Valerie Jarrett on Lessons Learned from President Obama

Believe it or not, Valerie Jarrett was a very shy kid, but she rose to the highest echelons of power as Senior Advisor to Barack Obama. Her autobiography, Finding My Voice, traces a fascinating journey and you won’t believe where it started. Read our conversation below to find out…

Katie Couric: Your parents moved to Iran in 1954 and you spent the first five years of your life there. How do you think this early experience shaped you?

Valerie Jarrett: Due to the racism and segregation of Chicago in the 1950s, it was impossible for my father, a doctor, to find a job in medicine where he was paid his worth, which prompted our family to move abroad. At the time, Iran was more progressive than the U.S. in terms of equal opportunity, and my father was able to build his career there. I was only the second child to be born in the hospital where my father worked in Shiraz! My early years in Iran taught me I could find something in common with people of all backgrounds. It also taught me that we shouldn’t take for granted all of the advantages we have in the United States and that we can learn a great deal beyond our own shores.

You talked about these early years in Iran during your first meeting with Obama. Tell us about that conversation.

When I first met Barack Obama, over 28 years ago, we bonded over our unique early years abroad, mine in Iran and his in Indonesia. Because most people had never even heard of Iran, it was just easier for me to not talk about my childhood there, but the first time I met President Obama, he asked me where I was from. Avoiding the question, I said Chicago. He then asked, “But, where were you born?” I said “Shiraz, Iran,” and he responded, “Well, that’s interesting.” And he leaned in, and he started to tell me about his life in Indonesia and what he learned from that experience. And then I opened up more about Iran. And I think the lesson I learned in that moment, with Barack Obama, is that our stories are important.

You know Michelle and Barack Obama probably as well or better than anyone… what quality about them do you think people might not be aware of?

Michelle and Barack Obama are genuine in all that they do. Au­thentically caring is the most important political skill any candidate can have because people can tell when you are genuinely interested in their lives – something that both Michelle and Barack Obama embody.

You were Obama’s senior advisor for 8 years. What comes to mind as your most extraordinary day in the White House in all that time?

Well first and foremost, I was the longest senior advisor to any president in our history, I have to admit I am very proud of having had the honor and privilege to serve in that role for President Obama’s two terms in office. The most extraordinary day was the day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. I ran down to the Oval Office to tell President Obama the good news, but he wasn’t there, so I called him. He was upstairs in his residence working on the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who together with 8 of his parishioners had been killed in a mass shooting which had once again shaken the nation. When the President heard the news about marriage equality he came down to the Oval, and had to finish the eulogy while preparing remarks about this extraordinary bending the arc of the universe towards justice. The Rose Garden was full of young staffers who wanted to be there for such a historic moment. After the Rose Garden speech, we were off to Charleston, where President Obama gave an uplifting tribute reminding us about grace, and then, to the surprise of many, he sung Amazing Grace. When we returned to the White House that night we watched the sun go down over the White House that we had up in the colors of the rainbow. The emotions of that day are still with me, even now.

That’s an incredible memory. On a much darker note though, you were the target of a racist tweet by Rosanne Barr last year. You’ve said that you’re not worried about yourself, but that it was “symptomatic of a bigger problem.” What is that bigger problem and how can we begin to solve it?

The bigger problem here is that we’re not really talking to each other about the racial and discrimination issues that so many people continue to face today. I have said before, that this is a teaching moment—that we have to have a conversation about how black boys are all told by their parents, “You have to act a certain way if you get stopped by the police, even if your white friends aren’t acting the same way. You have to behave in a way that is not perceived of as a threat.’” So, the bigger problem is that we need to have uncomfortable, but honest conversations rather than hiding behind the veil of anonymity and tweeting at someone you don’t know, which we see happen online all the time. These conversations are about sitting down and really trying to understand one another in a meaningful way.

With that thought in mind, and given all the work that you did with Obama for two terms, what’s your mindset now as you observe the Trump presidency?

I’m looking to the future with hope and working to ensure more people turn out to vote. I worked with Michelle Obama to start an initiative called When We All Vote, trying to get people to appreciate the most basic responsibility of citizenship: to vote. We all have to work hard to make sure that those who lead our government at all levels reflect our values and listen to our priorities. Please vote and get engaged in issues about which you care. Remember, the most important office is that of citizen!

Are you hopeful? Why should we all be?

I am very hopeful, this new generation is ready to lead, and their stories and passion to do good have filled me with optimism and energy. I have been very impressed with the level of activism and engagement over the last couple of years from the #MeToo movement to the young students from Parkland fighting to end gun violence. The young people in this country have given me confidence that better days lie ahead.