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Credit: Grant Bianco

Valerie Jarrett, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, recounted fond memories of her time at the White House and expressed optimism that today’s political climate would improve at an event hosted by the Fels Institute of Government.

The event, held at the Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics on Friday evening, featured Jarrett in conversation with Fels Distinguished Fellow Elizabeth Vale. Jarrett reflected on her upbringing, her time in the Obama White House, and the current state of politics in the United States.

Jarrett served in the Obama administration for all eight years of his presidency, and was seen as a close confidant and trusted advisor who pushed for liberal policies in the administration. 

Jarrett said her turbulent childhood — during which she lived in Iran, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and was bullied — played a role in shaping her desire to stand up to the voiceless.

"I used to get beat up and bullied all the time," Jarrett said. "My parents raised eyes to kinda expect a certain amount of discrimination, whether I was a woman or whether I was black. The world is not necessarily a fair place." 

Jarrett spent much of her time talking about her relationship with the Obamas. She said she started off as a mentor for the couple, but became subordinate to Barack once he won the 2008 presidential election. 

"I had always been the older mentor," Jarrett reflected. "I had considered myself not just the boss of Michelle, who had worked for me, but the boss of [Barack] too," prompting laughter from the crowd.

Jarrett praised Obama for creating an inclusive environment, particularly in encouraging women in the administration to speak up at meetings.

"In meetings where [Obama] wasn't present, I noticed that the women's voices were beginning to shrink," Jarrett said. "It was in his nature [to] want to have a culture that's inclusive."

Jarrett said Obama's ability to remain calm in the face of personal attacks was admirable. 

"If he is indulging himself by going off on a tangent on who said something that wasn't kind to him, then he's not doing the people's work," Jarrett said. "If you truly are a public servant, it is not about you, it is about to whom you are there to serve."

Despite displaying frustration with Republican obstructionism during the Obama administration, Jarrett said she had a state of optimism despite today's polarized climate.

"I wish we could give all of us a little bit more wiggle room and have some humanity. I don't see that in politics, I do see that in our country."Jarrett said. "My energy, my enthusiasm, my optimism, comes from traveling around the country, and continuing to meet ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”

The event attendees, a broad mix of undergraduates, graduate students, and outside individuals, generally said they were inspired by Jarrett.

Lucas Asher, who is on track to earn his Master of Public Administration in Fels in 2020, said he heard of Jarrett before the event, but was still inspired by her background.

"Her message about taking risks in life and to listen to your inner voice are important lessons,” Asher said. 

Mike Holtz, a first-year graduate student in Public Administration at Fels, said he heard Jarrett speak before while interning at the White House, and noted that her messages during the Trump administration was strikingly similar to her tone during the Obama years.

"Even with the political climate as it is, I was surprised just [by] how similar her message is," Holtz said. “She's an amazing, inspiring person.”