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Obama Presidential Center Making Good On Promise Of Construction Diversity

Longstanding city efforts to build a more diverse talent pipeline in construction are coming to fruition with the build-out of the upcoming Obama Presidential Center.

According to the project’s annual worforce report released Wednesday, 52% of contracts have been awarded to diverse vendors so far, with 32% of the workforce hailing from the city’s South and West sides.

A rendering of the future Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park

The decision to break up larger construction bids into multiple smaller contracts has ensured smaller and minority-owned businesses could compete for bids, per the report, helping Lakeside Alliance, the joint venture of Black-owned construction groups managing the project, meet its goals.

Michael Strautmanis, executive vice president of civic engagement at the Obama Foundation, told the Chicago Tribune that while the project surpasses the city’s 32% minority- and women-owned business requirement, he isn't taking his foot off the gas. 

“We have to push because the goal is not to meet our numbers, the goal is to build wealth and to create a new model for taking people into these good construction careers in a community that has been underinvested in for generations," he said. "But I’m not here for the numbers. I’m here for impact and transformation."

In 2021, the Obama Foundation committed $850K to partnering with local workforce development organizations to train 400 new apprentices from the South and West sides. So far, 158 candidates have been placed in jobs around the city, according to the workforce report.

Kelly Powers Baria, vice president at Powers & Sons Construction, told the Tribune equity goes beyond checking boxes, instead placing construction in the hands of Black contractors, with assistance from White partners — a process she said has historically been reversed in major construction projects across the city.

“The only way to get what you’ve never had is being intentional, intentional about offering opportunities in ways that haven’t been offered before. That’s what’s most important,” said Powers Baria, who co-leads a diversity, equity and inclusion team to keep the project's current workers on task and ensure a job pipeline exists beyond the Obama project.

The center, which will include a museum and the first fully digitized presidential library, is scheduled to open in the late fall of 2025.