On Monday evening, over two hundred students, faculty and community members filled the Michigan Theater for a conversation between Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, and Broderick Johnson, a former White House Cabinet secretary for Obama. The discussion touched on Jarrett’s experiences as a single parent working in the Chicago mayor’s office in addition to her years as Obama’s adviser and close confidant.
The talk, co-hosted by Nicola’s Books and the Michigan Theater, was meant to give the community an inside look into the White House during the Obama years and promote Jarrett’s new memoir, “Finding My Voice,” which was published on April 2.
Johnson, who noted Jarrett is the longest-serving senior adviser to any U.S. president, opened the conversation by reminiscing on their experiences together as University of Michigan law students. Johnson mentioned the two became even closer friends working for the Obama campaign in 2008.
“Over the last 15 years, Valerie and I have become very, very close friends through the campaign, the Senate campaign and then the two successful campaigns for president,” Johnson said.
The conversation flowed between discussion of Jarrett’s childhood in Iran, where she grew up on a hospital compound, and her family’s relocation to Chicago when she was seven years old. Jarrett said while her years in Iran lent her a greater appreciation for the freedom awarded to citizens in the U.S., they also made her aware of the importance of a cultural crossover and understanding.
“It gave me the sense that the United States is really an extraordinary country,” Jarrett said. “But the other thing I learned there was that … we can learn a great deal outside our shores. So it gave me the context for where the United States fits in. Coming back to Chicago, to my mother’s home and where my father did his residency, they just felt it was great because they were going home. To me, I was going to a foreign country.”
Throughout the conversation, Jarrett noted how the values instilled in her by her parents contributed to her personal growth and success. Her mother, who Jarrett called a “force of nature,” continues to work in her mid-nineties. Jarrett said her parents’ advice to work twice as hard as others resonated with her throughout her entire career and impacted her work on the campaign.
“My dad was very ill at the time, and I was with them and my mom in the hospital room … my mom looked at me and she said, ‘How did you know (Obama) could win? Not that he would win, but even that he could win?’” Jarrett said. “And I said, ‘Because you told me that if you work twice as hard, and you’re prepared and if you really get knocked down you get right back up … then it’s possible.’”
Jarrett also discussed how one of her clients, Lucille, taught her the importance of speaking up for her own needs. During their years working together, Lucille urged Jarrett to ask their boss for a promotion, which she did after nearly a year of Lucille’s insistence.
Much to Jarrett’s surprise, her boss gave her the promotion without any hesitation, though she learned years later that Lucille had spoken to the boss beforehand. Jarrett said this experience made her even more aware of how crucial it is to advocate for your rights.
“All this time I had thought I’d done a great job of advocating for myself,” Jarrett said. “She knew that it was important that I asked. She did not say to the judge to just give her that promotion. And that’s why she kept pushing me, because she knew if I asked for it, I was going to get it.”
Law student Josh LeVasseur said he was moved by Jarrett’s choice to take a job at the mayor’s office in Chicago when she already had an established position at a law firm.
“I was an undergrad when President Obama was in office the first time,” LeVasseur said. “It was fascinating to hear the stories of when he was running for office and when she met Michelle and the life-long connections they’ve always had. Being a law student, that story of going from a high paying job to public service is very inspiring and I really appreciate that about Valerie’s story in general, that sometimes you don’t want to do just what’s expected of you.”
LSA freshman Ruby Yearling agreed and said the talk spoke to her because it showed her how individuals can have an impact on society through hard work and perseverance.
“It was very interesting to hear such an intimate perspective on the Obama presidency and even in terms of how she was describing President Obama and Michelle and the little interactions they had, and how it really humanizes them and humanizes the whole process and what we saw from an outsider view,” Yearling said. “Additionally, just the overarching theme of hope and progress for young people and how we can really influence the world, that was the most important.”