President Obama met privately with Father Gregory Boyle of Los Angeles' Homeboy Industries and four former gang members Thursday as part of the White House's My Brother's Keeper initiative aimed at lifting African American and Latino youths.
"He talked about how he had a similar background with a single mother. She gave birth when she was 18. And he said he had gotten into trouble but was good at not getting caught," said Boyle in an interview, adding that the meet-and-greet lasted about 10 minutes and each young man got a handshake and a picture with the president.
"The homies just loved him. Afterward they were saying, 'He's one of us.' "
Homeboy Industries is a much-praised Los Angeles-based program that helps former gang members turn their lives around, and Boyle is a celebrated and deeply respected community leader. The meeting, which took place after Obama's speech at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, was also attended by Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).
The meeting was not on Obama's public schedule; the White House often leaves events off the itinerary that is publicly released. Reporters strained Thursday, for example, to determine whether Obama had dinner with anyone Wednesday night.
The subject came up in part because of an off-the-books dinner Obama shared with DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg during a Los Angeles visit last summer. Katzenberg, whom Obama hosted in his hotel suite, was a major financial supporter of Obama's 2012 reelection bid and of Priorities USA, a "super PAC" backing his effort.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz was repeatedly pressed about the matter by reporters traveling with the president on his three-day West Coast swing, and declined to offer specifics during a briefing outside a Thursday morning fundraiser at the Pacific Palisades home of Live Nation chief Michael Rapino.
"The president had a full day of events. You were with him at each of them," Schultz said. "Last night, the president didn't have any public events or leave the hotel. If he had, you would have been with him."
Asked whether Obama met anyone for dinner, Schultz did not answer directly.
"Again, he didn't leave the hotel. And if he would, you would have been with him. And he didn't have any public events," he said, later adding that Obama "stayed in the hotel after a long busy day last night."
In their private meeting with the president, the young men associated with Homeboy Industries were said to be enthralled by the encounter.
"Before we were on the way, they were saying not even rappers get to meet with the president of the United States," Boyle said. "Not even Lil Wayne – I don't know who that is – not even Lil Wayne gets to meet with the president of the United States."
Boyle said he relayed that story to Jarrett, who responded, "That's exactly right. There's a lesson for the day: Stay in school, do good, and you don't need to be a rapper to meet the president of the United States."
Obama told Boyle that he admired the work of Homeboy Industries, Boyle said.
"He said, 'We support your programs and want to continue to make sure they thrive,' " Boyle said. "As he left the room, he said, 'I've got to get back to Washington. I've got work to do. Just remember, work always continues, so keep at it.… No shortcuts. The work keeps going.' "