Barack and Michelle Obama

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civil Society
Presidential Roles
Barack Obama was the 44th President of the United States and the first African American president ever to serve as president. The Obamas’ work, both in the White House and as private citizens, is themed around empowerment and support for American citizens, especially the under-served. They are known for their generosity and volunteerism, and for inspiring others to serve.

Written by Jessika Devine

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.  – Barack Obama, 2008

Biographical Highlight

Coming from humble upbringings, Michelle and Barack Obama received law degrees from Harvard University before serving in various roles in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, including Barack’s work collaborating with churches in low-income neighborhoods and his time as a state and U.S. senator, and Michelle’s work as Executive Director for a national nonprofit and as a Vice President for Community and External Affairs for University of Chicago Hospitals. With diverse backgrounds and a history of public service, Michelle and Barack are committed to working to improve American communities.

Barack Obama was the 44th President of the United States and the first African American president ever to serve as president. The Obamas’ work both as president and first lady, as well as private citizens, is themed around empowerment and support for American citizens, especially the underserved. Notable legislation and initiatives championed by the Obamas include the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Affordable Care Act, and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.


Historic Roots

Barack Hussein Obama II, or Barack Obama, was born in 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii to parents Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. (1936 - 1982) and Stanley Ann Dunham, or Ann, (1942 – 1995).  Barack Obama, Sr. was born into the Luo tribe in Alego, Kenya. In 1959, at just twenty-three years old, and married with one son (Roy) and a daughter on the way (Auma), he set out to receive an education from the University of Hawaii (Thomas 2008). There, he became the university’s first African student. It was at the University of Hawaii that he met Ann, who was just eighteen years old. Ann was born in Witcha, Kansas. Her family moved several times throughout her childhood because of her father’s work in furniture sales. Once she completed high school, they set out for Honolulu, Hawaii (Targ Brill 2006).

Barack, Sr. and Ann met in a class and soon fell in love. The couple married in 1960, a bold move for a mixed couple, as half of the states in the U.S. still prohibited mixed marriages. Within a year, Barack II was born. Two years later, Barack, Sr. graduated and was offered a scholarship to Harvard University, and left Ann and Barack II behind. He later returned to Kenya.  Barack II was raised by his mother, Ann, and maternal grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham. His mother later married Lolo Soetor. They later had another child, Barack’s sister, Maya, who was born in 1970 (Barack Obama Presidential Library).

After graduating from the Punahou School in 1979, Barack Obama attended Occidental college. He later transferred to Columbia University, where he worked his way through college with the help of scholarships and student loans. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1983 from Columbia (Barack Obama Presidential Library). After graduation, he worked briefly as an analyst in New York before changing career directions toward community service. He moved to Chicago, where he worked with low-income neighborhoods, collaborating with churches to help rebuild communities (The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama).

After just a few years of community work, Obama enrolled in Harvard Law School. While in school, he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review (The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama). After his first year, he returned to Chicago for the summer to work for a corporate law firm, Sidney & Austin. There he met Michelle Robinson, his mentor, and future wife (Barack Obama Presidential Library).

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born in 1964 to parents Fraser and Marian Robinson on the South Side of Chicago. Despite suffering from multiple sclerosis, Michelle’s father was a hard worker at his job as a pump operator for the Chicago Water Department. Her mother was a homemaker and stayed home to raise Michelle and her older brother Craig (The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama).

After graduating as class salutatorian from, Whitney Young High School, Michelle went to Princeton University. At Princeton, she studied sociology and African-American studies. In 1988, she received her law degree from Harvard Law School. She then joined the Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin. (The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama)

Michelle held positions in Chicago's city government in the early 1990's, before serving as the Executive Director for Public Allies, a nonprofit that seeks to empower youth to work on social issues. She later went on to work for the University of Chicago, and eventually the University of Chicago Hospitals. There, she served as the Executive Director of Community Affairs, and eventually the Vice President for Community and External Affairs (West, 2004).

Michelle and Barack were married in 1992 and resided in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Later, they welcomed their daughters Malia (1999) and Natasha “Sasha” (2001.)



Barack was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996. While serving, he was the Democratic Spokesperson for the Public Health and Welfare Committee and the Co-Chairman of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. During his time as a state senator, he also lectured at the University of Chicago. In 2000, Barack ran for U.S. Congress but lost to incumbent Bobby Rush. In 2004, he delivered the keynote at the Democratic National Convention, elevating his popularity among the Democratic party. That same year he was elected as a U.S. Senator from Illinois. He served as U.S. Senator until 2008 (Barack Obama Presidential Library). During this time, Michelle was serving in her leadership roles at the University of Chicago and its medical center (The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama).

Barack officially announced his candidacy for United States President in February 2007, and on November 4, 2008, he was elected the 44th President. Barack Obama was the first African American president and won more votes than any candidate in history (Barack Obama Presidential Library).

During the Obama administration, both Barack and Michelle had many noteworthy acts of legislation and initiatives. Barack’s first signed legislation was The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This piece of legislation encourages fair pay for all workers and took action to reduce the wage gap. Just a month later, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the Recovery Act, was signed. This law extended unemployment benefits and created jobs, in an effort to reverse the effects of the Great Recession. In March 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which was the biggest health care reform the country had seen in decades. This legislation ended discrimination by insurance companies, required insurers to cover preventative care, and strengthened Medicare (Barack Obama Presidential Library). President Obama also worked throughout his presidency to improve and expand renewable energy sources.

