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INTERVIEW BY HILDE LYSIAK
(NOTE: THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AUGUST/SEPTEMBER PRINT EDITION OF THE NATIONAL)
I was just 2 years old when Michelle Obama became first lady. When I was growing up, she was always just there, smiling on the covers of magazines, surrounded by groups of kids in the White House gardens, holding hands with her husband. At that time, I didn’t have a concept of who she really was. But as I got older I began to realize how important she was—and the impact she was having on my generation. I learned more about her in Becoming, her memoir, in which she tells the story of her journey from Chicago’s South Side to the White House. Her voice is honest and often vulnerable, especially when she experiences change, like going to a new high school or becoming the first lady. Frequently she asks herself, “Am I good enough?” But she is also mesmerizing and determined, asserting herself as a force from a young age. Michelle Obama doesn’t use her book to preach, though. Instead she shares her ideas with the world through storytelling. As a journalist, that’s how I communicate too—by knocking on doors and asking people to share their stories. And so when I got the chance to interview her, my goal was simple: to uncover more about the ideas behind her stories and how they can inspire us all, regardless of our politics.
There’s a scene early in Becoming when your mom helps you move out of your second-grade teacher’s class and jump up to third grade, where your new teacher is able to tap into your natural desire to learn. Do you believe that a love of learning is something kids are born with or something they get from their families and teachers?
I believe it’s both. Every child is born with an innate sense of wonder for the world around them. You can see it in the wide-eyed baby, soaking in every last detail of his mother’s face, or in the preschooler demanding to know why dessert doesn’t come before dinner. We are curious, creative beings. But it’s also the work of parents, teachers, and community members to keep that flicker of curiosity alive. Because kids know what’s up. They know when the adults around them have assumed failure as a foregone conclusion. A hurtful remark, an air of indifference—those things add up. And they can do real damage to a young person’s desire to learn. I don’t know what happened to most of my second-grade classmates, but I do know they were just as smart and capable as I was. And while I was fortunate to have an extraordinary advocate in my own mother, no child’s future should hinge on one person’s willingness to take on a broken system.
Growing up, you had a lot of freedom to explore the world—hanging out in the common green space behindyour house, riding the bus to a camp on Lake Michigan. Many of the kids I know are barely allowed to cross the street by themselves. Do you worry that kids today don’t have the same freedom that you did as a child? What effects might this have on their growth and ability to learn?
I think the impulse to protect our families is understandable, especially given the sort of news we see every day on our phone and TV screens. Every parent’s first job is to keep their kids safe. But sometimes that instinct can get out of hand—even setting our kids up to be too cautious or scared to take risks. No one understood that better than my mother, Marian Robinson. She gave my brother, Craig, and me the freedom to roam—not just in our neighborhood, but within our own minds and burgeoning moral codes. Craig and I tested out countless bad ideas, fell flat on our faces, and eventually figured our way out of the messes we created. Don’t get me wrong—my mother was always standing just out of frame, ready with a listening ear or wry laugh—but she knew she couldn’t cherish us to death. I try my best to do the same with Malia and Sasha. It’s a style of parenting that can make for bruised elbows and broken hearts. But it also makes for independent, compassionate, and courageous adults. And the world needs as many of those as we can get.
You write that growing up in Chicago in the ’60s, the color of your skin made you feel vulnerable, that it was a thing that you would “always have to navigate.” Do you believe the color of your skin is still something you have to navigate? And what advice would you give to a young African American girl growing up in Chicago now who may feel the same way?
Even with all the incredible opportunities I’ve had over the years, skin color is something that’s always with you. So to a young person growing up today, I’d say that race is something our country has always struggled with, and it’s something it’s going to keep grappling with for a while longer, too. As an African-American, that means that some days, those struggles are going to land directly at your doorstep, or in your classroom, or in your Instagram feed. And sometimes, that’s going to hurt—that’s real. But it’s up to us to turn that pain into a strength. Always remember small minds are no match for the truth, so brush off those comments and haters, and challenge them when necessary. Over the long run, we’ve made progress as individuals and as a country because of people who’ve stood strong against discrimination and hate and ultimately revealed the truth that who we are is far greater than the amount of melanin in our skin cells.
Your campaign Better Make Room focuses on encouraging Generation Z to continue their education beyond high school. There have been a million attempts to promote education before, and today more people than ever are going to college. What do you hope Better Make Room can add?
When we started Reach Higher and Better Make Room at the White House, I wanted all kids to know that school really is cool, and that education is the best investment you can make in your future. It opens doors and offers endless possibilities. I hope that Better Make Room makes that clear—with an energy and a spirit that actually reaches young people and helps them connect to each other, especially on social media. @BetterMakeRoom has become a place online where students can encourage each other to fill out their FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—forms or college applications and ultimately share in the excitement of going to college. I hope it’ll always be a safe space for students to get some pick-me-ups during low moments and do some celebrating during the good ones.
Everyone talks about what a great investment higher education is, but a lot of people my age think that going tens of thousands of dollars in debt before their mid-20s is hardly a solid plan. What would you tell teenagers who don’t like the idea of going into huge debt and believe they can attain the future they want without college?
