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

Michelle Obama is one of those people you sense before you see, her confidence somehow arriving on the scene a few  seconds before she does. Even a roomful of antsy teenagers can feel it, leading them to fall silent moments before the first lady strides into the State Dining Room and greets them with a friendly “Hey! What’s happening?” A few starstruck girls gasp, which is exactly the reaction Obama later explains she doesn’t want. These high schoolers are the newest inductees into an elite White House mentoring program created by the first lady herself, and they’re going to be seeing a lot of her. The program is designed to be as intimate as it is intense, so job one is to get the girls past the gasping stage. To that end, Obama launches into a stand-up routine about the double life she’s lived since her husband was elected.

“They call me FLOTUS, for first lady of the United States,” she explains, noting that the president’s internal White House acronym is POTUS. “And there are many times when FLOTUS and POTUS feel like characters.” There have even been times, she says, when she’s craned her own neck to see which celebrity might be causing all the excitement. “And it’s me. Oh, man, it’s FLOTUS. FLOTUS is here. No one told me FLOTUS was coming.”

But for all her diffidence, FLOTUS has game. She can wave her invisible wand and make things happen. Like this innovative program, which taps White House staffers to mentor local high school girls, teaching them how to network by providing them cozy access to the administration’s vast brain trust. One call from FLOTUS, and a handful of 17-year-olds can be over at the Supreme Court chatting up a couple of justices or at the Department of Labor seeking advice from Secretary Hilda Solis about getting jobs in a tough market. Cosmetics mogul Bobbi Brown will be talking to them about beauty inside and out, and the president’s executive chef will bake them chocolate-chip cookies sweetened with organic honey from the hive in the first lady’s garden.

FLOTUS doesn’t just make an entrance; she opens doors that are normally closed.

“But sometimes,” Obama tells her class of mentees, “I just want to be Michelle. So you guys have to start slowly seeing me as Michelle, all right?”

Obama's unabashed hunger to connect at ground level is just as evident when she arrives, a few minutes early, for an interview in her East Wing office. Classically chic in barely-there makeup and a curve-hugging black sheath, she settles into a plump armchair with a grin. “Whew. That commute is murder,” she declares.

Oh, where was she coming from? She jerks her head toward the hallway and the staircase leading up to the family’s private quarters on the third floor. “Over there!”

Deadpan humor is Obama’s default mode—Michelle from the South Side keeping FLOTUS in check—and while her statuesque bearing suggests otherwise, it’s quickly apparent that three years in the White House have not increased her tolerance for formality. She leans forward while speaking, locking eyes while she passionately describes the pet program she has managed to keep out of the spotlight: “I wanted [the students] to experience this notion that if you can walk [through] the doors of the White House once a month and sit down with the first lady and her chief of staff and some other senior officials, and they’re talking to you and you get used to hearing your voice in the space, then it becomes not a big deal.”

And so her program pairs teenage girls with “this wonderful array of women who come from different backgrounds,” she says. “They’re senior leaders in President Obama’s administration, and they all have a story, right? They all have a set of challenges and struggles.” Those stories, Obama believes, are best told in person, over time, creating the kind of enduring bond the social media generation sorely lacks. “Even though our children are connecting in ways we never imagined,” she told a national summit on mentoring not long ago, “you’ve got an entire generation of young people truly in desperate need of a friend. Someone they can trust, an example they can follow.”

Candidates are selected discreetly by participating schools and organizations, including the Girl Scouts and military-family support groups. The 20 girls, who enter the program as sophomores or juniors, are usually off-limits to the press, their special status not broadcast at the gala events they attend as VIP guests of the East Wing. To the public eye, mentoring is just one of the three issues Obama has built her platform on since her husband’s election, along with supporting military families and crusading against childhood obesity. But this cause truly belongs to Michelle and always has.

“It’s very personal,” she says. “I mean, growing up the way that I did—kid from the South Side, going to public schools—the more my career developed, I realized how much I didn’t see, how little exposure I had to opportunities.” Neither Fraser nor Marian Robinson went to college, and an education was always the brass ring they urged daughter Michelle and her older brother, Craig, to grab. Michelle rode city buses for three hours a day to attend the distant magnet high school she tested into, and she became class treasurer. But no one saw Ivy League material in the hardworking Robinson girl until she resolved to follow Craig to Princeton after he won a basketball scholarship. “When he got in, I thought, Well, shoot, I know I’m smarter than he is,” she says with a laugh. “So if he can go to Princeton, I’ll just apply.” It became the turning point of her life.

“There were many people who told me, ‘Well, Princeton might be too hard for you,’ ” she says. Obama had been an A student, but those grades were from a public high school, not an elite prep school, and her test scores were good but not stellar. “So I had doubts in the way that I think many of these kids that we mentor have doubts . . . It doesn’t matter what your grades are—if there’s a message in your head that makes you think you can’t quite do something, you can feed into that.” But she pushed herself and learned that, yes, she “could actually compete.” And succeed.

“I sort of thought, What’s the mystery here? What is it about this place that makes some people—even myself—think that some people should have access to it and others shouldn’t? And that’s where I discovered that there is no mystery to this stuff. It is hard work. It’s access; it’s being able to envision it.”