First Lady Michelle Obama had several initiatives of her own including, but not limited to, Let's Move, Joining Forces, Reach Higher, and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Let's Move encourages youth to get active and focuses on childhood obesity. Michelle partnered with Jill Biden for the Joining Forces initiative, which encourages Americans and organizations to support U.S. service members and veterans. The Reach Higher initiative encourages students to aim for training or education beyond high school. Finally, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act provided funding and policy for healthier school lunch programs (Barack Obama Presidential Library).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Obama’s work before and during their administration has had a theme of civic good throughout. From working to develop communities on the South Side of Chicago to reforming America’s Healthcare, their focus has been on positive change for the public good.

Since returning as private citizens in January 2017, the Obama’s have continued their work for positive change through the Obama Foundation.  The mission of the foundation is “to inspire and empower people to change their world” (Obama Foundation). Chaired by Marty Nesbitt, the Foundation works to provide citizens with resources and training they need to solve problems in their communities.

Currently, the Obama Foundation has four projects. These projects are the Obama Foundation Fellowships, Training Days, Summit, and a partnership with My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. The Foundation is also preparing to build the Obama Presidential Center (Obama Foundation).

The Obama Foundation Fellowships are a non-residential, two-year fellowship to train and provide resources to individuals who wish to become active citizens in their communities (Obama Foundation).

The Training Days are targeted at 18 to 24-year-olds who wish to be civic leaders. These days of training give attendees tools and resources for change on issues important to them (Obama Foundation).

The inaugural Summit was held in Chicago on October 31st and November 1st, 2017. At the Summit, leaders from around the globe, such as Prince Harry and Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, explored solutions to issues around the world and exchanged ideas for how to solve them  (Obama Foundation).

My Brother’s Keeper Alliance was created in February 2014 to address issues faced by young men of color. In 2015, it was launched as its own private entity. This alliance seeks to work with partners from across all sectors to encourage mentorship, reduce violence, and improve quality of life (My Brother's Keeper Alliance).

The Obama Presidential Center, to be hosted by the University of Chicago, will include a garden, test kitchen, recording studio, athletic center, and parks and parking facility. When the center is complete, it will also house the Presidential Archives, a museum, and space to host programs to fulfill the mission of the Foundation, including those mentioned above  (Obama Foundation).

In other philanthropic work, Barack has recently been a spokesperson for the One America Appeal, along with the five other living and former U.S. presidents. This campaign was in response to the 2017 catastrophic hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. These hurricanes devastated Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As of October 21, 2017, the campaign raised $31 Million from over 80,000 donors to help support relief efforts (One America Appeal).


Key Related Ideas

  • Civic Leadership: Leading your community through providing knowledge, skills, and energy to promote an improved quality of life for the public.
  • Clean Energy: Sources of energy that do not pollute the environment the way coal or oil does. Efforts to promote more sources of clean energy can be found in all three sectors. There have been debates within the public sector to provide funding and policy for the switch to clean sources. Both the private and nonprofit sectors are attempting to find and use additional clean resources.
  • Health Care Reform: Refers to efforts associated with changes made to policy and funding to provide health care to citizens at a reasonable cost.
  • Disaster Relief: Response to a catastrophic situation or natural disaster. Typically includes humanitarian aid to those affected by the event.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Joe (1942 - ) and Jill Biden (1951 - ): Joe served as Vice President under Barrack Obama. Both Joe and Jill worked closely with Barrack and Michelle on both presidential and non-presidential initiatives.  
  • Martin Nesbitt (1962 - ): Civic leader and Chair of the Obama Foundation, Martin, or Marty, is a businessman who founded an airport parking company based in Chicago and was the campaign treasurer for Barack's 2008 presidential campaign.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Alliance for Health Reform is a coalition that works to provide health coverage to Americans at affordable rates and studies reform (
  • American Council on Renewable Energy is a nonprofit that is focused on improving and expanding renewable energy sources (
  • Civic Leadership Foundation works to prepare teens for higher education, the workforce, and citizenship by providing leadership based curriculum and resources to schools and youth programs (
  • My Brother’s Keeper Alliance seeks to work with partners from across all sectors to encourage mentorship, reduce violence, and improve the quality of life for young men of color (
  • Public Allies is a national movement devoted to improving the social justice and equality for underrepresented youth through empowerment of their own leadership capacities (


Reflection Question - What are some actions you can take to make positive change in your community and to inspire others to do the same?


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Barack Obama Presidential Library. The Obamas.
  • Obama Foundation. Our Mission.
  • One American Appeal. One American Appeal for Hurricane Relief.
  • Targ Brill, Marlene. Barack Obama: Working to Make a Difference. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook Press, 2006.
  • The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama. The Office of Barack and Michelle Obama.
  • Thomas, Garen. Yes We Can: A Biography of President Barack Obama. New York, NY: Feiwel and Friends, 2008.
  • West, Cassandra. Her plan went awry, but Michelle Obama doesn't mind. Chicago Tribune, 2004.

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.