.


ABOU AMARA: I think that's just a powerful story. So you are now in close relationship with a Michelle Robinson, a Barack Obama, and you see their rise. You've been around leaders and seen their rise. Talk to me about the character traits of each of them as you've gone on this amazing journey from, literally, the state house to the White House.

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, I will quote to you what Michelle said about her husband at the second Democratic Convention. And she said people often say to her, what's changed in her husband since he was elected president? And she said, nothing's changed. It is simply revealed who he is. It's a test. And people see how you are under that test.

And so through the 31 years that I have known them, the same qualities that I saw in them at that dinner-- character, love for each other, respect for each other, a commitment to service-- because he shared with me that night that he was interested in public service, and he said, I don't know whether I'll run for office or join an administration. But I want to take my skills. I want to give back.

And so they both had this burning desire to give back. And I will confess to you, at the end of dinner, I looked at these two, and I said, one, I think they will be married forever, and, two, I think maybe-- just maybe, Abou-- one day, he could be mayor of Chicago.

ABOU AMARA: Oh, wow.


VALERIE JARRETT: So he reminds me on a regular basis that I did underestimate--


--him at that moment.

ABOU AMARA: Just by a little bit.


ABOU AMARA: Just by a little bit.

VALERIE JARRETT: But what I've seen is they've grown. Certainly, they've matured. But those core values that they had, that led him into public service and that led her into a life of service as well, have not changed. They've remained constant. They are still the exact same people that his mother and her father and mother raised. And they still have those important core values. And what you learn over the arc of time is about friendship and relationships.

And I may have started out their mentor, and I remember when he first offered me a job in the White House. I was running a real estate company. I was on a bunch of corporate boards, not-for-profit boards. I was chairing the board of the University of Chicago Medical Center, where my father had worked his whole career. And I said, well, you know, I have a life in Washington. And I'm kind of used to being the boss of you.


And he said, yeah, I get that. But I'll be the President of the United States, leader of the free world. Maybe you could come and learn some things. And so the point is that in all of our relationships that withstand the test of time and the vicissitudes of life, you get to know and trust and respect each other and grow together. And then it becomes not a professional relationship or a personal relationship, it becomes a relationship. And that's the elixir of life.

ABOU AMARA: Yeah. Can you take us into the White House? Some of the most difficult decisions that the world faces, you have arrows coming at you left and right, legitimate, not legitimate, whatever it is, how do you-- to quote Dr. King-- how do you keep moving forward in that context when you are constantly under assault but taking on big, important challenges on behalf of the American people?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, I'll tell you a story, which I haven't told in a while. But it's a story I'll never forget. So I was terrified every minute I was there-- let's stipulate with that-- old enough to appreciate the gravity of the opportunity that the president had given me, recognizing that the decisions he made affected hundreds of millions of people, not just here, but around the world, because that "leader of the free world" part is actually quite true.

Everybody looked to the United States as this beacon of democracy. And he was this incredible symbol of hope and change. And so as inspirational and empowering as it was, it was also quite terrifying. And so I thought to myself, what can I do to ground myself every single day and not get caught up in the mishegoss-- Senator Klobuchar-- of Washington-- which you know so well-- but remember why I'm there.

And that's the key to it, is to remember that you are there in service. And I learned all about service in local government in Chicago. And hats off to those of you who are in local office or who work for local government because your constituents are proximate. You can't get away from them. They come up to you in the grocery store and the dry cleaner.


People used to lobby my six-year-old daughter when I was in government, as it should be-- 24/7, as it should be. And that was such an important lesson to have learned in local government. But the story I want to share with you was on the campaign trail back in 2008. We were in Austin, Texas. And I'll never forget, early one morning-- and President Obama, may I say to you, is not a morning person.

I am. I wake up cheerful. It was always quite annoying to my mother and to President Obama when I bounced into a meeting. And he'd say, just take it down a notch. Take it down.


Give me a minute. So here it is, 7:30 in the morning. He has a cold. He just finished a debate with Hillary Clinton. She was really a good debater. And he didn't enjoy debating with her one bit. And so he's not in the greatest mood. And we get in the elevator. And there is a Black man who's the elevator operator. And he clears his throat. And all I could think about is, I would not start chit-chatting right now. I just wouldn't do it. I've been there. It doesn't go well.


