Former senior advisor Valerie Jarrett discusses autobiography, Obama, America’s uncertain future

Tiana Woodard

In his two terms as president, there were few people Barack Obama trusted more than Valerie Jarrett. 

Since taking Michelle and Barack as young lawyers under her wing in the early 1990s, Jarrett took her influence from Chicago to the White House’s West Wing, serving as one of Obama’s senior advisers from 2009 to 2017. In her position, Jarrett managed the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and worked to advance women’s and civil rights.

During a panel under the LBJ Foundation’s Summit on Race in America, the former senior adviser discussed her latest book “Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward” and her relationship with the former president and first lady. 

Born and raised in Iran by black American parents, Jarrett said upon moving to America she was an “other” in her mom’s home community. Bullied for her fair skin and foreign accent, Jarrett said she stayed shy for most of her life.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I never talked about where I was born,” Jarrett said. I just wanted to be like everybody else. How do you find your own self and realize your story is who you are?”

Dissatisfied with her dream job as a corporate lawyer, Jarrett said she first became involved with public service at a friend’s suggestion. Joining Chicago’s city government helped her find her voice as well as meet the future first black president, she said. 

What began as a simple conversation evolved into a lifelong relationship, as she supported Obama through his campaigns for mayor, Senate and eventually president. 

“That sense of momentum really carried people to a point where we were ready to look at race in a way the country had never seen before,” Jarrett said. “As I said in my book, I don’t think (Obama) transcended race, but I think it was a step in the right direction.”

Despite noting such steps, Jarrett said progress is fragile and requires patience and constant action.

“We have to adjust our idea of what is success and that it’s incremental,” Jarrett said. “It builds upon ourselves consistently pushing.” 

In an era with numerous uncertainties, Jarrett said people should still work to push forward while welcoming “zigzags” with open arms. 

“As our country zigs and zags, what are we going to do? Don’t give up our power,” Jarrett said. “It is in our control to exercise it.”

Discussion on the country’s uncertain future also brought upon Jarrett’s feelings on the upcoming election. Before identity and representation, Jarrett said she values a candidate’s values over anything. 

“I’m interested in who’s the person who’s going to advocate for what’s the best for the country,” Jarrett said. “Who’s going to send the message of the world that we’re the greatest country in the world, a country of laws and a country of immigrants?”

Amid the discussion on uncertainties, Jarrett looped back to discuss the unpredictable outcomes of her own career. Reflecting on her decades in public service, Jarrett said getting out of her comfort zone was where the fun began. 

“When I think about my life and how I began in city government, I would have never predicted I’d be sitting here with you at this extraordinary event,” Jarrett said. “But when I look back, the chapters added up. To a book. Literally.”