‘Becoming’ an icon

In conversation at SAP Center, former first lady seeks to inspire, empower youth


Photo: Michaela Edlin Former First Lady Michelle Obama speaks at the SAP Center accompanied by NPR host Michele Norris.

Annalise Freimarck, Managing Editor

In light of her recently published book, Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama spoke at the SAP center to a crowd of more than 12,000, detailing the life lessons she learned, from growing up in a poor neighborhood, to becoming country’s the first African American first lady.

Among the crowd of 12,000, many middle and high school students listened to her stories and advice. In fact, much of Obama’s conversation focused on her youth and her messages to young people today.

For many young people, Obama is an idol and a source of inspiration.

“She [is] a role model [to me], a feminist for black women, for women, for the LGBTQ+ community, for love, for everyone,” said Kennedy Stiver, a middle school student. She showed up with her mother.

Throughout her speech, Obama detailed the adversity she had to overcome in order to get to where she is today. Growing up in South Side, Chicago, with a low socioeconomic status and as a young black woman, Obama faced many struggles. She experienced “white flight” from her neighborhood, in which white families would move out of a neighborhood populated with African Americans, getting what she described as “short-changed” in her education by being surrounded by teachers who saw black kids differently and getting told by her high school counselor not to even consider applying to Ivy League schools.

She feels that these experiences are integral to who she is, even today.

“If you want to know Michelle Obama, you have to know that little girl, Michelle Robinson, in all her contexts,” she said, “Her neighborhood, the smells, the food we ate, how we were raised, our values.”

Her efforts to push past the hardships she faced as a black woman drew parallels to the journeys of the young people in the audience, and were one of the main sources of inspiration for them.

“She inspires me in the way that she’s a reminder that people who are not white and privileged have an equal voice,” Umaya Loving said, who attends Archbishop Mitty High School.

As she told the stories that led up to meeting Barack Obama and eventually becoming the First Lady, she included lessons she learned along the way, specifically addressed to young people going through their own personal struggles. One of those lessons she coined as “swerving.” Swerving, according to Obama, is defined as not living one’s life confined to the idea that it has one purpose.

Lessons like these have inspired young people like middle school student Ries Franey.

“She’s really inspiring, being the first African American person as a first lady. [I look up to her] for all the things she’s accomplished,” Franey said.

When Obama was attending Princeton, she felt she was confined to the idea that she was going to be a lawyer. However, she learned from her college friend, who passed away while they were still in school, that living this way was not going to make her happy, and she should expand her horizons beyond simply “checking boxes.”

Because of this realization, she changed her career from becoming a lawyer, to working as a public servant where she aimed to give a voice to the voiceless. In doing so, she learned the valuable life lesson of conquering one’s fears, and wishes she knew this sooner.

“I would say to young people, practice moving beyond fear. Don’t live in it,” Obama said. “Don’t be held back by it. Don’t be governed by it. Don’t be limited by it, embrace it.”

As she moved into the White House and into her role as the First Lady, she felt the need to value and focus on kids and young people.

She hoped to show kids that anyone, despite their background, could be a vital voice in politics and world issues.

“When I opened up the White House to kids [I] just [thought] about those kids in the second-grade class who didn’t get saved,” she said, referring to her second-grade class that had almost no resources for the students, and a teacher that didn’t care about the students. “I wanted this house to be for them for all the people of color, all the faceless and nameless people who make up this country.”

To all of those kids like the ones in her second-grade class, and to all of the young people in the audience, Obama advised them to go into everything with their “whole selves,” in all that they do.

“I want kids to own their story, all the hardships, all of it, and bring it to everything you do,” she said. “Don’t be ashamed of your story.”