Too often, our dreams seem so out of reach and so far-fetched, we choose not to act on them.
But sometimes, just the word “dreams” can change our lives forever.
When I first met then-Senator Barack Obama in 2006, he autographed a photo that said, “Michael, Dream big dreams.” Never in my wildest dreams would I believe that I would get the chance to be the first African-American outreach director for the first African-American President of the United States of America.
But it happened.
President Obama first wrote those inspirational words down for me when I was selected as one of ten young people of color for the first ever “Yes We Can” political training program in Washington, D.C.
It was a pivotal moment in my life. I not only learned how to run a successful political campaign, I learned how to be a young black man in politics and how to carry myself as a leader. Obama’s energy was undeniable. I remember the hotel staff from what was then the Holiday Inn on the Hill waiting in the hallway just to see him.
Obama didn’t miss a beat — he stopped and said hello to them all. He later sat at our table for dinner, where one of my mentors, Nate Tamarin, joked that I worked for State Senator Jeff Schoenberg, meaning that I probably endorsed the other guy in the primary.
I quickly said, “Let’s all move on and be cool everybody!” Obama laughed, and the building of a mentor-mentee relationship had begun. Everyone in that room felt that President Obama truly believed that nothing was outside the realm of possibility.
I know I did.
My journey with President Obama has been wide-ranging: From the early days of campaigning in the Iowa Caucus for ten months leading chants to speaking at church services to training staff and mobilizing people to caucus for the first time ever in South Carolina; from Minnesota, where I slept in the basement of then Mayor R.T. Rybak for supporter housing or to Mississippi where the students changed the lyrics of negro spirituals to uplift Obama’s name — or even going back to Michigan, where we won all seven campaigns we invested in, and running through the halls of the Renaissance Center and jumping on stage chanting “Yes We Can” — all of this work and those experiences made getting to the White House that much more impactful.
President Obama isn’t just a transformational public official. He is a remarkably caring person.
You learn a lot about someone by their actions when no one is watching. In February, 2010, a blizzard hit the East Coast on our way to a meeting with civil rights leaders, including the late Dr. Dorothy Height.
An icon in so many respects, Dr. Height was looking forward to the meeting as much as the rest of us — but President Obama urged her to stay home and stay safely away from the blizzard. When Dr. Height passed away in April later that year, President Obama delivered a soaring eulogy, reminding everyone that he stood on the shoulders of giants – not just heroes but certainly our sheroes like Dr. Height as well.
I saw that same care when he asked me to play “Uno” with Malia and Sasha on the campaign bus in 2007 and that same fatherly love seven years later when I told him that I was running for the 79th Assembly district office in 2014. I remember President Obama and his senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, going back and forth on who could claim me as their son (I said they both could).
It’s the same care that emerged when he teared up after we won re-election in 2012. He visited the campaign headquarters in Chicago and said that his dream had been made complete and that the next generation of organizers were emerging. Above everything else, he said was most proud of us.
He also had his moments where he would remind me that he was the big brother and father figure in our relationship as well. I remember writing down on an index card for him the pronunciation of An-tee-och Baptist Church. He turned to me and said, “Blake, where do I represent?” I said, “The Southside (of Chicago), sir.” He said, “You don’t think we have any Antioch Baptist Churches on the Southside?”
Hey, the president had a point.
In 2015, when he visited The Bronx to launch a My Brother’s Keeper Alliance event, his lovable sarcasm also made the trip. His visit meant the world to me because I was just elected to the New York State Assembly the year before.
While backstage, I took out some stationery that we get in the assembly with my name on it and our assembly logo and said, “Boss, look – I have stationery now!”
Without hesitation, he went, “Really?” Then, he proceeded to take his marker and autograph, “Really? Barack Obama.” Thanks, Boss. Thanks!
President Barack Obama changed my life forever. Any time I think I can’t maneuver through a difficult task, I think about what he goes through each day, and it gives my spirit motivation to fight another on.
As a leader, President Obama imparted on me an understanding of what it meant to be a leader at every level – from the state house to the White House. Everything you do has an impact. Each new policy that you vote for or against has real implications on people, as do the little things such as White House tours or the Fourth of July fireworks or the Easter Egg Roll event.
Because of my time at the White House, my passion for minority and women business enterprises really took off. To this day, I am working to create opportunities for that young brother or sister who grew up in the Bronx, like I did, or the Southside or South Florida or in the barrio or the West Coast and say: If I can make it out, you can make it out — but we have to continue to DREAM.
The vision of a better future extends to what we are creating in the Bronx now that I am an elected official. When I hear people talk about the Bronx, they often talk about the past and present challenges we face in areas like access to health care and education.
But what is missing from the conversation is a vision of how we can unite and transform our community. This kind of motivation only comes from seeing first-hand what can be achieved if you put in the work and stay consistent. Our theme of #BuildingABetterBronx is not just a set of words, it’s a mindset. It’s just like how “Yes We Can” became not just a slogan but a livelihood — one that I never could have dreamed before my time with the president.
The signs bearing the words “I Am A Man” famously held by Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 during their protests still resonate in my spirit. I consciously modify that phrase to signify my pride in working for President Obama and pride in who I am: “I Am A Black Man.”
My life is changed forever because of a remarkable black man, President Barack Obama, and his exceptional family. Thank you, Mr. President, for showing me that as a young black male elected official, everything is possible and for reminding me to pursue what’s best for the people and not focus on what’s politically best for myself.
Thank you for opening my eyes so that I could realize my big dreams. Because of you, we went from no house in Jamaica to the Black House at Northwestern University to the White House in Washington, D.C., to the New York state house in Albany. It’s not just a dream anymore. It’s possible because of you.
Thank you, Mr. President.
Assemblyman Michael Blake represents the 79th District in The Bronx, New York.