Michelle Obama's Message

Last week, on the night of the Clinton-Obama debate, I found myself racing from a Kellogg Foundation meeting in downtown Washington,D.C. to Bethesda, MD to pick up my son and drive him to basketball practice, hoping to catch the debate on my car radio. No such luck. But what I found was arguably more interesting and compelling: Michelle Obama. In the weeks leading up to the final debate, former President Bill Clinton had become a topic of discussion, as he and Senator Clinton pulled out all stops to win in Nevada and try to forestall Senator Obama's victory in South Carolina. The former president came under intense criticism for what some deemed to be underhanded campaign tactics. And while Bill Clinton soaked up the limelight, I came to find that it was his counterpart, Michelle Obama, who deserved our attention. Last Thursday night, while waiting for my son's practice to end, I heard the most incredible speech by Mrs. Obama.

Her speech covered an amazing amount of territory, offering both a critique on current-dayAmerica as well as a vision about what the future could be. At one point she talked about the improbability of her own journey as a black woman, reporting to the crowd just how unlikely it was for her to be standing there that night with them as the potential next First Lady. Not too many years before, she was told by various people that she would not – she could not – succeed in America.  She was told that she would never get into Princeton, but she did; that she would not be able to go to Harvard Law, but she did; that her husband would never be able to win an Illinois state senate seat, or a U.S. Senate seat, or eventually run for president of the United States. At each point of the way, in the span of just years, she, Michelle Obama, was not supposed to make it.

Then she told a story about a young girl she'd met in South Carolina who told her that because of Senator Obama's run for the nomination, she now believed she could do anything. And yet, with pain in her voice, Michelle Obama told the swelling crowd that night that we all know that that little girl, because of who she is and where she lives, was already too far behind in school, in her health care, in her nutrition – the odds are already stacked against her. Indeed, Mrs. Obama said that the little girl herself, in her heart, knows that, too.

As I listened to Michelle Obama that night, I came to realize that she is saying what so many people might be thinking, but which too often is left unsaid in our society: That for all our remarkable progress there is much work to be done.  Indeed, so many want to celebrate the fact that a woman and a black man are the two final contenders for the Democratic nomination, that one of them will make history by becoming the eventual nominee, which is something to celebrate. But Michelle Obama is not celebrating, at least not yet, and good for her.

This past weekend in California, The New York Times reported that she said in a speech, "In my lifetime, through Republican and Democratic administrations, it hasn't got better for ordinary folks." She's right, if we're honest with ourselves; too many people remain left behind. Indeed, in campaigns, we often become lost in the rhetoric, in the horserace, in the money, and lose sight of whether the words and deeds of the people we elect ultimately make any difference in the lives of ordinary people.

Mrs. Obama also said in that same speech, "We are still a nation that is too guided by fear. We are raising a generation of young people who are doubtful, who are insular."

"Hope" has become the magic word of this campaign season. Let's face it, we all want more hope. We all want to celebrate that a woman and a black man have made it to lead the Democrats, and that a decorated war hero, Senator John McCain, is likely to lead the Republicans. But real hope requires something more than campaign placards, speeches and hype; it requires change. We must create change regarding the conditions in which people live; we must rid ourselves of fear; we must be less insular.  Real hope is generated because people come to believe that it is possible to alter the status quo.

In Michelle Obama's voice, we hear a message not simply of hope, but change. We hear a voice of an individual who seeks to speak the truth about our current conditions and in doing reveals the challenges we must face. Whether we agree with Michelle Obama is not my point today; rather, it is enough to appreciate her courage to stand up and speak out. Because it is only then that we can see ourselves that it is possible for true hope and change to come about.