In Conversation with Michelle Obama

Updated: Jan 8

Former First Lady Michelle Obama in conversation with CIO of BMO Claudette McGowan, at Elevate Tech Festival. Photo Credit: Elevate Tech Fest/Instagram

You’ve said her name - and you may think you know her story - but chances are, you don’t know Michelle Obama as well as she might like you to. If more of us knew her even a little bit better, we might find that she’s not all that different from a lot of other young women and girls just trying to figure out how to beat adversity in order to make the world a better place.

And let me be clear; by adversity, I don’t just mean she had a tough time getting good grades or finding love.

By adversity, I mean triumphing through an undergraduate degree at Princeton and then crushing Harvard Law School as a young African-American woman in the 1980’s.

By adversity, I mean overcoming the institutional racism, sexism and intersectional barriers placed against her by these bougie schools, and then still struggling to figure out what her true purpose on this planet is.

By adversity, I mean leading as matriarch of the first ever African-American First Family for eight years.

Photo Credit: Elevate Tech Fest/Instagram

We had the opportunity to listen to Michelle sit down and talk about life, passion, power and purpose, and ladies, here’s my conclusion: not only can we all see a bit of ourselves in her, but she also sees herself in all of us.

The first thing I want to commiserate with Michelle over: the feeling of aimlessness.

“Sometimes, you just get lost. You forget to think about what you actually care about; what you’re passionate about.”

The next time you feel lost, Michelle suggests you take a second and think about who you are. Not the buttoned-up goody-two-shoes your boss thinks you are, or the Instagram persona that all of your followers perceive you to be; but the person that you are when you’re alone. She emphasizes the importance of self-reflection in the process of finding your purpose:

“Think about your childhood; the small stories that motivated you. There’s so much about our lives we don’t think is relevant. You can’t figure out the future until you really know you.”

Photo Credit: Terumah

Yes, the time my mom let go of my helium balloon at the school fair to tend to my brother after he fell down (weakling) DID shape me into the anti-balloon activist I am today! Thank you for understanding me, Michelle! (Seriously, balloons are super toxic and dangerous to wildlife, ocean health and the environment overall).

Real talk though, we each have thousands of moments from our past to reflect upon in order to examine who we are, what we care about and the things we’re good at.

Michelle started to uncover hers right around the time she was becoming a household name. For her, the thing was community service. She saw the need for community-level engagement, and as her platform began to grow, so too was her opportunity to make some of the changes that she wanted to see in the world (s/o Gandhi).

Soon enough, Michelle realized that she had acquired seats at some very influential tables, and she quickly learned how important it would be for her to use those seats to represent the voices of people who were being left out.

“If you have a seat at the table, use it. Too many of us stay quiet because we want to keep the seat we have instead of demanding more - demanding better.”

What’s the point of having a platform if you’re not going to use it? That was a rhetorical question but come to think of it, there are actually a few Instagram celebrities I would love to ask it to. If Autumn Peltier (Google her NOW) had just half the number of followers as the least popular Kardashian (lol sorry Kourtney), our daily news headlines would be very different... A girl can dream.

Michelle knew that women, youth, people of colour, and working class folks were systematically being denied seats at the very tables that she was finally sitting at, but she also recognized that she needed to continue being a value asset in order to stay at those tables. This was another important lesson that she learned about power; race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and all of our other differences may impede society’s ability to see us as assets, but if you can show the world exactly what value you do have, you will be recognized, and you will be invited back to sit at the tables where you can then use the power of your differences to force change.

Photo Credit: Elevate Tech Fest/Instagram

The frustration of this change is yet another thing we can all - Michelle included - relate to. Change is slow, tedious and often generational. For example, I have spent (what feels like) 24 years trying to explain the very real urgency of climate change to my conspiracy theorist uncle who thinks we’re being lied to by greedy governments who just want to steal our money under the guise of a carbon tax. Yes, in case you were wondering, Thanksgiving is exhausting for me. Similarly, Michelle has spent years attempting to pass a universal healthcare bill that will help all Americans access quality health services. But alas, so many still attempt to use their version of ‘logic’ to explain why some people should be denied this right. My goodness, that place can just be so... Hmmm... How do I say this… Absolutely f*cked.

But whether you’re trying to change the whole world or just trying to make family gatherings a little more tolerable, Michelle emphasizes that you have to be an active agent of movement and progress.

“Change is about planting the seed, making a mark, and putting that flag in place so someone else can take it up and continue the journey.”

So for now, I’ll continue to hope that my newborn baby cousins, spitting up at the Thanksgiving dinner table, will one day take up my fight.. Hopefully the world isn’t totally on fire or under water by then.

In the meantime, while you’re working to create a better world, I hope it brings you comfort to know that Michelle is us, and we are Michelle.

No, you may not be an accomplished lawyer (yet) and you probably haven’t been First Lady of the United States (unless Hillary is reading this, in which case, what’s up girl!). But she knows what it is to be unsure of yourself, your career and your place in this world. She knows what it’s like, as a woman, mom, sister, friend and wife, to always put others before yourself on the priority list, often at the expense of your own mental and physical health.

She loves going to workout classes with her girlfriends, chirps her husband’s dad-humour, cares about eating healthy foods and she can appreciate a Twitter account that spits straight fire.

Best of all though, she sees those of us who don’t get seats at the table yet, and knows that we’ll crush it when we finally do.

Written by: Hannah Geiser

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