Today, President Obama announced the inaugural cohort of the Obama Foundation’s Leaders USA program. Including 100 people from 37 different states, Washington D.C., American Samoa, Guam and 5 different tribal nations, the cohort will work to create sustainable change in their communities and around the world.
“I’m inspired by this talented group of young leaders from across the United States who are working on the most pressing issues facing our world,” said President Obama. “From an oncology resident championing health equity for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, to passionate union organizers advocating for the labor rights of educators and first responders nationwide, to the first Black woman executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama—their ideas and leadership will help strengthen democracy now and in the future. These leaders give me hope, and they deserve our support.”
The Obama Leaders come from a diverse group of issues. Christina Haswood, Sandy Ho, Sona T. Smith and Maria Dolojan focus their efforts on reproductive and disability rights, among other things.
With over a hundred thousand followers on TikTok, Christina Haswood, State Legislator for the Kansas State House of Representatives, is working to engage youth in politics through social media.
“I ran during the era of COVID. And as we are kind of moving forward with the world, social media was the one place that we felt like we could go to when we were all indoors trying, to protect our community,” Haswood said, “So carrying on with that, trying to just broaden my reach, bringing that representation not only Native American representation, and politics and civic engagement, but on social media as well., I feel like I'm very simple- when I see someone who looks like me, from a similar background as me doing amazing things. I just get inspired by it. So I hope I can be just that little bit of impact for other folks across the country.”
Haswood is known for her Native American and public health policy expertise, helping to pass Kansas’ first Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples bill in 2021. As a public health expert, Haswood is a staunch advocate for reproductive rights.
Sandy Ho is fighting for a joyful disability justice future.
“When I think about a joyful and thriving Disability Justice feature, what I'm also trying to work towards is the presumption that disabled people are not just here for the present or, or as a community that existed in the past, but in the present and also in the future, Ho said, “there is no community that is not going to experience disability, at some point in their life, whether it's temporary permanent, or what have you. To grow old, is a privilege, it is also a privilege to become disabled.”
Ho is the program director of the Disability Inclusion Fund at Borealis Philanthropy. There, Ho leads the grantmaking strategy where she works to upend ableist practices in philanthropy, and to support those that are building a world free of ableism.
“Through my current position, as a Program Director of the disability inclusion fund, we are working to ensure that disabled people and organizations that are led by disabled people have access to the resources and funding to not just aggress ableism, but also to claim and have self-determination about their own strategies and joy,” Ho said.
Sona T. Smith is Birth Justice Program Officer, Ms. Foundation for Women, where she works to provide financial support and resources for grassroots, women-of-color led organizations that work to address race-based disparities in birth experiences and outcomes. Smith takes this work personally- it is informed by her lived experience. She’s experienced firsthand the systemic inequities in reproductive care, and she is passionate about ensuring that the people who are working to address these issues are supported and well-resourced.
“In this particular work that I do, I am supporting, not just my own lived experience, but the leaders I'm funding and supporting also come with lived experience,” Smith said, “ I'm supporting organizations who other funders have overlooked and not funded. And so they come with more than just funding needs, they need a comrade, they need a friend, they need someone they can call to vent about another funder who doesn't understand.”
Maria Dolojan is the founder of Famalao’an Rights, an organization whose mission is to ensure that affordable, and timely reproductive health care options are accessible to everyone in Guam. “Her commitment to advocating for accessible reproductive healthcare stems from her belief that women and girls on Guam should have the right to make decisions for their bodies regardless of religious affiliations and beliefs,” she said on their website.
Dolojan’s goals are to create a fund to support those that seek reproductive care, to create and sustain scientific and fact-based discussions about reproductive care, to establish partnerships and collaborations with other reproductive rights campaigns, and to establish a reproductive healthcare clinic.
The ACLU, Guttmacher Institute, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and Catholics For Choice are among Dolojan’s supporters.
During their time as Obama Leaders, Smith, Ho, Dolojan, Haswood and the 96 others will participate in a “values-driven leadership curriculum, action labs focused on strengthening democratic institutions and culture in the U.S., community groups for fostering constructive dialogue in a polarized environment, and one-on-one support to help tackle some of the most pressing issues of our time,” the statement said, “throughout the program, participants will have the opportunity with President Obama, leadership coaches, subject matter experts, and each other to deepen their leadership practice.”
Smith looks forward to learning from the intersectionality of issues represented by other leaders. “I'm excited to just expand and deepen my capacity and understanding of other issue areas that are also overlapping and intersecting with issues of birth and reproductive justice,” Smith said.
For Haswood, it's the community that she anticipates. “Being in Kansas, it can feel like there's no one else like me around. It can be quite lonely…. I feel like I'm trying to learn these things firsthand and through failure,” Haswood said. She hopes to learn from the experiences of the other Leaders.
"One of the things that I am most looking forward to is also being exposed to more of the solutions that are happening outside of the small bubble that I am in the day-to-day work,” Ho said, “And also learn how communities are organizing in different ways, how we are also helping to facilitate greater access to power from the communities that are really best positioned to lead the way forward through their lived experiences.”
Once the program is completed, the cohort will remain connected to each other and a community of global program alumni through the Obama Foundation Leadership Network.