Former President Barack Obama said his struggles early in life were “similar” to those of the young men he mentors in Chicago while reflecting on his path to the presidency in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that aired Monday.
Obama’s interview with Cooper comes after his latest memoir, “A Promised Land,” was published in late 2020 and focuses, in part, on the former President joining what is called a BAM — or Becoming a Man — circle. The program, aimed at mentoring and supporting boys and young men, started in Chicago in 2001, but Obama first joined one of the circles in 2013 and has continued to be a part of the program since. The program was a key reference when Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper in 2014, as he worked to reverse trends showing young men of color are more likely to drop out of school, get in trouble with the law or be unemployed.
Obama wrote in his memoir that he was an “incessant, dedicated partyer” while he was growing up and that he and his friends “didn’t discuss much beyond sports, girls, music and plans for getting loaded” while they were going to school. Obama has been up front about not being focused on his future at a young age, telling students at an event in 2014 that he often “made bad choices” growing up.
“I have to be careful not to overstate. I was not, you know, going around, beating up kids and setting things on fire,” he told Cooper in the CNN interview. “But I understood what it meant to not have a father in the house. I understood what it meant to be in an environment in which you were an outsider.”
He added, “The violence and drugs and some of the issues that the guys were dealing with day to day were different. But the mistakes I made, the struggles I was going through, were similar.”
Through the program, which is said to work with 8,000 youth in 140 schools each year, the former President meets for group conversations with young men in Chicago. During that time, Obama tries to convey that even though he went on to become the President of the United States, he struggled with many of the things these young men deal with on a daily basis.
“The first time I sat down with these guys, the most important thing for me to communicate at that time, and I was President of the United States, was in many ways, (you) are ahead of me, of where I was at your age,” Obama said. “I just had certain advantages you guys don’t. I could make a mistake and land on my feet.”
Obama wrote in his memoir that it wasn’t until college — first at Occidental College in California and later at Columbia University in New York — that he began to develop an academic curiosity. He noted that for three years while living in New York, he “lived like a monk — reading, writing, filling up journals, rarely bothering with college parties or even eating hot meals.”
In the memoir, he wrote that he got lost in his own head about success and failure, something that has become a central question in his work with students in Becoming a Man.
“These kids are just as talented. They’re just as smart. They could achieve just as much,” Obama said in the interview with Cooper. “The single most important thing I learned… the line between success or failure in this society so often is dictated not by anybody’s inherent merits.”
He added, “It has to do with the circumstances in which they’re in. That doesn’t mean they don’t have individual responsibility. … But it also means that we as a society continue to fail them.”