It’s also knowing how to ask for help when you need it. Obama cites a senior thesis adviser at Princeton—“one of the tougher professors in my department”—who forced her to “really up my game in so many ways.” Earlier on, there was the student-program director who invited her home for meals, took her on her first trip to New York City and sparked an interest in community service. “She stood out for me, not just because she was African American but [because] she was a professional,” says Obama, who prefers not to make her mentors’ names public. “She was also a single mom. And she was a very passionate person who was committed to working in the community. She encouraged me to start a day-care program for some of the faculty members’ and staff members’ children. And I would have never done that without her encouragement.”

In addition, she says, her mentor’s home was “really a respite for me. When you’re in college, it’s nice to know somebody who lives in a regular apartment that has a refrigerator and a level of normalcy. She offered a place of peace and calm.”

What Obama doesn’t mention in these Princeton stories is how separate and apart she was, as a working-class black student in a privileged, overwhelmingly white environment. As reported by Geraldine Brooks in a 2008 Moreprofile, the parents of Obama’s first roommate protested to the administration that their daughter had been assigned to share quarters with an African American. And the exclusive eating clubs that dominated campus social life were not welcoming to blacks.

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.”

Jocelyn Frye, Obama’s director of policy and projects, reached out to female White House staffers, assigning two per student and requiring each to commit to meeting her mentee in person for one monthly activity. How much time they invested beyond that was up to them. The volunteer list soon resembled a Who’s Who of the White House: Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser sometimes described as the president’s second brain; Cristeta Comerford, who immigrated from the Philippines and worked her way up from hotel kitchens to become the first female executive chef in White House history; even a supervisor on the Secret Service’s elite presidential detail. It wasn’t long before the CFO of the Executive Office was helping a vision-impaired Junior ROTC officer whittle down her college choices, and the Secret Service agent was cheering in the bleachers at a junior varsity volleyball game. (Obama has given up having her own mentee, to make it easier for her to connect with all the girls equally, Frye says.)

“They’re a fascinating group of girls,” says Allyson Laackman, 54, whose biggest dream at her mentee’s age was to become a bank teller and who went on to oversee an $800 million budget as CFO of the Executive Office. Of herself and the other mentors, she says, “We’re 18 again. We get to see life through their young eyes.” The relationship has also filled a personal void for Laackman. “My husband and dog are in Chicago, and my kids are in college,” she says. “So this [program] gives special richness to my time in D.C.”

Patrice Haney, 19, a graduate of D.C.’s notoriously rough Anacostia High School, headed off to her freshman year at Middle Tennessee State with a shoebox full of photographs and programs from White House events she attended. Haney was paired with Leslie, a 42-year-old Secret Service agent (who asked that her last name not be published). “She’s always telling me to stay focused,” says Haney. Leslie remembers how, at first, Haney was surprised to see her show up on the sidelines of her cheerleading competitions and softball games; sometimes she even brought friends along. “The coaches kind of called us out,” Leslie admits sheepishly; these events were sparsely attended, and one player’s having a very vocal personal fan club did not go over well.

Haney was valedictorian at her high school graduation last spring. Just as she was about to give her speech, she says she felt her confidence begin to falter. What she did next: “I closed my eyes and told myself, If I can talk to Michelle and Barack Obama, then this should be a piece of cake. Then I opened my eyes and talked about new doors opening for us.”

That kind of transformation is exactly what Michelle Obama tries to inspire not only in the White House mentees but also in the many other young girls she meets in her travels around the world. As FLOTUS and POTUS, she and Barack Obama often take underprivileged local young people onto campuses such as Oxford. “Because first,” she says, “in order to have a vision, you have to know what’s there, right?”

But dreaming is only part of her message to the girls. Even more imperative, she tells them, is taking action to make dreams happen. José Rico, who was one of Obama’s first mentees back at Public Allies, remembers the vague, pie-in-the-sky answer he gave when she asked him what he wanted to do. He was 23 and had abandoned a fledgling career in engineering to become a community organizer.

“I want to build my own school,” he announced.

“What are the next steps you need to take to build your school?” she asked.

“I haven’t thought about that,” he admitted. Obama immediately put him in touch with her husband, who was working with a school-reform group at the time. Rico became an educator and championed a successful crusade to build a public school in an underserved Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago.

“Hey, I did it,” he told her when they ran into each other seven years ago. “She gave me a big hug and said, ‘Well, I knew you could.’ ” Today, Rico works in the Department of Education as deputy director of a program that aims to boost the academic achievements of Hispanic-American students.

Paying it forward is a concept that Obama hopes to plant in her mentees and that she fully expects her two daughters—“my prime mentees”—Malia, 13, and Sasha, 10, to practice.

“This is the first year that my oldest daughter has branched out into service on her own, seeking out opportunities,” Obama adds. “And like me, she loves working with kids.”

Ultimately, it’s the mother in Obama who yearns to help shape the futures of these teens who at first gasp at the sight of her, then later feel chummy enough to tell her, as one girl did, how “fly” her sweater was and to ask where she got it. She has no plans—and no real desire—to chart the program’s impact or quantify its success. Human connection can’t really be measured that way, she feels. “Will all the girls go to college?” she muses. “Don’t know. Will all of them go to some fancy Ivy League college? Oh, definitely not. But they will feel good about themselves. They will know that they’ve breathed in some of the most rarefied air, and it felt normal to them. They know that if you can do this, then there isn’t anything you can’t do.

“There isn’t any room you can’t walk into.”

TAMARA JONES is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in the Washington, D.C., area.

Originally published in the February 2012 issue of MORE.

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First Published Wed, 2012-01-04 10:31

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