Michelle Obama and the Roots of Reinvention

How the First Lady learned to dream big.

By Geraldine Brooks
Photograph: Photo by: Matthew Rolston

In the summer of 1989, as the now-familiar narrative goes, Michelle was assigned to mentor a first-year Harvard Law student Sidley had hired for the summer. She found the tall young man with the unusual name rather importunate; he kept asking her for dates. But when she learned about his life before law school, as a community organizer among laid-off factory workers in Chicago, she was impressed. Ice cream followed, then a Spike Lee movie.

Six months later, Michelle’s beloved father died from complications of his MS. Around the same time, her best friend from college, Jamaican-born Suzanne Alele, died of lymphoma at 25. The two blows in quick succession made her question her career. "I thought, if I died tomorrow, is this what I want to have done with my life? And the answer was a resounding no!"

Starting a Life Together

Partly inspired by Barack, she began to think about public service: "What do I care about? What do I think will bring me joy?" She realized that she wanted a "career that would pay homage to the community I came from. Working in a corporate firm, I was very removed from that community, physically, emotionally, and psychologically." One day, she realized she couldn’t even see the South Side from the high floors of the deluxe Sidley offices, and that seemed symbolic of her distance. So she went to work as an assistant to Chicago’s mayor and then as assistant commissioner of city planning and development. "It still wasn’t enough, because city government is like a corporation in many ways."

Then Obama found her way to the job she says is "by far the best thing I’ve done in my professional career": heading a youth leadership program, funded by AmeriCorps, called Public Allies. "It was the first thing that was mine, and I was responsible for every aspect of it." Public Allies, which Obama designed, staffed, and ran, recruited a diverse group of young people, 18 to 30, from every kind of racial background and with educations ranging from a Harvard JD to a GED certificate. For the first time, she says, "my passions and talents converged." She is proud that many of the program’s graduates are now running for office or directing nonprofits.

By that time, Michelle and Barack had married, and as they began to think about starting a family, Michelle realized that she couldn’t head up Public Allies if she went part-time. So she recruited a successor and took a job with the University of Chicago, "closer to home." That job — to get university students actively engaged in the community — was an effort to break down the town-gown divide Obama had felt while growing up in the shadow of an elite institution that held itself aloof from its neighborhood. "As a black kid on the South Side, the University of Chicago was a foreign entity to me," she says. Obama had never set foot on the campus. Soon enough, she was an important player, one who was also helping to change the university’s reputation as stuffy, humorless, and bound by tradition. "The unofficial motto of U of C then was, Where fun goes to die," says Curt Columbus, who headed Chicago’s University Theatre then and is now artistic director of Trinity Rep in Providence. "Hiring Michelle was part of an effort to change that, and she did." Columbus also worked with her on a separate assignment, the sexual harassment policy committee. That was a "highly charged environment, because it was complex cases, tied to personalities,’‘ he says. "She was great at it. She had a real directness and sense of humor: not bawdy, just a down-to-earth ‘let’s get this done.’"

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