Michelle Obama on Leadership

Michelle Obama
On April 5th, 2018, Michele Obama spoke at the Simmons College Leadership Conference in Boston. 

As part of our #StandAgainstRacism campaign theme on civic engagement, we set out to find useful and powerful ideas that might help communities open up dialogues on leadership and civic life.

One stand-out online publications this month, well aligned with the equity building work we are doing at YW Boston, came from the Simmons College Leadership Conference conversation with Michelle Obama.

The one hour and twenty-three minute discussion on leadership, began with opening remarks from Boston Mayor, Marty Walsh, who had this to share with the audience:

“Culture change is the tipping point for this legislation, whether its equal pay, paid parental leave, or childcare, change will happen.  My goal for Boston is a strong middle class, a middle class that demands gender equity.  In Boston, we know that to continue to grow and succeed, we need to be at the forefront of this change.”

Michelle Obama shared a wealth of ideas, information and practical advice for looking at the current moment through the lens of our shared history.  She starts the conversation by reminding us that as bad as things seem right now, these aren’t the worst of times.  This country has seen a lot worse, just five or six decades ago, when people rose up for civil rights and demanded the right to vote and the right to equal education.

Of the present moment, Mrs. Obama had this to say:

“We’re in a better place today than any other time in our history.  But, you have to know that history to understand that.  And I think that it takes perspective and time.  I urge young people who feel uncomfortable with that to exercise the patience that is needed and to continue to do what you can to control what you can.

I look at this [time] as a natural part of the process.  We’re here because we need to be here as a nation.  We need to really look one another in the eyes and really ask ourselves who we are and what we’re willing to do to achieve our goals.  What are we willing to sacrifice?

In a nation with so many voices and opinions, no one gets everything.  It feels like a lot of people are mad because they aren’t getting everything.  [But consider this] A lot of people are getting nothing.  There are a lot of people who sat out or voted against something, but not for something.  They voted with an expectation that there’s a perfect answer, and there isn’t.  It’s all very gray.  And forward movement sometimes requires settling into the grayness of those choices.  So… we have work to do.”

YW Boston wanted to share some additional insights (see below) from the Simmons College Leadership conversation with Michelle Obama.  These reflections are key for helping empower people to think critically about how to create pathways in support of new, emerging and established leaders in our community.  Our organization cannot keep the promise of our mission without the support of dynamic and truly diverse leaders throughout all sectors across Boston.  We need the support of as many people as possible to help do the difficult, yet necessary, daily work of helping eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

Insights On Leadership & Civic Engagement from Michelle Obama:

“You do what you do because you know it’s the right thing to do.  Not because you’re going to get credit for it.  Not because you think it’s going to last, or say something about your personal legacy.  You do the work because you’re slowly moving the needle.  There are times in history when you feel like you’re moving backwards, but that’s part of the growth.” 

“I certainly know which way I want the country to go.  I want to continue to build a country that’s based on empathy and compassion, generosity and good will.  I want to be in a nation where we give one another the benefit of the doubt.  Where we have open arms and we’re full of inclusion.  But, we’ve got to fight for that vision.  It just doesn’t happen (on its own).  And we can’t take it for granted.  A lot of what we’re seeing now, is what we see when we take things for granted.

“I think it’s going to take the next generation of young people to really determine the world they want to be in and voting has got to be a part of that equation.  People have to vote their interests.  Young people have to vote their interests.  The question is, what’s your interest now, young people?  We’ve got some clear choices to make.”

“The fact is that this [the challenges of today] feels new to so many people in their twenties and thirties than for many of us.  I’m 54 now and I probably haven’t lived through as much gray as my parents and grandparents have.  I mean, I didn’t grow up in Jim Crow.  I didn’t grow up in segregation but I still know that history because I’m close to that age.  I heard those stories.  I know the challenges that my grandparents went through.  I’ve seen intelligent black men working in jobs less than what they could be, because of the limitations put on them on account of their race.  I saw that first hand.  People in their twenties and thirties, fortunately didn’t live out that history.  Things feel a little more equal, [even if] not across the board.  I’m not saying everything is fine now, but that’s a measure of our success as a nation that twenty and thirty year olds feel like this is bad.”

“You know, we’re just outside of some of the hardest times in this country.  We’re just outside of that, so of course things are going to be gray.  There are still people alive today who were raised in slavery.  There are people alive that were raised in the south, where black people couldn’t vote.  They live with those notions.  The effects of that upbringing, I can see it on both sides, still lives inside of them. Folks are alive today who were raised with a totally different reality.  I think about that history.  I think, well of course we’re going to struggle.”

“We have to remember that the power for change is within us.  We are the answer that we seek.  We’re here, again, because a lot of people, didn’t vote.  People sat out, hedging bets.  Women, sadly were uncomfortable voting for another woman.  We have to own that reality.  The deeper question is, what happened?  What’s going on inside of us, where we’re still afraid to embrace a different vision of leadership?  The best qualified candidate in this last race was a woman, and she wasn’t perfect, but she was WAY more “perfect” than many of the alternatives.” 

When asked why she would not consider running for president, Mrs. Obama explained that it’s best to be inclined toward the position.  “You have to the want job.  And we (voters) can’t just go out and pick our favorites.  That’s what got us in the situation we’re in.” 

