Courtesy of the Verge (The Verge)
Courtesy of the Verge

The Verge

Michelle Obama Leaves a Legacy of Grace and Service

In showing a world what was possible, she made a world of difference

February 28, 2017

Michelle Obama is a mother, lawyer, and community outreach worker. For eight years she was also our First Lady.

Barack reflected on Michelle’s heart in the documentary “South Side Girl.” said, “Her dad was a sweet man, a kindhearted man, someone who felt that everybody should be treated with dignity and respect. I think that carried over to Michelle.”

Growing up in Chicago’s South Side, she saw first-hand the struggles poverty can present. Even though her parents instilled in her a goal for a college education, her mother would tease about kids getting that education and never coming back. Michelle never forgot something her parents had said, “If just a few people would come back and live in the community it would make all the difference.”

In 1985, Michelle graduated from Princeton with a B.A. in sociology, three years later graduated from Harvard with a law degree. Soon after she went to work at a prestigious Chicago law firm. It was there where she met Barack Obama; she was assigned as his mentor while he was an intern while studying law at Harvard.

The call of community service would eventually take her from the firm. She worked for a time in the Mayor’s office, then started a Public Allies division in Chicago. In 1993, she became the Executive Director of Public Allies.

In the “South Side Girl” documentary, Yvonne Davila, one of Michelle’s coworkers in the Mayor’s office remembers when Michelle left for Public Allies. “It didn’t matter that (the job) didn’t pay any money; this was important to her, it was her mission, it was what she wanted to do,” she said.

Public Allies is a program from AmeriCorps that partners young people in diverse backgrounds with leaders in nonprofit organizations. By using nonprofit partnerships, they learn how they can make a difference in their communities. That they can earn an income while learning skills is additional bonus.

In the same documentary one of her co-workers at Public Allies, Travis Rejman recalls “her uncommon gift how she could see the potential for community leaders in young people that were seen as having no potential at all.”

Jobi Peterson Cates also remembers Michelle’s warmth and encouragement. “Just by her presence, a comment, a hug Michelle could make you feel like you can do anything,” she said.

Michelle’s commitment to public service would not stop with Public Allies. In 1996, while the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago, she started the Community Service Center. Here she lead the community outreach efforts at the University Hospitals.

Six years later she switched hats at UChicago to become the executive director of community relations and external affairs. Then in 2005 she was promoted to vice president in the same department, serving there until Barack’s inauguration in 2009.

At the same time, she also served as a board member for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This gave her the experience she needed later as the First Lady.

A small group of men and women started the Council in 1922 as an impartial forum for discussing foreign affairs. Since then it has expanded and evolved to include concentrating on European development and human rights. Representative speakers have included leaders from other countries, such as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Despite her experience serving in the public eye, including that of a Senator’s wife, the thought of being in the White House was a bit daunting. In a “To The First Lady, With Love” column the New York Times ran on October 17, 2016, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author and speaker, wrote that she remembered Michelle was somewhat hesitant about the prospect of being the First Lady. Nonetheless, when her husband was elected, she molded herself to fit the role without compromising her own identity.

Perhaps the image that had the biggest impact was how Michelle conducted herself. “With her grace, poise, and style, she became an icon, especially to young black women,” Adichie wrote.

Because Michelle was a working mom, she could encourage others how to balance a career and family. She became the face of a successful working mother and encouraged others that is was possible. In the same column Gloria Steinem, a journalist and social and political activist wrote, “Even living 10 years in the public eye she managed to live a public life without sacrificing her privacy and authenticity.

In addition, she did not stop in her mission of community service. She and her husband would continue to volunteer at homeless shelters and soup kitchens when schedules and other commitments would allow. As she was taught the value of volunteering in her community, so she would teach others.

Throughout the eight years she was in the White House Michelle was constantly bringing people together. Her second year in she partnered with a local elementary school to replant a vegetable garden on the White House south lawn, the same place that Eleanor Roosevelt had planted hers.

Not satisfied with that, she also created “Let’s Move!” She brought together a wide range of professionals nationwide with an ambitious goal. Using education, physical activity, and corporate effort, she started a movement to eliminate childhood obesity within a generation.

Whether the issue was military service members and their families or encouraging young woman around the world in education and business, she helped to form networks and bring solutions.

In the end, Rashida Jones, actress and comic book author, summed up in one sentence the legacy that Michelle Obama has as the First Lady. She wrote in her letter to the Times, that her strongest impression of Michelle was that she made you believe you could be anyone, go anywhere, and be yourself.”

“South Side Girl” official Obama website

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