Valerie June Jarrett (née Bowman; born November 14, 1956) is an American businesswoman and former government official. She served as the senior advisor U.S. President Barack Obama and assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs. Before that, she served as a co-chair of the Obama–Biden Transition Project.
Since March 2021, she has been interim president of the Obama Foundation.
Early life and education
Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran, during the Shah’s rule, to American parents James E. Bowman and Barbara T. Bowman. Her father, a pathologist and geneticist, ran a hospital for children in Shiraz in 1956 as part of a program in which American physicians and agricultural experts sought to help in the health and farming efforts of developing countries. When she was five years old, the family moved to London for a year, later moving to Chicago in 1963.
Her parents are of African-American and European descent. On the television series Finding Your Roots, DNA testing indicated that Jarrett is of 49% European, 46% African, and 5% Native American descent. Among her European roots, she was found to have French and Scottish ancestry. One of her maternal great-grandfathers, Robert Robinson Taylor, was the first accredited African-American architect, and the first African-American student enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jarrett's father once told her that her great-grandfather was Jewish. Her maternal grandfather, Robert Rochon Taylor, was chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority in the 1940s.
As a child, Jarrett spoke Persian, French, and English. In 1966, her mother was one of four child advocates who created the Erikson Institute. The institute was established to provide collective knowledge in child development for teachers and other professionals working with young children. She graduated from Northfield Mount Hermon in 1974, and earned a B.A. in psychology from Stanford University in 1978 and a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the University of Michigan Law School in 1981. On May 21, 2016, Jarrett received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Chicago municipal politics
Jarrett got her start in Chicago politics in 1987 working for Mayor Harold Washington as deputy corporation counsel for finance and development.
Jarrett continued to work in the mayor's office in the 1990s. She was deputy chief of staff for Mayor Richard Daley, during which time (1991) she hired Michelle Robinson, then engaged to Barack Obama, away from a private law firm. Jarrett served as commissioner of the department of planning and development from 1992 through 1995, and she was chairwoman of the Chicago Transit Board from 1995 to 2005.
Until joining the Obama administration, Jarrett was the CEO of the Habitat Company, a real estate development and management company, which she joined in 1995. She was replaced by Mark Segal, an attorney who joined the company in 2002, as CEO. Daniel E. Levin is the chairman of Habitat, which was formed in 1971. Jarrett was a member of the board of Chicago Stock Exchange (2000–2007, as chairman, 2004–2007).
She was a member of the board of trustees of the University of Chicago Medical Center from 1996 to 2009, becoming vice chairwoman in 2002 and chairwoman in 2006. She also served as vice chairwoman of the board of trustees of the University of Chicago and a trustee of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Jarrett serves on the board of directors of USG Corporation, a Chicago-based building materials corporation.
Advisor to Barack Obama
Jarrett was one of President Obama's longest serving advisors and confidantes and was "widely tipped for a high-profile position in an Obama administration."
Unlike Bert Lance, who arrived from Georgia with President [Jimmy] Carter and became his budget director, or Karen Hughes, who was President [George W.] Bush's communications manager, Ms. Jarrett isn't a confidante with a particular portfolio. What she does share with these counterparts is a fierce sense of loyalty and a refusal to publicly say anything that may reflect poorly on the candidate—or steal his thunder.
On November 14, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama selected Jarrett to serve as a senior advisor to the president and assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison.
Jarrett was one of three senior advisors to President Obama. She held the retitled position of assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement, managed the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, and Office of Urban Affairs; she also chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls and the White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic, and Youth Sport. She was part of the U.S. State Visit to the UK in May 2011.
She said that the 2011 report Women in America, which the administration produced for the Council on Women and Girls, would be used to guide policy-making.
Jarrett had a staff of approximately three dozen and received full-time Secret Service protection. Jarrett's role as both a friend of the Obamas and as senior advisor in the White House was controversial: in his memoirs Robert M. Gates, former secretary of defense, discussed his objection to her involvement in foreign security affairs; David Axelrod reported in his memoirs about Rahm Emanuel's attempts to have her selected as Obama's replacement in the senate, due to concerns about the difficulty in working with a family friend in a major policy role.
Additional leadership positions
In addition to being senior advisor to the president, Jarrett held other leadership positions and completed further duties. Among those included chairing the White House Council on Women and Girls and co-chairing the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. In March 2014, she participated as a speaker on Voices in Leadership, an original Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health webcast series, in a discussion entitled, "Leadership in the White House," moderated by Dr. Atul Gawande.
Relationship with the Obamas
In 1991, as deputy chief of staff to Mayor Richard Daley, Jarrett interviewed Michelle Robinson for an opening in the mayor's office, after which she immediately offered Robinson the job. Robinson asked for time to think and also asked Jarrett to meet her fiancé, Barack Obama. The three ended up meeting for dinner. After the dinner, Robinson accepted the job with the mayor's office. It was at this time that Jarrett reportedly took the couple under her wing and "introduced them to a wealthier and better-connected Chicago than their own." When Jarrett later left her position at the mayor's office to head the Chicago department of planning and development, Michelle Obama went with her.
Since leaving the White House, Jarrett has volunteered as a senior advisor to the Obama Foundation. In 2017 she was appointed to the board of directors of Ariel Investments, and joined the board of directors of 2U, Inc., Lyft, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She is also the co-Chair of the United State of Women, Chair of the Board of When We All Vote, and a Senior Advisor to ATTN:. In January 2018 she became a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School.
In July 2017 Jarrett signed a deal with Viking Press for her book titled Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward.
In December 2020, following the announcement that Obama Foundation President Wally Adeyemo would be nominated to become Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, the Foundation announced that Jarrett would take over his duties on an interim basis until a successor can be found.
In popular culture
Along with Donna Brazile, vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, she is one of the political figures to make a cameo appearance as herself in the CBS drama The Good Wife.
In 1983 she married William Robert Jarrett, son of Chicago Sun-Times reporter Vernon Jarrett. She attributes her switch from a private to a public career to the birth of their daughter, and her own desire to do something that would make their daughter proud. Her daughter, Laura Jarrett, is an attorney and reporter for CNN, and daughter-in-law of the Canadian politician Bas Balkissoon.
To one reporter's emailed question about her divorce, she replied, "Married in 1983, separated in 1987, and divorced in 1988. Enough said." In a Vogue profile, she further explained, "We grew up together. We were friends since childhood. In a sense, he was the boy next door. I married without really appreciating how hard divorce would be." William Jarrett died on November 19, 1993, at age 40, and at the time of his death he was director of obstetrics and gynecology at Jackson Park Hospital.
Twitter against Roseanne Barr
Jarrett has been the target of racist attacks for her heritage. Roseanne Barr, via Twitter, suggested Jarrett looked like the offspring of a Muslim and a character from Planet of the Apes. In response to her attack on Jarrett, Barr was released by her talent agency ICM, while her show Roseanne was cancelled.