“We focus on ours and these, and we don’t look deeply into the competency and the abilities of people.  We pick our favorites.” 

She went on to give advice about how to support women who are skilled, talented and inclined to do the work that the Presidency requires.  “First you have to cultivate young women as leaders.  We have to find them, because getting into the political arena is complicated.” 

She explains that this is why we have seen several presidential legacies i.e. Bush, Clinton, Bush…  “How do we start finding young women out there who have the passion, the skill, the ability, and help them figure out how to build an organization, how to fundraise, how to identify key, strategic people to help with a campaign?  How do you raise money?  How do you think strategically about winning a race?  There is a lot of leadership development that we need to do.  We need to see more women in the State House, in Congress, in the Governor’s house…  We have to start building that pool from the bottom.  And then, we have to support them through it.  We’ve got to be willing, when we find qualified people, to vote for them.” 

“I think people should be less disheartened that me and Oprah don’t want to run (for office) and more disheartened about the fact that Hillary Clinton, probably the most qualified person to ever seek the presidency, lost.  She lost.  That should be more discouraging, because… what matters now?  We have to sort through that.”

“I don’t want to be president.  I don’t think I should be president.  I think I can do a lot of things but, that’s not one of them.  We have to find women who understand their gifts and know where to put them to use.  I know what I’m good at.  Oprah said this too.  She knows what she’s good at.  I think we have to do more to support young women in finding out what their strengths are.  We will find that a huge percent of them will be strong in politics, policy, strategy, coordination and organization.  We should help develop them into the leaders we want [in office].”

“We [The Obamas] will always have a career in public service.  We will continue to have an impact through the Obama Presidential Center.  Located in our home town of Chicago, on the south-side of Chicago, the center and its location means something to both of us.  I was born and raised in the neighborhood where the library is going to be built.  Barak and I raised our girls there.  My mother still owns her home, not ten minutes, but five minutes from the site.  It’s going to be a Presidential Center in the heart of an urban community.  That’s important to us.  One of the goals for the center is to identify that next generation of leaders.” 

“For those of you who have the view that they want the next Obama [in office,] our view is that our time is better used helping to develop thousands of potential Michelle and Barak Obama’s all over the world.  Using our resources to have that kind of multiplier effect, is really what we need.  I think young people need some help and structure to figure out how to break into those opportunities.  They need to figure out how to survive in them.  That’s some of what we hope to do through the foundation.  I also hope to continue my work on healthy eating and girl’s education.  The foundation will be the platform, the base upon which we build the rest of our work.”

“Part of my strength in the work I did early on came from knowing that I had a safe place to land, my home.  You go out into the world and you get battered and bruised and then you come home, you go into the kitchen, you open the refrigerator and let loose on your mom.  She tells you it’ll be okay and she sends you on back out there.  I came from that foundation.  One of the things I learned was that having that foundation was important to my own personal survival.” 

“I had to have a place where I could feel at home, where I could feel like myself.  The challenge that minority students, first generation students, feel on a majority of campuses is, how to feel at home, when you’re the only one?  Where do you land?  Where is your soft place to land?  A lot of times, its having that place [that makes all the difference].  Part of the job falls on colleges and universities, to understand that.  Diversity doesn’t work if you’re taking a small minority and scattering them among a majority and saying ‘tada!  We have diversity and everyone is going to be okay with that.’ It doesn’t work that way.  The few sprinkles are going to get lost because it’s hard being the only one.” 

“When you’re sitting in a majority class and you’re the only one fighting for your perspective or you feel that people just don’t get where you’re from, when the misogynistic, racist comments happen at even the most well meaning schools, someone is going to say something that makes a first generation kid feel less than, and not even intentionally.  You’ve got people coming from all different backgrounds and perspectives.  They will even run into close minded faculty members who will make them feel less than.  So, where do these kids go?”      

“At Princeton, black kids, minority kids had a place to congregate.  It was okay to be the ‘black table’ and to sit with people who made you feel good and feel at home and give you that soft place so that you wouldn’t feel like you were isolating yourself [in the majority].  I embraced that part of Princeton.  That part of Princeton saved my life.  Now, there are organizations out there like the Posse organization and others that are designed to encourage schools to not admit one or two, but admit communities of kids and help them be a community, so that when they go out there and they face things that are uncomfortable or unsure, they have a place that is sanctioned and approved by the place that is protecting them, to allow them to be themselves and not view that as a threat.  Not to view that as isolation but as survival [for first generation, young people of color in academia].  I sought that out for myself, and that experience, that community, having some mentors in my life, being able to build a new safe-space for myself, saved me.  It allowed me to ease into the culture, as I felt comfortable. “

“Universities have a responsibility to create a diverse life.  They have to understand that a healthy, thriving community, looks like everything, not just great grades and perfect SAT scores.  Sometimes the least interesting kids are the ones who have just checked boxes all of their lives.  You want diversity because of experience, knowledge, approach, and ways of learning, and because it creates excitement in the classroom and on campus.  It’s just that in our society, somehow, when ‘affirmative action’ means [people of] color, it’s deemed problematic…  There are all kinds of ‘affirmative action, take legacies, for example.  Affirmative action exists everywhere throughout the society.  It’s called privilege.”