Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama reflected on the insights gained while attending elite colleges and how they leveraged that experience into a strong tool to empower their communities on the first episode of “The Michelle Obama Podcast.”
During the 49-minute episode released Wednesday, the former first lady and first Black president of the US discussed social justice advocacy in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the importance of the younger generation being politically engaged, and family. The Obamas, who both received their law degrees from Harvard University, also stressed that the perspective they gained from their experiences influenced their passion for political advocacy in their communities.
Barack Obama, who was the first African American to be president of the Harvard Law Review, said his education at Harvard gave him the “credentials and security” to work in community organizing.
“I think I figured out once I got to school that if I am chasing after my own success, that somehow, I am going to end up alone and unhappy,” he said. “And that’s why I ended up going into community organizing and the work that I was doing because when I thought about how I want to spend my life, what I looked at was what those civil rights workers had done…And the freedom riders had done. And I thought, you know, that looks like hard work but it never looks like lonely work. That looks like hard and risky work but it never looks like selfish, isolated, meaningless work.”
He later said, “So, but the thing that a Harvard education gave me, the real ticket that I punched wasn’t to chase as much money as I wanted. What I purchased was enough credentials and security that I could go do the crazy things I wanted to do in terms of working in neighborhoods, going in to politics, all that,” the former president said. “Knowing that I had enough of a floor beneath me that I was going to be okay.”
Michelle Obama, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, discussed working as a junior associate for Sidley Austin, a law firm in the city, and the loneliness she felt while looking at the neighborhood she came from.
“I was on the track. I was checking my boxes. Because I was doing what I thought and thought I needed to do because I was a poor kid. So, I didn’t feel like I had the option to just go off and do other things,” she said. “But I also had a limited vision of what I could be because schools don’t show you the world, they just show you a bunch of careers. But I came to learn the same thing you learned that while working on the 47th floor in that fancy law firm making all that money, that it felt lonely.”
She continued, “And it felt isolating. And you know, I had this amazing view of the southeast side of the city from my office,” she said. “I could see the lake and I could see all of the neighborhood that had I come from. And I never felt further from that neighborhood than when I was sitting in that office working on briefs and cases that had nothing to do with anything that helped a broader group of people outside of myself.”
After graduating from college and before going to law school, Barack Obama worked as a community organizer and helped register people to vote on Chicago’s South Side. Michelle Obama became the city’s assistant commissioner of planning and development and later was founding executive director of the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a nonprofit that engages young people in public leadership.
Speaking about young people and government, Michelle Obama said she has hope when she looks at young people but she is concerned that she often hears “too many young people who question whether voting, whether politics is worth it.”
“Well, partly because they have been told. The message is sent every day that government doesn’t work,” Barack Obama responded. “They take for granted all the things that a working government has done in the past… in some ways, we’re still living on the investment that was made by that greatest generation.”
The former first lady joked that some young people know more about the cereal they are eating than what government is doing because government does not have marketing budgets. They both agreed that it seems the time young people understand what is happening in government is when it is not working and Barack Obama added, “So we’re getting a good lesson in that right now.”
He later added, “The danger for this generation is that they have become too deeply cynical in government. Not understanding that all government is, is us collectively making decisions together,” he said.
“They’re just certain things that you have to do collectively cause they’re too big, they’re too expensive,” noting the coronavirus pandemic and building infrastructure.
But the former president said at the end of the day, “I think folks are going to do the right thing.”