Former Obama administration adviser Valerie Jarrett has a compelling family history: her great-grandfather Robert Robinson Taylor became the nation's first African American accredited architect and designed much of Tuskegee University. Her grandfather Robert Rochon Taylor was the first African American to chair the Chicago Housing Authority; although the city later named housing projects in his honor that were anathema to his approach to housing, Jarrett laid groundwork that led to their demolition.
Her mother, Barbara Taylor Bowman, was a leader in early childhood development and a founder of the Erikson Institute. Her father, James E. Bowman, was a renowned pathologist and geneticist ... only after moving the family to Iran for five years because there more more opportunities for black doctors in that dictatorship than in 1950s America. Jarrett was born in Iran and spent her early childhood there.
Her new memoir, “Finding My Voice,” tracks this story and the racism and sexism she faced back in Chicago — a city where she eventually became a lawyer, then a power player in City Hall, on the Chicago Transit Board, and in other municipal roles.
But readers know what's coming and it arrives later in the book , with a résumé from a young job seeker named Michelle Robinson — who won't accept a job until Jarrett also meets with Robinson's fiancé. That young man, Barack Obama, inevitably becomes a focal point for much of the final 200 pages of Jarrett's memoir — she becomes like a big sister to both Michelle and Barack, helps advise in his early political career and then in his presidential campaign. Most notably, of course, Jarrett stays by his side for eight years, becoming the longest-serving senior adviser to any president in American history and thus one of the country's most influential behind-the-scenes figures.
She recounts key moments like being one of only two black staffers in the meeting discussing how to deal with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's incendiary speeches during the 2008 campaign; the white senior staffers were concerned about confronting the situation head-on, but Jarrett encouraged Obama to give what became known as the “race speech,” which proved crucial to his success.
Later, in the White House she writes that she saw that the “macho atmosphere was causing women to feel unwelcome” so she raised the issue with the new president who then hosted a dinner for senior female staffers. It led to dramatic change in tone in the White House.
Jarrett is modest and engaging, someone who does not seek nor relish confrontation nor celebration. These days she is committed to various causes — gender equity, voting, reducing gun violence — and eagerly anticipating the arrival of her first grandchild in July. But for the moment, she is briefly stepping out into the spotlight.
You thread details about racism and sexism your family and you faced throughout your story. Was it vital to emphasize these experiences, and was it tricky to avoid becoming didactic?
It is a delicate balance. I tried very hard not to be preachy but to tell the story from my perspective, of an African American woman growing up in a time of much change across the country and the world. I think it's better when you hear it through a story instead of “Here are 10 lessons about what people need to do.”
I wanted to inform people but also to motivate them to look at their lives differently. I want them to see that diversity is a strength and inclusion, looking at what we have in common, is better than focusing on our differences.
I also don't want this just to be a book for women just because it's a woman's story. It's important to talk about things we haven't talked about like menopause because it helps us understand each other better. When you're trying to focus in a meeting and you have sweat pouring down your face it's hard, just like when you're pregnant and going to the bathroom all the time. Back then I was trying to pretend there was nothing happening beneath my neck. We do ourselves a disservice when we do that.
How did your background and experiences inform your approach to politics in Chicago and in the White House?
My life was one of enormous privilege. I was a young, single mom but one with resources and parents who lived a mile away, and yet I still felt like I was hanging by my fingertips — so imagine what it is like for the single mom working a second shift without a safety net of support. I became sensitive to them because of my experience.
My parents raised me to take a very realistic look at the world: It isn't fair, and as an African American you're going to have to work twice as hard. But, they said, if you do and you have a little luck then there's no limit to what you can achieve — although they said bad things can happen too. They helped me appreciate the art of the possible.
Right after the 2008 election, my mother asked me why I thought Barack Obama could win. I said because of how they raised me. She told me she never believed any of that. It was such a shock. I was shaped by their life experiences and the obstacles they'd faced, but they also raised me very aspirationally.
You and Barack Obama had similar childhoods, spending time growing up overseas and then coming back to America. Was that an important bond?
Yes. We talked about it the first time we met. I told him about growing up in Iran and playing with children from all over the world where we didn't even let language be a barrier — we found something in common. My father also taught me that we can learn a great deal outside of our shores, that we're not just here to tell the world what to do. That was an important lesson I took into the White House.
Do you worry that admirers of the Obamas will jump ahead to when you first encounter them?
That's a very good question. It's possible. But I've given the book to people whose opinions I trust and the early sections were the most interesting to them. I'm not selling this as a tell-all — the Obamas are two of my dearest friends — and I never marketed it as the back-room stories of the White House. There's no index, by design. My editor and I both agreed to send a message that this book is not just about looking up certain parts.
Was it difficult showing your impact on Barack Obama's campaigns and presidency without feeling immodest?
It was the hardest part. I picked the story about the race speech and about the dinner for the women staffers to show why diversity is a strength — that's the point I was trying to make. If he didn't have diverse views talking about whether or not to give the race speech, maybe he wouldn't have given it. It was helpful to have people affirming what he wanted to do — the other people couldn't see that. With the women in the White House, people were thinking things were going perfectly fine and weren't noticing the voices were shrinking. Being the person who could provide a different perspective is important.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I hope they are inspired to find their voices and use them to be a be a catalyst for change, to feel motivated to be a part of our democracy, to do something to strengthen our country.
I still feel optimistic about the potential of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. We shouldn't cling to the safety of the straight line but to have the courage to embrace the adventure of the zigzag.
I was afraid. I was painfully shy. I wasn't terribly passionate about my career and so I made a change. I hope people take ownership of their own lives and find a willingness to take risks and have confidence in their resilience.
Viking; 320 pp., $30