WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 02: First Lady Michelle Obama speaks to a group of female students during an event to kick off a White House leadership and mentoring initiative in the State Dining Room at the White House November 2, 2009 in Washington, DC. The program provides local high school students the opportunity to discuss career paths with members of the White House staff, including White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, White House Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes and others.
--------Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
MRS. OBAMA: Well, good afternoon. It is so good to welcome you here to the White House. You know you’re in the State Room? It’s the room where we hold a lot of big, important dinners. And usually the President is standing here and there are tables to the side and there are people dressed in gala, but now this room is for you, and we are so excited to have you all here.
We have been anxiously planning this day and all of us I know in the East Wing, we have been just giddy about the fact that you all would be here. So we want to welcome you.
I want to thank Susan, who is my Chief of Staff and dear friend, for all her leadership and that kind introduction.
And I want to take a second to also acknowledge in particular Jocelyn Frye, who many of you have spoken to in the process of getting here, but Jocelyn is my Policy Director. And really, Jocelyn was the person, along with her team, who helped pull this together and to identify schools and to talk to you all and to work to get the mentors. So we’ve got to give Jocelyn a round of applause. (Applause.)
And as Susan said, I also want to thank the mentors, the senior women here, for taking time out. I mean, these are not just women who are busy in their own professional rights, but these are women who have their own family lives, their hectic schedules and running from here to there. But all of them — and there are many more people here in the East and West Wing who would have wanted to be here — they jumped at this opportunity to be a part of your lives. And we have to give them a round of applause. (Applause.)
As Susan said, mentoring has been something that has been important to me forever, probably as long as I can remember. And the one thing that I knew I wanted to do was to use this platform as First Lady to expand the mentoring role. It’s something that I wanted to do, it’s something that I thought that we should do. So I’m very excited.
I really want kids, young people in this nation to know that when they think of the White House, that they think of a place that is open to them; you know, a place where there are folks who really care about your development and want to listen and be a part of your growth and want to invest in you as a resource. You should know that there are people like this all over this country — not just in the White House, but in every part of government, in private sectors. All over the place there are women who are hungry to help bring you guys up. And we thought that the White House is a good example. If there are great mentors here and people with time, then they are everywhere. So we are thrilled to have you.
One of the things that my mom always said — because people ask her all the time, “What did you do to create Michelle Obama?” (Laughter.) You know, people do have — I think that’s the first thing, “What did you do?” And the one thing my mom has always said, and I agree, she said, “You know what, Michelle and Barack aren’t new.” She says, “Michelle and Barack are not unique.” She says, “There are thousands of Michelle and Barack Obamas all over this nation, in neighborhoods and communities all over the place. And she is absolutely right. She is absolutely right. There is no magic to us.
There are kids like me and Barack who grew up in modest circumstances, who didn’t have access to a whole lot of resources or power or networking. But one thing that we did have were parents who cared about us, a few people in our lives who really took an interest, people who really wanted us to flourish. And that’s really all that it takes. It doesn’t take anything more than consistency and love. And I know many of you have felt that in your lives. And you know that that’s all that it takes to get where you need to be.
And when I was starting my career at a big law firm, it was the first job I had out of law school. I went into a big, fancy law firm. And I really was excited. I thought I had made it, you know, because I’m making a salary that was more than both of my parents’ income combined, and I was, like, 24 years old. So I was, like, I made it.
But the interesting thing was that I worked in Chicago on the 47th floor of this beautiful building, and it looked directly south into my neighborhood. So everyday I’d go to the 47th floor in this big, fancy office with a secretary and I’d stare right at my neighborhood. Every day. It was sort of ironic because it reminded me that there are so many kids that but for the grace of God they could be here, they could be in my shoes. There were kids who were just as smart, just as funny, just as capable, but they missed an opportunity by a hair. You know, maybe they didn’t have the right parent. You know, maybe they just didn’t have that teacher who pushed them. You know, maybe it was money.
But it’s such a small set of possibilities that could make the difference between me and thousands of other kids. And I realized that when those opportunities don’t come, that gap just gets wider and wider and wider.
So that’s one of the reasons why I changed careers. I left my law firm because I wanted to be a part of bridging that gap. I knew that there was more to my life than just making money and being in a law firm; that I had a responsibility to help narrow that gap. And I’ve always wanted to be a bridge between kids like me and the possibilities that could propel them to greatness. And I share that passion with my husband. That’s one of the reasons why I married him, because he shared the same desire to be a bridge-builder.
So when we came to the White House we thought, wow, we’ve got the most powerful seat in the land to help be a bridge-builder. And we thought, what can we do to make the White House different, to make kids in our own new neighborhood know that the White House is a place for them?
So we started thinking of new ways to bring kids in, to have their voices heard, to know that the President of the United States hears you and values you and cares about your growth and development. So that’s why we started this program. And I am so excited and moved and touched to have you all here.
But we’re going to have fun. (Laughter.) We are. I can get emotional, but we’re going to have a lot of fun in this process. We are going to share stories. We want you to be relaxed when you come here. There will not be cameras. This is the last time you guys will be here. (Laughter.) But we think it’s important enough that this nation knows that we’re doing this because we can do this all over the country, and we hope to see this kind of model. People have been mentoring young women — this isn’t the first time; all of us sitting around the table have someone in our lives that was pushing us — but to have it done out of the White House is special. And we have this wonderful event that got this started.
