I have always been proud of my story. You have to believe in your own story. When you doubt, I hope you remember me and my story. I hope you remember that there was a girl called Michelle Robinson Obama. She grew up poor. She didn’t start out going to the best schools but she worked hard. She did good and had working class parents who had the foresight to take out loans to send her to the best colleges. Education was the foundation that prepared her for all she became…
Paraphrase from “A conversation with Former U.S First Lady Michelle Obama”
I had the privilege of attending one of Michelle Obama’s two talks in Vancouver on Thursday February 15, 2018. It was an amazing experience all around and for me, the former first lady’s talk struck close chords to the issues I care deeply about – leadership, identity, storytelling/narrative and social change. Here are my paraphrases of some of the nuggets I took away:
On Leadership: Lead from hope and not fear. When you choose to lead from hope you see the good in humanity and won’t get paralyzed by the fear induced by the negative stories that get told. You have to look at the everyday evidence around you. Think of all the interactions you have every single day. It’s not as bad as it feels. Remember the truth of who we are.
On Social Change: It takes time but we are moving in the right direction. History is a bumpy road, it’s not a straight line. I think about the shoulders I stand on and what the people who came before me had to endure. Nothing I have experienced comes close to the challenges they experienced. Walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Senator Lewis was beaten was a profound experience.
On Identity: I am proud of my story. I am proud of my background coming from working class parents. I believe in my story.
On Role Models: My parents. And fundamentally two teachers and the people who simply let young people’s voices be heard. Those two teachers would tell us to put our books down and talk about what mattered to us and that’s what we needed.
On Influence/Saving the World: Be patient with yourself! For women in busy life stages, use that time to figure out what you are passionate about and when you have more leverage, go after that issue that moves you and makes you get out of bed every morning. There are lots of issues and you can’t take them all on. And while you are managing home, career and all – start saving/changing the world right where you are. It starts with you and your family and the people right in front of you.
On Difference: Our skin colour is the least distinguishing thing about us!
On Education: Education is the foundation for all I’ve become. It teaches discipline and the tenacity to complete even when you think you can’t do it. It prepares you for the responsibility of life because it doesn’t get easier. In today’s world, a basic education is not enough. Everything I did before first lady – corporate lawyer, public service, associate dean – I had access to do because of my education – and that’s the least of what I’ve done.
On Confidence: Confidence is a muscle! I’ve had the moments before a talk when I broke into a cold sweat but then you push past that and you keep going. My favorite moments for the young people we mentor is watching their confidence grow from being terrified to meet me to walking around the White House confident.
On Mentoring: If Barack and I could find time to spend with the young people on the margins we mentored while in office, you can too. They won’t listen to their parents but they’ll listen to you. It doesn’t take much. It’s in the conversations and them sharing what matters to them.
On Social Media: A life looking into a phone is not a life. Do not tweet your first thought! No one’s first thoughts are worthy of tweeting. You have to be thoughtful. I tell my kids that no one has 1000 friends so it’s like 1000 strangers following you and that should scare you. You cannot expose yourself to random people’s opinions of you. I don’t read the comments.
On Work/Life Balance: Schedule your life first! Schedule kids’ activities, girlfriend time…oh and date nights…then schedule work. If you don’t, you’ll always schedule work first and just give the leftover to home and life. You have to reverse it. When we scheduled life first, we found there was still lots of time left for work!
On Being the first Black First Lady: On the one hand, it didn’t feel like anything – it’s who I am [and what I had been prepared for]. I’m a black woman. On the other hand, being the first meant I took those hits and the negativity. It was no fun.
On Girlfriends: For women, girlfriends are your support system that will see you through. We have to set aside all that competing stuff and support each other. Girlfriend time is more important than date night!
My Reflection: Michelle Obama’s story is my story and my parents’ story. My maternal grandfather had no formal education but was an intelligent and shrewd businessman who moved from rural Sierra Leone to the capital Freetown, and made good. Once there, he also had the foresight to send his daughter to school at a time when only sons had that privilege. My paternal grandparents were working class farmers in rural Sierra Leone. They went along with the teacher-mentor who insisted their son was too intelligent to only be allowed an elementary education. My parents from that lineage became academics, public servants and diplomats, serving around the world and leaving a legacy that in turn spurs me to excellence. They are my role models. My day at Michelle Obama’s talk not only reminded me to continue leading in a way that positively influences others, but reminded me also of the shoulders I stand on and of the legacy I in turn will leave for my children by the example of my life.
Whose shoulders do you stand on?
What is your story?
What legacy are you leaving?