Looking Inward and Out: Michelle Obama at the Simmons Leadership Conference

On April 5, Simmons College hosted its 39th annual Simmons Leadership Conference on the theme “Disrupt the Ordinary.” The culmination of a very impressive lineup of speakers was a concluding discussion between Simmons College President Helen G. Drinan and former First Lady Michelle Obama. The event took place at the Boston Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, with a live simulcast running all day on campus.

The Big Question

And no, it’s not about whether or not she will ever run for president (she says no). But this is not the time to despair because she sees her role as more about supporting the women that do want the job, will run for it, and will win it.

In my role as assistant director of career services at Emerson College and as a writer and member of the theater community, I’m often surrounded by educators, artists, students, activists, and human service professionals of many ages and walks of life. When I connect with these folks, if even for just a few minutes, I’m reminded of the various ways we engage in exploring how our work matters. In recent years, in particular after the November 2016 election, those questions ring louder and with more clarity and urgency. So of course I was bummed that I didn’t get to catch sight of the Michelle Obama in person when she was here for the Simmons Leadership Conference. (I mean, I didn’t really expect to see her chillin out on Mass Ave where I could give her a quick shout out, but still.)

I was able to watch a simulcast of Michelle Obama’s closing conversation with Simmons College President Helen G. Drinan via Facebook live. As I listened, her words spoke to me as a woman, as a black woman, and as an artist and educator supporting the development of young people when they ask themselves the big question: “What do I want to do with my life?”

“We’re just outside some of the hardest times in this country.”

–Michelle Obama

  1. My own great-grandfather was a sharecropper and my grandmother, aunts, and uncles picked cotton.

  2. My grandfather couldn’t write his name until he was well into his thirties.

  3. My mother marched on Washington in 1963.

From the realities of their lives to my being a second-generation college graduate, I’ve created, revised, and clarified my own “missions” around my experience as a woman of color. As a career counselor, I often ask students to explore what their own missions are. We often see those “mission statements” spelled out on websites and marketing materials, created to drive home why an organization does what it does. For the sake of internal soul-searching and defining what young people can communicate to the world, why not encourage them to do the same for themselves? This is about perspective, and learning both inside and out of the classroom. It’s also the awareness that idealism can coexist with the reality that progress isn’t as quickly pushed out in the time that it takes to download an app or post or tweet about a particular cause. Their own personal missions have to be developed and cultivated over time.
“You take two steps forward and one step backward. That’s a hard thing for people to understand.”

–Michelle Obama

Sometimes I, too, have a hard time with that one. On March 24th, at the March for Our Lives, it was made abundantly clear by young people that they are serious about their well-being and the desire to live to see adulthood. At a time when they’ve witnessed extreme shifts in national leadership, they are also growing up post the “Hope and Change” years that reflected inclusivity, empathy, and accountability. They are personally affected and traumatized by the issue of gun control and its impact on their right to an education without fear of losing their lives. It shouldn’t be a big deal for a child to ask to not be shot while in school. It’s our role as adults to not only ask ourselves about our own missions, but also about how to help these intelligent youth shape their own narratives. We must remind them to be patient with the long arc of progress. We are faced with the balance of supporting their work for progress during a long step back from where we seemed to be.

Let’s Think About This for a Minute…
“We have to find women who understand their gifts and know where to put them to use.”

–Michelle Obama

I am biased, yes, but if there is a group of humans who have been resilient in the face of racism and sexism in America’s history, it’s black women. So of course when Oprah brought men and women to their feet at the 2018 Golden Globes, that resilience came through in her words about Recy Taylor and Rosa Parks. Of course when Michelle Obama spoke about a White House built by slaves where she, the first African American First Lady, was raising two daughters, it suggested that the legacy left from slavery was slowly being diminished and replaced with true progress.

It’s no surprise that black women are known for being strong. However, this is one of the most crucial times in our country when shared responsibilities and talents need to be promoted to continue the hard work of generations before us. We know that when women like Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem were not thinking solely about careers (and remember that career exploration and planning wasn’t a luxury at the time for women) and they didn’t strategize a path for education, number of degrees, internships, and connections that would ultimately put them on the map. Fortunately, more colleges and universities have the resources and people to facilitate conversations and educate students, in particular women, about careers in public service. More work, however, needs to be done around access, diversity, and then the inclusion needed for women of all backgrounds to know that their voices and presence are supported on campuses as they shape their futures.

“The Swan on the Lake”

Not long ago I received advice from a colleague about the importance of focusing on only a few key areas in my work. Michelle Obama talked about this in the context of “going deep” vs. “broad.” While there’s never a shortage of national and global issues to tackle, if one expects to have an impact, her best bet is to focus her energy and prioritize where to use strategic thinking in ways that will “move the needle,” as Obama put it, toward change. This makes it much easier to know when to say yes, and when to say no with a clear sense of professional boundaries.

No matter the industry, I’m sure many of us look like swans sometimes — full of grace and serenity on the surface even though we’re paddling hard underneath to get the work done. The least we can do is not overextend ourselves and ignore self-care. Obama reminded us that generally women don’t make themselves a priority nearly as often as men do.

Gratitude and Desire

I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Nigeria twice. It was the first time I’d see the glaring contrast between people who had nothing and those with excess. Children were literally covered in dirt and begging for money in the middle of the night on the highway, while nearby folks in Mercedes were cruising down the road seemingly without a care in the world. I remember wondering what those children’s futures would be like and realizing how lucky I was to have the resources I had back home in the States. I was reminded of this trip when Obama touched on her family’s experiences visiting schoolgirls in Liberia and Senegal. She emphasized the need for keeping a broader perspective as well as focusing on the causes that are most important to you. Now and in the future we’ll meet many leaders who appear to have all of the answers and know exactly what they’re doing. They don’t. (Hopefully they’re not all Wizards of Oz working a lot of special effects behind a curtain — we all know the disappointing reality behind smoke and mirrors.) We must remember that failure is a part of the process but shouldn’t disrupt it.

The gratitude that we experience should be for ourselves, what our potential is and how to use it. We can include our desire, mentors, and experiences and push forward no matter how discouraging things look right now. Michelle Obama is no longer in the White House but it doesn’t mean that she can’t be a force for change. The same goes for the rest of us.

For more from The Horn Book on social justice and activism, visit our Making a Difference landing page; see also our FLOTUS booklist.

Jessica Chance
Jessica Chance
Jessica Chance is an actor, writer, and assistant director of career services at Emerson College. She's a part of the theater community and provides career development to students pursuing arts and communication. In her work she also focuses on the advocacy and support of marginalized voices through writing and programming.

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