And he ignored me. And he said, sir-- senator, I'd like to give you something. So I'm nosy. I look over, see what it is. And it is a patch from his military uniform. So President Obama-- then senator-- recognizes what it is. And says, oh, sir, I couldn't possibly take that. They go back and forth, back and forth. And eventually, the gentleman says, sir, I've carried this with me every day for 40 years.

It has given me the strength when I have had challenges. It has been my rock. And I want you to have it because I think have some challenges ahead of you. How right he was. Well, I burst into tears-- burst into tears. I mean, I couldn't imagine somebody-- and this is before people started sending their newborn babies over a rope line, you know, 10 deep. Here, president, catch my baby. Give it a hug.


This is before any of that started happening. So I was really very moved by this act of generosity. So later in the day, I say, President Obama, what'd you do with the patch-- I said "Barack"-- what did you do with the patch? He said, I put it in my pocket. And I thought-- no offense to the men in the audience-- typical man. I didn't ask you where you put it. I meant, how did it make you feel?


You know what I'm talking about, right? OK, so he says-- he gets the best of me. He says, I meant, I put it in my pocket. And he reaches in his pocket, and he pulls out all of these trinkets that people had given him. And he tells me the story behind each one-- their name, if he knew it, what moved them to give it to him, what they said to him, and why they were so precious that he kept them in his pocket.

And to this day, if you say, empty your pocket, he's going to pull out some trinkets. And he said, this is what keeps me moving forward. And that's what should keep you moving forward too.


ABOU AMARA: He's popular.



VALERIE JARRETT: So every single, for eight years-- and I got there before the Obamas, while they were at the parade-- because I don't like cold-- I went in to find my office in the West Wing. And when they left for the inauguration, I stayed behind until Secret Service said, Valerie, you do have to go now.

So all eight years and every single morning, for eight years, when I came through the gates of that White House and I pinched myself and said, what is this little girl from the south side of Chicago doing, going in that building, that incredible building, and I thought about that man. And I said, do something today that makes his sacrifice worthwhile.



That's great. So you served two terms.


ABOU AMARA: And you say, more Obama. [LAUGHS] And so you transition out. And now you're leading the Obama Foundation. Talk a little bit about the foundation, its efforts. I mean, there's obviously alignment with investing in young people.


ABOU AMARA: The Futures Series, I think that's a really important project. Talk a little bit about that.

VALERIE JARRETT: Yes, so it is all about the future. Yes, it will have a library. It will tell the story of his presidency. It will begin on the first floor, by Upon Whose Shoulders We Stand, because they both recognize they didn't just come out and become who they are. They stand on the shoulders of many people. We are naming rooms in the center. And when I say center, it's 19.3 acres on the south side of Chicago, about a mile and a half from where I grew up.

It's going to be an incredible economic engine for the city and a beacon of hope for the world. And the rooms around the center and open spaces, most of them will be named after people upon whose shoulders we stand, including, of course, Martin Luther King, John Lewis Plaza, and I could go on and on-- Harold Washington. But it's interesting.

Because I lived those eight years, I want it done excellently because it will be designed to not just educate and inspire, but to empower everyone who goes through it to want to do something differently in their life when they finish the story and tell their own story. But then-- and this is what is the magic of what both President and Michelle Obama are interested in-- it is very forward-looking.

We have programs now in Asia and Africa and in Europe. Here in the United States this week, we will be launching a US Leaders program. And we'll be working with the next generation to try to help them be change agents for the future. We have My Brother's Keeper, which was launched when President Obama was in office, designed to change the trajectory of the lives of boys and young men of color.

We have the Girls Opportunity Alliance, designed internationally and locally and domestically to help young girls stay in school and get the education that we know they all need so desperately. And the Futures program you have is local. We are right across the street from Hyde Park High School, a public high school in Chicago that is about half vacant right now, in what is a very poor, predominantly Black community.

And we have to be partners to that high school. And so we bring in speakers in our Futures Series because I believe children can't be what they can't see. And so both Obamas have been there. I have been there. Michelle Obama's brother has been there. Mae Jemison, first Black woman astronaut, will be there, whose sister went to Hyde Park High School.

