Charles Ogletree is a Harvard Law School professor and the director of the school's Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He has been in the news recently for commentary about the video of Barack Obama and Derrick Bell, but his relationship with the president is nothing new.
As a mentor to hundreds of current and former students, he knew the Obamas before they knew each other, and long before they were on the national stage. He talked to The Root about which of the president's qualities have held steady over the years, how black professionals can and should make mentoring a priority and his most important pieces of advice.
The Root: Do African Americans in corporate America, academia and other arenas in which black people are still underrepresented have an obligation to serve as mentors?
Charles Ogletree: Of course. We have benefited from the mentoring of those who preceded us as leaders, and it is incumbent upon us as the next generation to mentor those who will take on leadership positions in the 21st century.
TR: You were a mentor to President Obama and Michelle Obama when they were students at Harvard Law School. Tell us about those relationships.
CO: It was a wonderful pleasure to mentor both Michelle and Barack Obama. I met Michelle first, when she arrived in the fall of 1985. She was always a distinguished member of the student body and very much committed to public service.
I was most pleased to see her as one of the student lawyers at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, representing poor clients on a whole host of civil issues. She just walked into the courtroom with such elegance, she was always prepared and she represented her clients enormously well.
That effort to make her client an important part of the proceedings, not just the lawyers, was a form of mentoring as well. She did that throughout her years at the bureau, and I was always impressed with what she was able to do. It made a big difference.
I met Barack Obama when he arrived at Harvard Law School in 1988. It was immediately clear that he was going to be a great mentor because he always passed along whatever knowledge and judgment that he had. That was clear even before he was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.
He had an ability to take the question I would pose to him and include others in the conversation. He tried to make sure everyone's voice was heard and to include people with different points of view. It's the same sort of character you see today.
So my goal as a mentor was simply to impart upon them not just the rudiments of the law but also the requirements of social justice and public service, and I've been very pleased to see the both of them engaging in that work. They've now become, in my view, the quintessential mentoring team and will serve as mentors for generations to come.
TR: In the recent video featuring President Obama and Derrick Bell, he sounds so similar to the way he does today. Which qualities that we see now has he had since his law-school days?
CO: Student Barack Obama was not materially different from the state Sen. Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and President Barack Obama. A great example of that, in my view, was his appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
That decision showed the same strength, judgment and maturity that I saw in him when he was a student. He didn't think, like some, that since the battle [for the Democratic nomination] was hard fought, she couldn't serve in a key role in the administration. It was another sign of his willingness to learn from someone else and use what he learns for the greatest advantage.
So it's the same voice. He's a little older, a little grayer, but still just as passionate about justice as he is about that unorthodox left-handed jump shot. What you see now is the real Barack Obama, full of spirit and genuineness that I think we'll see for a very long time.
TR: How does someone as busy as you are balance mentoring with other professional obligations?
CO: It's easy because they're connected. When I was at a reception hosted by Michelle Obama [last week], there had to be dozens of people that I've mentored over the course of my life, and we had conversations: "I want to change my job," "I want to go from being a partner at a law firm to something more socially sustaining," "I'm getting married — can you come?" So as busy as I am, it's worked into everything I do.
TR: What are the top three things you try to convey to the students you mentor?
CO: 1. Understand that there are successes and failure in all walks, and you shouldn't give up because of a failure — it's a step toward success.
2. Always recall that no matter how talented and gifted you are, someone else has made it possible for you to be where you are, and those folks should be thanked.
3. Finally and most important, as you climb up the ladder of success, keep the door open and lift others as you climb.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.