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Greenville Business Magazine

‘Why Can’t This Be Different?’

Apr 22, 2022 02:13PM ● By David Dykes

(Pictured: Michael Strautmanis. Photo provided.)

By Donna Isbell Walker

One way Gen-Zers can turn idealism into action is to learn how to work with people who don’t agree with them and find the best way to compromise so their goals and ideas have better chances of becoming reality.

That was part of the message Michael Strautmanis wanted the audience to take away from his keynote address at Clemson University’s Men of Color National Summit.

Strautmanis is executive vice president of public engagement for The Obama Foundation, and former deputy assistant to the president and counselor for strategic engagement to Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Young people today “are idealistic – and people use that word – but they mean it,” Strautmanis said in an interview Friday, April 22, 2022, following his keynote address. “They often ask the question that young people have asked in different eras, which is, ‘Why does this have to be the way it is? Why can’t this be different?’”

According to the Pew Research Center, anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 23 to 38 in 2019) is considered a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of a new generation, known as ‘Z.’

Strautmanis also works with the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, founded by Obama in 2014, which works to help young men of color realize their potential.

The alliance is a network of 300 communities across the country, with a goal of creating safe and healthy communities and bringing about systemic change.

“Today, I wanted to impress upon the audience that these are not individual problems, and that young people all over the country, all over Greenville, all over the world have challenges. They make mistakes, they get in trouble. We can always find a way to blame a young person for the circumstances they’re in. But the evidence shows us there are systemic issues in play, and if that’s the case, then we have to find a way to change the system,” he said. 

“That means we have to work together, we have to collaborate across sectors, across organizations. … What I have learned is that you can get up every day and work really hard on a particular issue, work really hard to change something, but if you aren’t working with the people around you who are also part of the system, it can be really hard to create the change that you see.”

The Obama Foundation describes its mission as “to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world.”

Strautmanis, 53, who has known Barack and Michelle Obama since the early 1990s and considers them friends and mentors, is also involved in the development of the Obama Presidential Center, which broke ground last year and is set to open in Chicago in 2025.

The Obama Presidential Center will differ from most presidential libraries, Strautmanis said, because it will focus less on the years of Obama’s presidency and more on the future.

“We’re going to use the story of the Obamas to inspire people to ask themselves what their role in creating a better world is, and then give them the tools to do so,” he said.