The Obama Foundation has hired a diversity consultant that will monitor and enforce the Obamas’ pledge of ensuring that contracting and employment in the construction of the Obama Presidential Center is as diverse as possible.
Ernest R. Sawyer Enterprises Inc., the Chicago firm chosen, will “set out the commitments and other strategies related to diverse and local contracting, and the hiring of local residents and other underrepresented communities to be part of the OPC construction workforce.”
In May, having rejected community activists’ calls for a community benefits agreement (CBA), the foundation released the Obama Foundation Community Commitments, which outlines specific commitments that the foundation has made regarding jobs, economic impact, preservation of parkland, youth engagement, and community resources. A big part of that commitment is the allocation of 51% of construction contracts to black-owned construction companies, marking the first time black firms have scored such a massive opportunity as major players. With construction costs expected to rise up to $350 million, the hiring of a diversity consultant was critical to ensuring that a key piece of the foundation’s diversity commitment to contractors and subcontractors is continually being met at every turn.
Ernest R. Sawyer, who is the founder of the firm, according to the Sun Times, is a former Chicago Transit Authority executive who is also the brother of former Mayor Eugene Sawyer and the uncle of Ald. Rod Sawyer, whose 6th Ward is on the South Side.
Since the announcement of the presidential center, which will be located in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago, local activists have banded together demanding a community benefits agreement that will ensure local residents and businesses are not displaced by the possible gentrification that could come with the project.
A coalition of 19 community activists and groups called The Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, wants the Obama Foundation, in partnership with the City of Chicago, to set aside jobs for residents in their local communities, protect low-income housing and home owners, support and create black businesses and strengthen neighborhood schools. Another group, the Bronzeville Regional Collective, has created its own seven-point CBA blueprint for the library development.
“We don’t want to see the South Side become what Lincoln Park was in the ’60s and ’70s. We don’t want that high level of displacement,” Bronzeville Regional Collective member Anton Seals Jr., who is also on the South Shore Planning and Preservation Coalition’s board, told Progress Illinois. “We want to ensure that the community, the working class, the (most) vulnerable among us, the middle class, are all able to have a space in the community they love. And that means that it will become even a safer place once there’s a real economic engine there to help support that.”
But former President Barack Obama has said that there will be no community benefits agreement for the construction of his presidential center, arguing that the whole initiative is a community benefit.
“If we sign with one, two, or five organizations, they’re not representing everybody on the South Side. Next thing you know, you’ve got 40 or 50 organizations—all wanting to be decision makers. We’re not going to do that,” he said at a public meeting earlier in the year.