Student loan debt is real, and I know that from experience. I was married and well into my career before I paid off all of my loans. But here’s the thing—higher education isn’t really optional anymore. You’ve got to complete your education past high school to give yourself the skills you need to build a decent career. Thankfully, there are lots of affordable options for students to consider—and as you scan those options, you’ll often find that the most expensive school is not necessarily the best school for you. Community colleges are a great example. They’re valuable, they’re viable, and they’re affordable options that can get you jump-started on a four-year degree or to go right into your career. There are also a lot of other ways to make college more affordable. Go to collegescorecard.ed.gov to compare the costs and offerings of different schools. And always, always remember to complete your FAFSA, which can unlock grants that give you free money for school. Millions of kids who qualify for these grants—money that you don’t have to pay back—never complete the FAFSA, so they miss out.
You went to school in one of the poorer areas of Chicago and then sent your daughters to some of the best schools in the world. What has that range of educational experiences taught you?
It’s taught me a lot. My daughters have had privileges that Barack and I never did; like any parents, we want the best for them. But you’re right that the inequalities in our educational system are something that our country has to grapple with. You shouldn’t have to have a lot of money to get a fair shot. I’ll leave the policy debates for another time, but what’s important is to recognize the potential in every student, no matter where they’re growing up. As first lady, I had the opportunity to meet with kids living in underserved communities—kids fighting every day just to stay alive. And what I saw in those kids was as much grit, and heart, and promise as any child growing up in wealthier areas. That’s something I hope more folks recognize—that kids growing up in tougher environments have skills and experiences that a lot of their peers just can’t compete with.
In advancing Better Make Room, you work with young people from all across the country. What’s your take on Generation Z? Who are they and how do their educational needs differ from those of other generations?
I love how creative and confident Gen Z is, especially the young women.They’re far more outspoken and driven than girls were when I was growing up—they don’t as quickly cede ground to the boys or accept different treatment, and that’s terrific. Technology has allowed their entire generation to learn and experience so much so quickly. Students can see parts of the world and connect with others on different continents in ways my generation never could have imagined. And that technology and connectivity has given them a megaphone to speak out. It’s pretty amazing. But I also want this generation to understand that those interactions are just the beginning, not the end. They set the foundation for discovering new things, seeing new places, learning a language, but nothing can replace the real thing. So I hope that Gen Z not only interacts with friends online but also in person. Talk, laugh, debate—and do it all face-to-face.
One thing I learned from reading your book is that you have a lot of grit. As a child, you lived in a disadvantaged community and later you worked hard to become a successful lawyer and then the vice-president of a hospital. Do you ever feel that because of the work of your husband your personal accomplishments have been overlooked?
Ha—being married to the president of the United States comes with its own set of challenges, but being overlooked is not one of them! My life and my story have gotten plenty of attention since Barack became a public figure. And as an adult, I’ve come to realize that success isn’t measured by how many boxes you check or who notices your achievements, so I’m not really looking for any more gold stars. In fact, all of my proudest professional accomplishments—from helping young people enter public service to building bridges between a hospital and the community it serves—have been a result of learning to go where my passions lead me.
A lot of people want you to run for president. You’ve publicly said that you aren’t interested, but everyone says that until they actually run. Just between us, if you thought the country needed you and you thought you could really help our nation, is there even a one percent chance you’d consider running?
Just between us, and the readers of this magazine—there’s zero chance. There are so many ways to improve this country and build a better world, and I keep doing plenty of them, from working with young people to helping families lead healthier lives. But sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office will never be one of them. It’s just not for me.
“As an adult, I’ve come to realize that success isn’t measured by how many boxes you check or who notices your achievements.”
While I was reading your book I felt like I was hearing stories at your dinner table in Chicago. Could you talk about your writing process and when you first discovered a passion for storytelling?
I am and always will be a Robinson. That means a lot of things, but maybe most of all, it means I show my love by sharing stories. We are a soulful, boisterous bunch of South Siders, always at our best when crowded around a kitchen table, cracking jokes and catching each other up on the ups and downs of our lives. When I began the process of writing my memoir, I wanted to put that energy on the page. What I learned from growing up surrounded by that kind of family is that when you speak from the heart, when you offer up the truth of your life in all its messy glory, you give other people permission to do the same. I’m so humbled by the conversations my book has sparked in communities all over the world. But none of that would be possible if I hadn’t learned from my family how to tell a good story.
You say that one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s because you “don’t like the idea that growing up is finite. As if some point you become something and that’s the end.” Since growing up is a never-ending process, for my final question I’d like to ask you, Michelle Obama, what is it that you want to be when you grow up?
I love the way you introduced this question. Because, for as much as I’ve lived through, you remind me that my future, even at this age, is still unwritten. Whatever comes next, I hope that I embrace new opportunities with open arms. I hope that I am always growing into the most compassionate, kind-hearted person that I can be. And I hope that I can use what I’ve learned to lift up as many people as possible.