Occidental commemorates Obama’s first steps into politics

52
The newly refurbished steps connecting Emmons Road to the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Building commemorates the first political speech by President Barack Obama '83 during his tenure as a student at Occidental College. Photo taken in Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. Johnny Franks/The Occidental
Amid dust and rubble, Occidental college’s administration developed a new marker dedicated to former Occidental student and President of the United States Barack Obama ’83 on a staircase connecting Emmons Road to the Arthur G. Coons (AGC) Administrative Building. According to Occidental’s Director of Communications Jim Tranquada, the new installation — known as the Obama Steps — commemorates the site where Obama gave his first public political speech as a sophomore at Occidental in addition to honoring donors to the recently-launched Obama Scholars Program.

The steps join other sites on Occidental’s campus, such as the Obama mural in front of Haines Hall, in commemorating the 44th president’s time at Occidental. The President’s Office oversees the ongoing construction in tandem with the Facilities department. Tranquada said the President’s Office estimates the project will take another six weeks to complete.

Obama spoke on the steps Feb. 18, 1981, as part as a student-led movement against South African apartheid. In particular, the movement sought to motivate the Occidental Board of Trustees to divest from South African companies.

In his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama notes that the experience of speaking before his peers helped to set him on the trajectory that would ultimately lead him to the highest office in the land.

“I found myself drawn into a larger role [in the divestment movement] … I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions,” Obama wrote. “When we started planning the rally for the trustees’ meeting, and somebody suggested that I open the thing, I quickly agreed. I figured I was ready.”

According to Tranquada, the steps play two important roles: marking a historic space on campus and providing a location to recognize donors to the Obama Scholars Program. The names of the donors adorn one of the walls of the stairs.

The Obama Scholars Program — which currently provides two students with a loan-free financial aid package that covers tuition, room and board and other expenses — helped to take the steps from concept to reality, according to Tranquada.

“The idea of marking the site has been discussed for years, but it was the launch of the Obama Scholars Program last year that really got things going,” Tranquada said via email.

According to Tranquada, P.J. Roden of Matters of Space, a design firm located on York Boulevard, designed the steps. Susan Van Atta, an architect, designed the drought-tolerant landscaping that will surround the steps. Raymond Reynolds of Ampersand Signs contributed the bas-relief plaque of Obama that sits at the base of the steps.

The steps feature quotations from Obama’s speech. The Obama Fellows — seniors at Occidental selected to also receive benefits from the Obama Scholars program — researched and selected the excerpt that reads on the steps, from top to bottom.

The newly refurbished steps connecting Emmons Road to the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Building commemorates the first political speech by President Barack Obama ’83 during his tenure as a student at Occidental College. Photo taken in Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018. Johnny Franks/The Occidental

“What gives me the most hope is the next generation,” one of the sections reads. “The young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history.”

Emily Zepeda (first year) said that she finds the new steps to be a positive addition to the campus.

“As someone who’s interested in going into politics, it’s inspiring and uplifting to see the words of Obama’s first political speech inscribed on the stairs,” Zepeda said

Some Occidental students remain less enthused. Spencer Nussbaum (junior), a resident of Stearns Hall, criticized the inconveniences caused by the construction.

“This was the wrong time to do [the construction],” Nussbaum said. “Why would the school do construction during the school year? The stairs have been closed for three quarters of the semester, and for the majority of that time no one was working on the stairs.”

Nussbaum also criticized the design of the steps. According to Nussbaum, one must walk backward down the steps in order to read the entire transcript, since the words read from the top of the stairs to the bottom. Furthermore, the jagged path of the stairs makes the transcript feel incoherent.

“Those stairs go at a weird angle,” Nussbaum said. “There’s not really a correct way to read those stairs.”

Despite the criticism, Tranquada noted that the Obama Steps stand out from the other Obama-related markers in its unique relationship with the Occidental community.

“Because the steps include recognition of Obama Scholars donors, they honor the president’s legacy by looking back to a key moment in his life and looking ahead to new generations of leaders dedicated to the public good,” Tranquada said. “It’s a site unique in its ability to tie together the past, present and future.”

According to Tranquada, the administration will determine a date for an opening ceremony, and to finally allow Occidental students — present and future — to walk in the footsteps of one of the school’s most prominent alums.