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An Hour with Obama

Alan Mahon at the Obama Europe Town Hall in April 2019

By Alan Mahon, Brewgooder

9th April 2019

The need to keep Scotland's voice being heard on the global stage... my reflections on an hour spent with Barack Obama.

Last Saturday I was fortunate to help represent Scotland, social entrepreneurship and the fight against water poverty at a ‘Town Hall’ by the Obama Foundation in Berlin with 300 other young European leaders.

Those in the room where from diverse countries, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds but they were all united by a common thread: their leadership in the public, private, and non-profit sectors was helping to improve their communities, countries and the world in areas from civic leadership and open democracy to integrating refugees and ending violence against women.

When I got the invite, I instantly cast my mind back to being the 18 years old Alan, a naïve and eternally optimistic politics-obsessive who stayed up all night to watch Barrack Obama become the US President in 2008. I remember having such a strong, almost overwhelming sense of hope in a better future then, at a time when the West was in an economic crisis so profound that its effects would continue to unfold more than a decade later.

The event was designed to ignite conversation about what it means to be an active citizen in today’s Europe and help advise how the Obama Foundation can help support emerging leaders in this area of work. It reflects the Obama Foundation’s efforts to engage young leaders from around the world in a conversation about the importance of community leadership and civic engagement, consistent with the Foundation’s mission to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world.

The “Town Hall” format, which allows audience members to ask direct and frank questions to President Obama, which we could answer openly and honestly – it was the perfect forum.

As I watched the 44th President talk about the challenges that the world faces, particularly the challenges within Europe and his new role, as a private citizen, to empower the leaders of the future I felt a rush of that same sense of hope come back to me. Core to the President’s message was that he was asking us “not to believe in my ability to bring about change – but yours”. I’ve never heard vote of confidence in my ability, and that of others, which carried so much weight.

During the town hall, President Obama answered questions from young leaders in the room as well as questions submitted online by young people across Europe, with the event being livestreamed on obama.org.

He answered as many questions as time would allow, and then snuck in some more, and stayed for a while to chat to the fastest in the room who got the chance to rush to the front for some face time with the man himself.

At the end of the event Bernadette Meehan, Chief International Officer at the Obama Foundation, added: “President Obama and the Foundation wanted to hear directly from emerging leaders from across Europe—about their aspirations, challenges, and issues of concern and opportunity.

“The future of Europe lies with these young leaders, and the Foundation wants to help them advance and scale their work. It was extremely beneficial to hear how the Foundation can best support these young leaders, who already are doing inspiring work to advance positive change, hand in hand with their communities.”

It was hearing this that really inspired me to do something more than just revel in the afternoon and the experience I just had. I felt a profound responsibility to bring this mission, and the ethos of the Town Hall, and the Obama Foundation back to Scotland.

We are once again in a time of crisis, perhaps equal to that which the 18-year-old me was experiencing after spending only 3 months in Scotland. After calling this place my home for 11 years, building a business here, trying to tackle huge social issues here, benefiting from the enormous generosity and support of the Scottish public and its business community, I find myself in a time of greater uncertainty of Scotland’s place within the world, and in Europe in particular. Yet we have incredible entrepreneurs here, incredible leaders here and I am certain we have a crop of future leaders who will go on to excel those who lead today.

For me I want to help start the conversations and create the connections that will benefit those young people who want to leave the world in a better place than they inherited it, that would rather build solutions than walls, that would rather celebrate the reality of a diverse, interconnected world, than hide from it for fear of its complexity.

I want to ensure in my small way that Scotland’s voice is not lost on the European or global stage, but heard and recognised rightly by our peers as global leaders we always have been, we are and we will be.

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