"It was a lot of poverty there, but a lot of pride," says Loretta Augustine, a community activist.
Chicago was in the midst of a political firestorm. Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, had taken the reins and racial tensions were running high, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports.
It was at a church, in 1984, where Obama came to work as a community organizer for a faith-based group called the Developing Communities Project. He worked in Altgeld Gardens, a racially segregated housing project on Chicago's far South Side. In a city where political power means everything, the people of Altgeld were invisible.
"To a great extent, we were powerless," Augustine says.
Obama's challenge was to empower the impoverished residents of Altgeld Gardens and turn them into political players. But older members of the group were skeptical of the 23-year-old Columbia University graduate.
"How was this kid gonna be any help to them?" says Gerry Kellman, who hired Obama.
But over time, Obama earned their trust and figured out how to make those voices heard.
"What Barack had to do was instill confidence in those folks," Kellman says.
Then there was a crucial meeting: A representative from the mayor's office tried to take over — and suddenly the South Side activist rose up.
"From the back of the room came Barack's voice, and he says, 'We want to hear from Loretta. Let Loretta talk,'" Augustine recalls. "And in that instant, he changed the meeting and focused right back on our agenda."
Today, still surrounded by 53 toxic waste dumps, Altgeld Gardens is often called "the toxic donut." In 1967, Augustine's 6-year-old daughter died of leukemia — which she's convinced was caused by toxic waste. Yet no one was listening to the people in the neighborhood.
"We found out there was a secret meeting in South Chicago on this issue and we had been excluded," she says.
Obama and 300 community members marched to that secret meeting.
"You cannot leave the community out of the process. It was so powerful," Augustine says.
Most people stayed in that job for four months. Obama continued to fight for four years, cutting his teeth on community activism. — the first measure of his leadership skills that are now being tested on a much larger stage.
"Barack came here very idealistic, and he left much more practical," Kellman says.
"He left, but he didn't leave us," adds Augustine. "We claim him."