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October 28, 2011

The Making of Barack Obama, the Global President

Dinesh Sharma, Fred Siegel & Maya Soetoro-Ng Discuss New Book & Obama’s Upbringing

In 2008, when Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States, he reiterated his promise to Americans of “Change we can believe in.” The author of a new book about the president, Dinesh Sharma, told the audience at St. Francis College on October 28 that by understanding Obama’s multicultural upbringing and the events and individuals that fundamentally shaped his character, Americans can gain valuable insight into exactly what type of change Obama plans to implement for America’s future.

Sharma, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for International & Cross-Cultural Psychology at St. Francis College and a columnist for Asia Times Online, discussed his new book, Barack Obama in Hawai’i and Indonesia (Praeger) with the help of Fred Siegel, Scholar-in-Residence at St. Francis College and Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. President Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng joined the discussion from Hawaii via Skype and discussed her mother’s influence on their upbringing and shared insight on Obama as a child. (Watch Maya Soetoro-Ng’s Talk)

Soetoro-Ng described her mother, Ann Dunham, as an individual that built community wherever she went and “emphasized the value and virtue of seeing things from a different perspective,” conveying that Obama’s exposure to a variety of ethnicities influenced his perception of the world. She described her half-brother as a typical young man who was smart and charismatic, loved to play sports, and generally did well in the things he valued, but couldn’t imagine that he would one day assume the role of president.

Sharma said that Obama grew with "a mythic image" of his father, initially worked hard to live up to the expectations of his absent Kenyan father, Obama Sr., but after discovering that his father wasn’t the man he believed him to be, he was motivated to outdo his father and become a role-model for the African-American community. He credited Obama’s mother and grandparents on his mother’s side as the people who both raised and taught him about hard work, responsibility and family values, his core Midwestern values. (Watch Dinesh Sharma’s Talk)

“Barack Obama is our first African-American president, of course, but he is also the first multicultural head of any Western democracy,” said Sharma who adds Obama is a sign of the changing times and that it is important to recognize his history in order to understand America’s future. Sharma described Obama as an anthropologist in his ability to recognize important factors in today’s society. He also discussed the demographic changes impacting the United States, observing that the nation is becoming more diverse and by 2042 it’s estimated that the U.S. will be 50% ethnic minorities.

Sharma points out that Obama was born and raised in Hawai’i, the last state to join the Union and the first majority-minority state in the country, and schooled in Jakarta, Indonesia, the largest Islamic populist democracy.

He added that Obama’s work reflects the kind of work his mother and father were doing around the world and that his upbringing exposed him to trends like the growth of international business and technology, outsourcing and the increasing economic power of other nations in the Asian Pacific region.

Offering a political perspective to Obama’s story, Professor Siegel expressed that Obama’s multicultural upbringing has certainly contributed to his success and his ability to adapt, but he doesn’t believe Obama has adapted to Washington, referring to him as a “checklist president” only concerned with pleasing interest groups. Siegel also agreed that Obama’s skills as an anthropologist helped him navigate the political waves to get him to the presidency. But he adds that if Obama does not win a second term, his election, while it will be a significant marker for generations, will not be the transformational presidency that he promised during his first campaign.

The event was co-sponsored by the Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology at St. Francis College, the St. Francis College Honors Program, the International Division of the American Psychological Association and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPISSI).

The Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology (IICCP) sponsors research and publications in international and cross-cultural psychology; promotes, develops, and implements workshops, symposia, lectures, and conferences at St. Francis College; involves students in cross-cultural research and the institute’s programs; fosters a sense of involvement in the cultural richness of the St. Francis College community; and creates network ties with other interested psychological institutions in the USA and abroad. Between 1998 and 2011 the Institute supported the writing and editing of numerous publications in international psychology including 15 books that have appeared in 5 countries.

By Sade Falebita ‘12

[Attached photo: Dinesh Sharma, Uwe Gielen (Director of the Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Psychology)]

St. Francis College, founded in 1859 by the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn, is located in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y. Since its founding, the College has pursued its Franciscan mission to provide an affordable, high-quality education to students from New York City’s five boroughs and beyond.


St. Francis College, 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY 11201

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