By Abaki Beck
Lawyer, activist, mother, First Lady: Michelle Obama is certainly someone to live up to. She has inspired dolls, childrens books, and myriad tourist t-shirts in the streets of D.C. We chose her for this week’s Feminist Hero Friday, the first hero of Black History Month, not simply as the First Lady or President Obama’s badass wife, but as a champion for youth issues and advocate for education. Obama is an accomplished lawyer and public servant. In the public eye, she has become a role model for people, particularly women of color, across the world.
Michelle Robinson grew up on the South Side of Chicago and went on to study sociology and African American studies at Princeton and law at Harvard. After graduation from law school, she got a job at a law firm in Chicago where she met Barack Obama, who would become, as she has said, “the love of her life.” In addition to the law firm, she has worked in student services at the University of Chicago, in Chicago City Hall, and helped to found an AmeriCorps program to prepare youth for public service called Public Allies. Indeed, much of her life has been dedicated to empowering and educating young people.
During her time as First Lady, she has spearheaded several initiatives focused on youth. Her most well known initiative, Let’s Move!, has the goal of reducing childhood obesity within a generation. It focuses on getting healthy meals in schools, encouraging and increasing exercise in youth, and increasing access to healthy foods. Her most recently introduced initiative, Let Girls Learn, works to eliminate barriers in girls attending school across the globe. The education and empowerment of girls is felt by entire communities. Education of girls decreases maternal and infant mortality rates, lowers birth rates, and lowers rates of HIV/AIDS.
Strikingly, Michelle has also been dedicated to Native youth - a group often neglected and forgotten by public servants. She was a keynote speaker at first White House Tribal Youth Gathering, famously saying that her and Barack “got your back.” Her and Barack met with youth at Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, and that meeting dramatically shifted their support of Native youth. It was after this meeting that the first White House Tribal Youth Gathering took place and that Generation Indigenous (Gen-I), a network for young Native activists, was formed. These are some of the first initiatives launched by the White House aimed specifically at empowering Native youth.
Unfortunately, when the media and society talks about Michelle, we often focus on minimal features: her “gardening” (she started a healthy foods garden as part of Let’s Move!), her arms, and her fashion sense. She is thus reduced to her body and her skills as a gardener - traditionally viewed as a “feminine” field of work. While she is a powerful and inspiring woman, she is often still viewed within societal confines of a “woman’s place,” whether subconsciously or consciously.
While Michelle is accomplished and influential, perhaps what inspires me most about her is her kindness. I had the opportunity to hear her speak at the White House Tribal Youth Gathering, and the message that came through strongest was love. It felt as if she truly loved us, and that’s why she was dedicated to ameliorating issues facing Native youth. Love and compassion are too often left out of politics and social justice. It is because of this love that I so look forward to how she will use her influence to continue to help youth throughout the world after her First Lady-ency has come to an close.
“Be brave, use your voice, ignore the doubters, and work hard, because life is hard work.”