About March, one of the first things we did when we came here is that we pulled together all these powerful women — stars and singers — and we got them to come to the White House, and then they spread out all over the city, and they went to schools to talk to kids.
And then we came back and we had this wonderful dinner. We ate on White House china, we were over at the East Room, girls from all backgrounds, all walks of life, and the women who wanted to be a part of their lives. And we ate together. Alicia Keyes sang. Sheryl Crow played. Fran Drescher told jokes. It was like one of those “pinch me” moments, right — for all of us; not just the girls, but for the mentors.
And when we walked away from that evening, I said, you know, that was the best thing that we’ve done here so far. And we wanted to replicate that night — not just one night, not for just one set of girls, but we wanted to do it over a long period of time. And that’s why all of you are here.
And we have some expectations from you, as well, that when you get to this position in your life, that you do the same thing for somebody else. That’s the only thing we ask of you — that you take on that responsibility. Right?
And if we keep building in that way, each of us pulling someone else up all the time, whether in good times or bad — you don’t have to be the First Lady to do this. Some of the best mentors in my life are my mom; they were — my 5th-grade teacher; they were neighbors, and aunts and uncles, people without power. So it doesn’t take much to pull somebody up. Each of you will have the opportunity to do that, no matter where you end up.
And you can even start doing it now. You’ve got little siblings. If you know 5th-graders, kids in elementary school, your job is to be that model for them. That’s all we ask of you. Right? So if we keep doing that as women, holding one another up, pushing each other forward, there’s no telling what we can do.
So I am just delighted. We’re going to stop and have a few questions, and then we’re going to make them go. And then we’re really going to talk. (Laughter.)
So it’s just wonderful to have you guys here. Please have fun. This is now your home. Now, I’ll come sit. (Applause.)
All right, so, questions? What are you guys thinking? What do you want out of this program? And, you know, there’s nothing off limits. You’ve got a lot of really interesting women around the room.
MRS. OBAMA: Who’s around the table? Who do we have? Well, we’ve got a wonderful State Department, National Security Council. We have access to ambassadors and — all over the place. So I think we could probably help out in that. (Laughter.)
Anybody — I know this is hard. They’ll be gone in a second. (Laughter.)
Do you have one?
Q No, I don’t have one. (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: All right.
Q What kind of activities will we be doing? What kind of work do you guys do?
MRS. OBAMA: You know, I — Desiree, do you want to talk a bit about some of the ideas that we’ve –
MS. ROGERS: Sure. Some of the things — and Irene and I were just talking a little bit earlier — this is going to be between the mentor and the mentee, and so one of the things we want to do is be able to share in your life and also for you to share in our lives.
And so one of the things Mrs. Obama has said is that, you know, she wants to have the opportunity to maybe take you to see some of the visits that she’s been doing to some of the government institutions around town so that you’re able to kind of see the world a little bit in terms of what she’s doing and what work she’s doing, being able to ask her questions about that, maybe some of the trips that she’s taking.
I think after this we’re going to all depart with our mentees and you’ll get to see what each of us does, and over time you’ll know what we all do.
MS. SHER: We’re also hoping there’s a little bit of skill-building so if there are areas that you think — whether it’s financial literacy or how to apply to college or other issues like that that you’re interested in, you should let us know because we’d be delighted to try to be helpful.
MRS. OBAMA: And we want to expose you to the wide breadth of women who work in government. And we’re going to have people coming in every month that we get together. And the topic may be something specific, like financial literacy, but we’re going to get a better sense from you what your interests are. I mean, if there are a number of you who are interested in foreign affairs, if there are people who are interested in policy work, if they want to know how communications works — I mean, everything from professional to personal. A lot of that is going to be shaped by you as well.
We’ll get a better sense of what your particular interests are, because it’s sort of, you know — the resources are pretty infinite in terms of women and people in the administration who want to share with you their lives and their challenges, because it’s also about understanding that all of us have had challenges and bumps along the way, and to know that there’s just a level of moving through it that all of us have had to do — and just sort of staying focused.
And I think, you know, if you’re hearing those stories over and over again you’ll get a better sense that no one has had an easy time of it; it’s never a cakewalk. But with a little diligence and patience and focus, you know, you can pretty much get where you want to be.
Q Are we going to have one mentor the whole time? Or are we going to switch it up a little bit?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, everyone is going to be assigned someone, and you’ll meet your mentor today when we break up. But we’re going to be coming together as a group on a regular basis so that everyone has exposure to everyone, right? So our goal is to make sure that we get to know all of you.
MS. SHER: We’ll also have backups, because everyone’s schedule is so crazy, so hopefully you’ll get to meet more than just one person as a mentor.
Q How much time will we have (inaudible)?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, some of that depends on you and the mentor. I mean, we’re going to set up times to meet formally at least once a month. And some of that is going to depend on your schedules, because if you’re anything like my kids — who are nowhere near as old as you — their schedules fill up with activities and so on and so forth. But we’re encouraging mentors to reach out on a fairly regular basis just to keep checking in and to find ways to incorporate you guys into their work as well.
You know, I’m not the only one who travels or does anything — something interesting. Every person around this table has a pretty interesting job and are doing some pretty engaging things on a regular basis. And there may be things that your mentor will call you and say, do you want to come and — come to this event, you may want to come and shadow me over here. And a lot of that will depend on your availability as well, because school is first and foremost. And your activities and the lives that you’re leading, this should be something that supplements that, not that interferes with it.
END 4:17 P.M. EST