President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama returned to their home of Chicago for the third annual Obama Foundation Summit on Monday, October 28, and Tuesday, October 29.
The two-day summit, hosted by the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville, gathered leaders and advocates from around the world as Mrs. Obama spoke candidly to audiences about how her humble beginnings fueled her advocacy for education.
On stage during a sit-down with her older brother, New York Knicks executive Craig Robinson, where the two were interviewed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson on Tuesday afternoon, Mrs. Obama recalled her early experiences with white flight. White flight is a term used to describe white residents fleeing neighborhoods for whiter pastures when Black families move in, exacerbating segregation.
“As families like ours, upstanding families like ours who were doing everything we were supposed to do and better. As we moved in, white folks moved out because they were afraid of what our families represented,” the 55-year-old explained, reports the Washington-Examiner.
She continued, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, “There were no gang fights, there were no territorial battles. Yet one by one, they packed their bags and they ran from us. And they left communities in shambles.”
Adding, “I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us... This family, with all the values that you read about, you were running from us. And you’re still running because we’re no different than the immigrant families that are moving in.”
Mrs. Obama went on to describe the comparison between Black people and immigrants, who simply move to seek better opportunities for their families, saying, according to the Washington-Examiner, "The families that are coming from other places try to do better. But, because we can so easily wash over who we really were — because of the color of our skin, because of the texture of our hair — that’s what divides countries, artificial things."
On higher education and discrimination, The Hill reports, Mrs. Obama recalled having her intellect doubted as a student at Ivy League universities, "As people doubted us coming through — 'Are you Princeton material? Can you really make the grade?' Can you cut it?' — What do you do in those instances?” Mrs. Obama answered, “All you can do is put your head down and do the work and let the work, your truth, speak for itself.”
Ultimately the best-selling author said this of discrimination, according to The HIll, “I can’t make people not afraid of Black people, I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t explain what’s happening in your head." Continuing, "But maybe if I show up every day as a human, a good human, doing wonderful things, loving my family, loving our kids, taking care of things that I care about — maybe, just maybe that work will pick away at the scabs of our discrimination. Maybe that will slowly unravel it.”
The former first lady also hosted a roundtable with the Girls Opportunity Alliance (GOA) alongside 16 international grassroots leaders who diligently work on programs that support education for adolescent girls, where BET was on-site.
The GOA was launched by the Princeton and Harvard University graduate in an effort to help organize, mobilize and support leaders in their community work.
When asked how her early years growing up on the Southside of Chicago, 74th and Euclid to be exact, affected her life and career, Mrs. Obama held nothing back, acknowledging a failing system she was once encompassed in. She expressed gratitude to her mother, Marian Lois Robinson, for championing over her seemingly doomed fate.
“My mother always stressed to us that we were not special. And that was a fact that we lived with; a notion that there was all these creative kids that we grew up with. We saw their creativity, their energy, their empathy, their passion, but when you’re poor or working class in many instances the margin for failure is really thin,” she explained. “And I saw that something as small as having a mother to stay home and help advocate at school can change the trajectory of a child’s life.”
Mrs. Obama went on to describe how although she tested out of the second grade, she sensed a discouraging change in her then lackluster school and uninspiring teachers.
“I wrote in my book how I skipped second grade. We went into the second grade seeing the neighborhood start to decline and white people start to move out, which means resources were pulled from the school, meaning things changed in the way classrooms were run. All of a sudden, it went from normal and structured to chaotic,” Mrs. Obama remembered. “Even at my young age I knew something was wrong here, we’re not learning anymore. This teacher in this classroom feels differently about us and it doesn't feel good.”
But she credited her mother, Marian, for not only recognizing the change, but doing something about it.
“My mother also had the tenacity to actually respect the complaints of her daughter. She respected my voice as a woman, as a girl. And she took my complaints seriously and she went up to the school and said, ‘Ahh, something is amiss here.’ As a result of those few things, me and two other kids got pulled out of that second grade class, skipped the second grade completely after being tested out and went to a much more accommodating third grade.”
Although the mother-of-two was able to succeed despite the setbacks and life’s trials aided against her, she frequently thinks back to those who weren’t so blessed.
“But what happened to the kids that didn’t get out of that class? Because there was only three of us that got out, every child in that class was undereducated for an entire year. And my mother made sure we saw that. She couldn’t fight for every child and it's a shame the system wasn’t teaching everyone equally and there were bright kids that were going to be left behind,” Mrs. Obama stated. “Imagine being in the second grade and falling behind that early. That early, in the second grade, then you’re catching up forever.”
Her experience of overcoming charges her passion for change for equal education for all.
“My fight for education here in the United States and around the world is the recognition that there's millions of girls like me all over the world who don’t have advocates and parents, but have the same brain, the same heart, the same knowledge. You don’t become a different person because you’re educated, that is always there, it’s either nurtured or it’s dropped, but you’re born with that,” she declared. “It doesn't come with your last name, your language or your skin color - that is in you. So in my mind, what about those girls who are not being invested in? What a waste for society, what a waste for a family, what a waste for that girl’s soul to be trapped by her fate and not by her ability. It’s no different from the south side of Chicago or a small village in Cambodia. The boundaries on the maps aren’t real, those are just drawn on lines. The earth is one place and we’re all on it. That’s what fuels my advocacy.”
According to the GOA website, more than 98 million adolescent girls are not enrolled in school. The foundation supports grassroots efforts through campaigning and fundraising to assist young girls to achieve their full potential and transform their families, communities and countries.
The Obama Foundation Summit also featured a first-look at the Obama Presidential Center, sit-downs with celebrity speakers mega-director and producer Ava DuVernay, Pose star Billy Porter and Grown-ish actress Yara Shahidi.
(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)