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‘Feel Deeply About What You Do’

Obama Foundation CEO shares lessons in humility, power-mapping, and not hiding in your notebook.

Photograph by Danielle Rivard

When a factory machine malfunctioned, cutting his mother’s fingers off, an entire community—neighbors, co-workers, and church members—came to his family’s aid. But David Simas ’95, then a child of three or four and now the CEO of the Obama Foundation, especially remembers meeting the man who rigorously defended the dignity of his working-class family of Portuguese immigrants, the man who changed his life.

“He was my mother’s champion. In our eyes, the only thing he cared about was my mother,” Simas told a standing-room-only crowd of more than 130 people at the September kick-off of  Boston College Law School’s Leaders Entering and Advancing Public Service (LEAPS) program. “He was my hero. I went to law school because of that brief moment in time where I saw this person be the champion for my mother.”

Simas, who spent eight years as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama before being tapped in 2016 to lead the Chicago-based nonprofit started by the Obamas to empower the next generation of civic leaders, urged students at his alma mater to become champions of not only their clients but also a cause they are passionate about.

At the beginning of his career, he said he spent a couple of years thinking about what he cared most deeply about, almost to the exclusion of everything else. You whittle the list down to two or three, he said, turn down opportunities that fall outside the list, even if they would bring in more money. But if you get that clarity, which, he admitted, is hard to do, it’s liberating.

It is this clarity of mission and understanding of civic leadership that BC Law hopes to instill in its students through LEAPS. “This mission to train public service-minded leaders is part of our DNA here at BC law,” Dean Vincent Rougeau said in introductory remarks. “It’s always been important to us. But until today we had no unified direction or cohesion holding all of our efforts together.” LEAPS is an umbrella program that integrates academic, career, and experiential opportunities in public service across BC Law.

Simas is an early product of that commitment to service. He said in a nation predicated on the rule of law, the responsibility of a lawyer to answer “the call to leadership is clear.”

He also stressed the importance of developing a personal story to build trust with others; issue-mapping problems that you care most deeply about; doing asset inventory and coalition building; and identifying who makes the decisions as well as the variables that influence those decision-makers, a process he calls “power-mapping.”

“We tear society apart if we assume that anyone who has a contrary belief is somehow less of an American than you are,” Simas said. “Feel deeply about what you do. Keep your principles centered. Don’t forget the responsibility of citizenship.”