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For Shari Davis, a young black woman, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama represent so much to her personally that when she learned in April 2019 that she’d been selected as one of just 20 Obama Fellows from around the world, it was hard to contain her emotions. “Ceilings can and should be broken,” Davis (Sargent’10,’12) says in explaining what the former president and first lady mean to her.

During her time at BU, Davis worked under the late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) on his Mayor’s Youth Council, and she also worked as an athletic trainer in Boston public schools. She created Boston’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment as well, before eventually leaving city government to colead the Participatory Budgeting Project, a national organization that works with cities and school districts to help them implement participatory budgeting and empowers people to decide together how to spend public money.

Among the programs of the nonprofit Obama Foundation, founded in 2014 to oversee the creation of the Barack Obama Presidential Center, is the Obama Foundation Fellowship. What does it mean to be an Obama Fellow? According to the fellowship website, “The Obama Foundation Fellowship supports outstanding civic innovators—leaders who are working with their communities to create transformational change and addressing some of the world’s most pressing problems. The program selects 20 community-minded rising stars from around the world for a two-year, nonresidential program, designed to amplify the impact of their work and inspire a wave of civic innovation.”

We caught up with Davis shortly after she learned she had been named an Obama Fellow.

Bostonia: How did you learn about the honor? And what was your reaction?

Davis: When I first heard I was going to be an Obama Fellow, I was on a call with our team at the Participatory Budgeting Project. It was amazing to be able to share the news with my PBP family. This is a big opportunity for us. I see this as our fellowship. There is so much that I am excited to learn and discover that I can bring back to the team.

Can you talk about what the Obamas mean to you personally and why this is meaningful for you?

As a young black woman, to me the Obamas represent hope, possibility, and the reality that ceilings can and should be broken. They have a very clear commitment to equity and social justice. I could not think of better people to learn from, and with, as I continue to build my own network of social justice warriors.

What are you working on now and how will being an Obama Fellow impact your work?

Today, I serve as the co–executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project, an organization focused on empowering people to decide together how a portion of public funds are spent. This fellowship will provide professional development opportunities and growth support and raise the profile of this work.

Did your time at BU influence where you are today?

My time at BU taught me so much about how valuable support is and how important asking for help is when you need it. Boston University challenged me in formative ways, but also created lifelong friendships, bonds, mutual supporters, and revolving mentorship relationships. Thank you, Mark Laursen, Sara Brown, my entire Athletic Training family, and Dean Elmore. You all have seen me and have helped me see myself. I can’t wait to see where we go next.