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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Top Obama Aide Reflects on Her Life and Leadership

'Riding down Embarcadero Road Thursday, Valerie Jarrett said she got butterflies in her stomach.

Jarrett, a 1978 Stanford graduate, senior White House advisor and longtime friend of Michelle and Barack Obama, said her return to campus this week to deliver a lecture recalled memories of her very first approach to the university as an entering freshman in 1974.

In a 45-minute talk in which she reflected on leadership and her personal experiences, Jarrett urged Stanford students to take chances, get outside their comfort zones and to commit themselves, in some fashion, to public service.

"You can really be an expert in your field and an extraordinary scholar, but it's credibility, authenticity and the ability to motivate people to work together for a common goal ... that is the mark of true leadership," she said.

"Trust, respect and credibility have to be earned every single day. Good leaders never rest on their laurels."

Jarrett said her early childhood as a light-skinned African-American growing up in an international community in Shiraz, Iran, "laid a kind of blueprint for me in my world view."

"Everybody around me was different, but we were working in one community.

"I saw how people are just the same the world over. And I also developed an appreciation for the United States and the freedoms and liberties we have here."

Jarrett said her father, an African-American physician, had moved the family to Iran to seek opportunities that were denied him in segregation-era America.

The family returned to the United States and enrolled Jarrett in a Chicago public school, where she began to grasp the reality of segregation and racism.

Citing her own father, Jarrett said ordinary people have opportunities to be leaders, even when they don't necessarily know it.

As a young, black medical resident, Jarrett's father had been told he could not live in the dormitory adjacent to the hospital and was not to enter the hospital by the front door.

Annoyed with the instructions, he decided to ignore them and go through the front door anyway. On the second morning, the hospital's orderlies and assistants were standing on the front steps waiting for him, and they all walked in together.

"He just got frustrated and angry, and others followed him," Jarrett said. "Just by taking chances and doing what you know is right, sometimes others will follow."

After Stanford, law school at the University of Michigan, and some years with a large law firm, Jarrett left law practice and "took a leap" to work for Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

While in city government, she interviewed a fellow law-firm refugee, Michelle Robinson, to come join her.

"Michelle was engaged to this wonderful fellow, Barack Obama," Jarrett recalled. "I got to know her and her husband and we've had the great good fortune of being good friends."

Jarrett left her job as CEO of a large real estate development and management company to hit the campaign trail for Obama, taking what she said seemed at the time like another "leap of faith" (that a black man could be elected president).

"If we'd believed what everyone told us when he was down 30 points in the polls, we wouldn't have tried," she said.

"It's an enormous privilege to serve this great country," she said. "It's been an extraordinary 14 months.

"In the campaign he always said, 'It's time for change. It's going to be really hard, but we're going to do it together.'

"People sometimes forget the last part of the sentence, that it's going to be really, really hard. We've made an immense difference, and we still have an enormous way to go."

Jarrett spoke to the Stanford community in a mostly-full Memorial Auditorium in the annual St. Clair Drake Memorial Lecture. Drake, a sociologist who launched Stanford's African-American Studies Department in 1973, died in 1990.

Jarrett said Drake had been one of her favorite professors.

"He was a scholar, a magnificent researcher, engaging and also transformative," she said. "He took his research and he led, and improved the way African-Americans were perceived by his example.

"The kind of energy and enthusiasm he had -- it's hard to express to you how deeply he changed my life." '


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