First Lady Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama came to town last week to speak at the Moda Center as part of her book tour for Becoming. I just finished reading it. Sure wish I’d had the foresight to get a ticket for her talk!

I’d absorbed snippets of information about Michelle Obama during the presidential campaign and her 8 years as First Lady of the United States. I knew that she’d gone to Princeton as an undergraduate and Harvard Law thereafter. I knew that she was a loving wife, committed parent, and powerful public speaker. And I knew that she oozed grace and class. But I’d barely scratched the surface of this remarkable woman.

She shared a 1-bedroom apartment with her parents and older brother while growing up in the South Side of Chicago. Her father had a blue-collar job which he executed faithfully despite suffering from multiple sclerosis. Her mother devoted herself to giving her children every possible opportunity to succeed. Neither parent complained about their life circumstances. They worked hard and instilled a strong work ethic into their children.

As the neighborhood fell victim to “white flight,” Michelle witnessed first-hand the waning support for public schools and other critical social services. She saw what it was doing to their collective confidence. She reminds us that failure starts as an idea before it becomes a reality. Though the odds may have been stacked against her, Michelle was driven to succeed, even when a high school counsellor deemed her “not Princeton material.” She persevered. She worked even harder and built confidence with each success.

michelle obamaI felt a sense of kinship when she wrote about her acceptance into the Harvard Law School. She hadn’t really thought about whether or not law was her thing. Rather, acceptance into such a prestigious institution was a public affirmation of competency and being deemed “good enough” to run with the nation’s elite. (I definitely relate to that feeling!) She completed her training, passed the bar, and worked for a few years in a law firm before realizing that it wasn’t fulfilling. Not surprisingly, her mother had a no-nonsense response when hearing of her daughter’s bourgeoning sense of disquiet: “Make money first and worry about happiness later.”

While continuing with her law practice, Michelle orchestrated a series of interviews that eventually helped her launch a career in public service – first in government and later in not-for-profit settings. She also found mentors who provided invaluable professional guidance while helping her navigate the joys and challenges of being a working mother. To all appearances, she seems to have achieved her twin objectives of working with purpose and parenting with care.

Being thrust into the limelight as a political wife brought a whole new set of challenges. She took her responsibility as the first African American First Lady seriously – a debt to all the pioneering women who preceded her. She focused several initiatives on children to stem the tide of childhood obesity and to provide supports to help them succeed in life. As she says, kids will invest more of themselves when they feel that they are invested in… when they are told (and shown) that they matter.

I imagine that she was often frustrated by the slow rate of change, especially given her compassion for those in dire need. But she seemed to find peace in having her feet planted in reality but pointed in the direction of progress. As she said, “You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be.”

Loved the book. Bowled over by the woman who wrote it. Wonderful to experience America through a different set of eyes. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. Highly recommend it.