We are bringing in people who are household names and people who aren't to try to help these young people aspire, to appreciate why their education is so important and to go on to college. And so-- thank you.


Thank you, governor. I know how important education is to your governor, beginning with early education and trying to help our families take care of their children. This is so important. And it is why-- one of the many reasons I'm so delighted to be here with you today-- is because our foundation is your foundation.

We will only be as good, in terms of moving forward in the future, helping our young people have the skills they need, unless we have all these incredible partners on the ground. And part of the magic is giving people the sense of the most powerful office is the office of citizen.

ABOU AMARA: That's right.

VALERIE JARRETT: There is something each and every one of us can do--


--just a little differently than you've done before. So that's our hope with the foundation, is to inspire. And not only inspire and empower, but also connect people. You don't have to physically come to the Obama Center. We will have a-- using technology to bring us all together, the world over.

ABOU AMARA: Yeah. It's exciting.

VALERIE JARRETT: It is exciting.

ABOU AMARA: One thing that, I think, today gets confused with is I don't look to Dr. King just for nostalgia.

VALERIE JARRETT: Oh, goodness.

ABOU AMARA: I look to Dr. King for instruction. And so as you think about today, whether it be his speeches, his sermons, his writings, which ones stand out to you and resonate and keep you moving forward?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, so many. And I will tell you the one-- to paraphrase one of the lines-- well, first of all, can you believe that there is a monument to King on the mall in DC?


I mean, take a moment and appreciate. When that idea was first mentioned-- Amy, am I right?-- people thought that was just crazy. There was no way. Can you believe we have a national holiday? And to the point that was made earlier by Dr. Lomax, he was vilified at the time of his death by so many. And so the fact that we have this moment, this holiday, this opportunity to celebrate and to motivate us to want to move it forward, I think is incredible.

And so when I think about what he meant to me, it is the phrase that is on that monument, one of the many phrases on there, about how we are inextricably linked and that injustice anywhere should be intolerable. We cannot have justice for me and not for you. And this sense of that inextricable link, tied together in that fabric, is what I hope that we all leave here thinking about.

And it could be as simple as knocking on your neighbor's door and saying, are you OK? You know, you don't have to be president of the United States to make the difference in somebody's life. And I think the other point that I would say, from King, is what drove me into public service, that this isn't about just us as individuals. It is about us collectively. And what can we do?

What is our part that we can uniquely play to move that moral arc, that long moral arc of the universe, towards justice? And you were lucky to have an attorney general, Keith Ellison, who I worked with so closely when he was in Congress--


--who was fighting each and every day on behalf of the people of this state and the many other-- those of you in law enforcement, we thank you for your service. We appreciate your sacrifice. You put yourself in harm's way every day for us.


It's that social contract that he so uniquely understood. And knowing and wanting so desperately when he said, I may not get there with you, was to instill in us that this was not about him. It was about us.

ABOU AMARA: Last question--


ABOU AMARA: --we have hundreds of people in this room. We have thousands watching. People are going to leave this room and feel a sense of purpose, a sense of dedication, but may need some guidance. Are there any parting words you have for the people here watching and the people virtually watching across the country?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, those of you who are watching, we really want to welcome you into this community of family. And looking around this room and seeing so many extraordinarily talented people who, whether you are in business or in public service or working for important not-for-profits, just remember, we each can make that difference. There's just something you can do.

And you don't have to do it all day long, every day. But just think about someone other than yourself. And I think one of King's lines, that I suppose is the perfect one to close on, is make a career of humanity. If that's your career, if that's your true north, if that's your guiding principle, you can help end this toxicity.

I think many of us see what's happening in Washington and what's happening around the world, what happened right here in your hometown, and we are left with a feeling of hopelessness, a feeling of, well, in that arc of when King marched and demonstrated and was responsible for so much progress, have we really made progress? Remember, the arc is long, but it will bend far stronger and far faster with each of you. Thank you so much, everybody.


ABOU AMARA: Put your hands together for Miss Valerie Jarrett.


SPEAKER: We've been listening to the program from this morning's MLK Breakfast in Minneapolis, featuring former Obama White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, talking with Twin Cities Attorney Abou Amara.

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