Construction Of Obama Presidential Center Set To Commence

Now that the Obama Presidential Center is set to break ground in Chicago’s Jackson Park later this year, a new workforce initiative announced Wednesday says it will ensure Black and brown access to construction jobs.

The goals are for 35% of the construction workforce to come from neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, Austin and Englewood. The Obama Foundation says it’s committed to 50% of the project’s sub-contracts going to minorities, which is double the city’s goal.

Michael Strautmanis, chief engagement officer for the Obama Foundation, said the community consistently said it wanted access to construction jobs that are often hard to get.

“They wanted these jobs. They wanted these opportunities. They say these construction careers as excellent pathways into the middle class for themselves and their families,” Strautmanis said.

The center — celebrating the nation’s first Black president — is a campus that will include a museum, public library branch, forum and children’s play area. The center’s construction will cost $500 million and take four years to complete. The Obama Foundation predicts that up to 5,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created during and after construction.

To help recruit women, young people and the formerly incarcerated, the workforce initiative is partnering with the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT), HIRE360, IBEW-NECA Technical Institute, Revolution Workshop and St. Paul’s Community Development Ministries. And to help, the foundation is putting in $850,000 to train 400 new apprentices from the city’s South and West sides. Money will also go toward stipends for things like transportation, child care and union fees.

“This is definitely about the Obama Center at this time, but it’s about how we can change the workforce and diversify it for people who have been locked out,” said Sharon Latson, program director at CWIT.

Chynna Hampton, director of workforce development at HIRE360, said the OPC will be a catalyst for diversity on future projects such as the recently announced Michael Reese project, the site of a former hospital in Bronzeville.

“I think the construction industry already is pushing toward that diversity initiative, but this sticks the pin in it to make sure we’re pushing it forward and say it doesn’t stop here,” Hampton said.

Zarah Hill completed the CWIT program and is a plumber. She wants to work on the OPC.

“It’s so historical not only for Black people or people of color but to be able to say I worked on this project and long after I’m gone my children and grandchildren will be able to go there. I feel like I had a hand in making it come to life,” Hill said.

People interested in applying or attending orientations can sign up at

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.

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