I am an Obama Fellow

How does one even begin to describe what it feels like to be recognized on the global stage for, at least what seems to me as, just doing my job?

It has been a whirlwind since we made the announcement that I have been chosen as a 2019 Obama Fellow, and in trying to reflect on what my first gathering and the days since have meant, I want to begin this chapter with an update to you, as well as commitment to continue updating you on what it means for me and for Hindman Settlement School. I have said many times that we are all in this together, and that is just as true for this as for anything else we do here in Knott County.

The most frequently asked question I have received is, “What does it mean to be an Obama Fellow?” That’s a great question, and has a number of answers. I’ll focus on two of them, the first being “what do THEY say,” the second, “what do I think?” Obama Fellows are chosen by the Obama Foundation based on the merit and potential of their civic innovation across service sectors and from around the world. There are twenty of us: ten women and ten men, from five continents and ten countries.

There were many—too many—flattering comments to name, but one that sticks with my cohort members and I came from Chief Program Officer, Anne Filipic, “You are among the twenty most innovative civic leaders on the planet, and WE want to invest in YOU.” Okay.

Another from Wes Moore, CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation: “The seat you sit in has been hand chiseled just for you.”

And David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation shared a familiar refrain I remember uttering when I first came to Hindman: “It is both an honor and a responsibility to be an Obama Fellow. We stand on the shoulders of those who made this possible for us.” Do we ever…

The easiest way for me to answer the question from a work standpoint is to say that the goal of the fellowship is to help me learn how to take the work of Hindman and scale it up. You see, I personally believe I have a responsibility to seize every opportunity in this day and time to do the work it takes to help change our corner of the world. Eastern Kentucky is unlike anywhere else I have ever been. The challenges we face are intense, but the potential we have is unmatched to meet the obstacles of our day and time. I don’t say that lightly. Leaders have dug in for generations and faced many of the same problems we face today, just shaped for their time and resolve. But the work of Hindman Settlement School is already aligned for such times as these:

  • Unparalleled access to education for children with learning challenges
  • Arts and cultural assets impacting schoolchildren and families regionally and nationally
  • Innovative attention toward facing community food insecurity and shaping models for elsewhere
  • Literary investments designed to tell our story in as many different voices as we can muster
  • A deep and abiding love for our community and her people

When is enough, enough? All I can say is, “not yet.”

The five days of my first gathering with my fellow Fellows was intense and important. It takes a lot of muster to sit in such a room, get over questioning why you were chosen out of the thousands of others considered, and get down to the business of the work. Between now and the end of this year, I will focus on developing my roadmap, or outcomes, I want to see to fruition through the fellowship season. Then, I will begin working with a personalized executive coach as well as communications, public relations, and fundraising experts and apply all of that knowledge to our situation in Hindman. We’ll gather three more times in person over the next two years, as well as have opportunities to meet virtually with a subset of the Fellows cohort. Being an Obama Fellow is a dream come true, although not one I knew I had until it began to happen in real life and in real time. I am still pinching myself. But enough of that…there is work to be done!


Photos courtesy of The Obama Foundation. The photographs may not be manipulated in any way, and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement by the Foundation, President Obama, or Mrs. Obama without the Foundation’s prior written consent.