Chicago, Ill. – On her swing through her hometown of Chicago to kick off a new school program related to her “Let’s Move” fitness campaign, Michelle Obama spoke frankly about her role as the first black first lady, and her value as a role model to kids from struggling communities.
Asked by reporters during a small round table, that included theGrio, how she responds to the instant sensation created by everything from her wardrobe choices to her hair, Mrs. Obama said anyone in her position would face that spotlight. But she said she also recognized that she and President Obama are different.
“I think we’re first and we’re new in this modern-day culture because we’re a young couple. We have young kids. We grew up with limited means,” Mrs. Obama said. “Our stories are the stories of so many kinds of voiceless, faceless people — families just like mine whose parents went to work and told them to do well in school. And they went to college, and they’re making a good life for themselves. And they’re black.”
“My life isn’t new,” she continued, “but it’s new to a lot of people who have never seen this up and close, personal. So, yes, I’m fully aware of that.”
The first lady said she doesn’t “dwell in it because I’ve got to get work done. I’ve got to figure out how to reach kids.”
But she continued to press the power of her personal story, and her similarity to the thousands of kids from the Chicago area who packed McCormack Place on Thursday to see her and a cast of sports celebrities for a “Let’s Move” pep rally.
“I can tell you that growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. We live in a little bitty apartment on the South Side of Chicago,” she told the assembled crowd of 6,000 mostly middle schoolers, to loud applause. “And for most of my life growing up, I shared a tiny bedroom with my big brother. And some nights, let me tell you, it was hard to get my homework done because it was so noisy that I could barely think. And I know some of you know what that’s like, right?”
Mrs. Obama’s personal biography makes her a powerful and unique figure in American politics, and she used that background to press her message to the kids in her hometown.
“So it was hard,” she continued. “So there were times when I started to doubt myself. In fact, a lot of us up on this stage grew up being told by others that we weren’t good enough or smart enough to achieve our dreams. We all heard that, right?
“So if you guys remember just one thing from our time today, it’s this: Although I am the first lady of the United States of America — listen to this, because this is the truth — I am no different from you.”
Chicago was the second stop on a two day tour to promote Let’s Move Active Schools, which the White House hopes to roll out to 50,000 U.S. high schools. The first lady also touted the progress her team has made in partnering with major corporations like Wal-Mart to bring healthy food to neighborhoods, particularly low income areas, where fresh fruits and vegetables are often hard to find.
On Thursday, Mrs. Obama toured a Wal-Mart pantry in Springfield, Missouri. But in Chicago, she played the role of hometown girl, and asserted her story as one of hope for kids who grew up the way she did.
“Look, I grew up in the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, faced the same struggles, shared the same hopes and dreams that all of you share,” she said. “I am you. And the only reason that I am standing up here today is that back when I was your age, I made a set of choices with my life — do you hear me — choices.”
“I chose not to listen to the doubters and the haters. … I chose to shut those voices out of my head and listen to my own voice. I chose to ignore any negative things that were happening around me, and instead focus on all the wonderful things I had going on inside of me. I chose to focus on what I could control.”
Mrs. Obama went on to list the things she did — getting good grades and staying fit by playing sports and getting a college degree.
“I did everything within my power to prepare myself for great things,” she said. “And eventually all of my work paid off — I went to college, I went to law school. And because I had a good education, I could get a good job so that my family wouldn’t have to worry about money and I could live in a house where my daughters could have their own rooms.
“And the lesson I learned along the way is that it did not matter where I was from. It didn’t matter how much my parents had. What mattered was how hard I was willing to work, and how deeply I was willing to believe in myself.”
Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @TheReidReport