Michelle Obama Gets Personal

What dreams are left for the woman who grew up working class in Chicago, graduated from Princeton and Harvard law and became the first African-American first lady of the United StatesHere’s one of them: “To open a secret door for others that hadn’t been opened for me,” by pairing disadvantaged girls with some of the powerful women in the land. Join us for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look

by Tamara Jones
michelle obama photo
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Whatever Obama’s feelings about the treatment she received, her current mission is clear: If she can keep the girls she mentors from feeling unworthy on any level, she will, even if she has to take matters into her own hands. Barbara Pace-Moody, who spent every Saturday with Obama mentoring young women from the Chicago housing projects back in the ’90s, remembers one evening when Obama did just that. As Pace-Moody told the New Yorker during the last presidential campaign, “We had a big gala, and [Michelle] and her sister-in-law took their own money and paid for the girls to get their hair done and set them up in a hotel downtown.”

As a sophomore at Princeton, Obama served as a “big sister” to another African-American girl, Terri Sewell, who worried about fitting in. Seeing Obama get into Harvard Law inspired Sewell to apply when the time came, and the women stayed in touch after graduation as they both pursued careers in corporate law. Sewell, her former mentor proudly notes, “was just elected to Congress” as a Democrat representing Alabama.

When Sewell’s district was hit by deadly tornadoes last April, both Obamas flew to Alabama to offer support. At one point during the visit, Sewell hung back to chat with her old college friend while the president and the governor surveyed the scene. But the first lady cut the reunion short.

“You and I can talk anytime,” Sewell remembers her scolding. “You need to go up there and make sure you’re getting proper coverage as a congresswoman. You should be discussing disaster relief with the governor and president!”

“And she was right,” Sewell adds. “She’s mentoring me even now.”

After graduating from Harvard, Michelle Robinson landed in a prestigious Chicago law firm working on, among other things, lucrative contracts involving Barney, the purple dinosaur. When another African American from Harvard Law arrived for a summer internship, Robinson was assigned to be his peer mentor—a “buddy.”

“I greeted him when he was first here,” she says. “I made sure that he met the partners that he was working with; I had to take him out to lunch a couple of times.”

Had to?

“Had to,” she says, laughing.

Impressed by her mentee’s work, the partners asked her to persuade him to join the firm once he graduated. Instead, she ended up leaving corporate law to immerse herself in community outreach, and she encouraged her former charge to pursue a different path, too. Barack Obama took the advice—and pursued her as well.

By 1993, Michelle Robinson was Michelle Obama, founding director of Public Allies Chicago, an AmeriCorps youth-leadership program. “I was never happier in my life,” she has since said of that job. Working with young people gave her a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, she says now, “because I saw myself in them. Because I could open up for some others a secret door that hadn’t been opened for me.”

It’s not surprising, then, that when she walked through the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue three years ago, one of the first directives she gave her senior staff was to establish a White House mentoring program. She wanted young women with no connections or clout to use hers, to walk the marbled halls not with a sense of awe but with a sense of yearning and entitlement.

It was also, she notes, a gesture of “complete self-interest . . . I always wanted that component in my life, in my work.” She zeroed in on sophomore and junior girls and ruled out high-risk kids who would need more expert intervention. At the same time, she didn’t ask for honor students. “The kids who are already at the top are often on their way, and they oftentimes have access to other opportunities,” she explains. “We were looking for the kids in the middle, the kids who showed promise but still could benefit from some interaction with [professional] women.”

First Published January 31, 2012

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