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— Calgary Chamber (@CalgaryChamber) March 24, 2018
It’s not often an international icon comes to Calgary. As part of a tour of Western Canada, Michelle Obama stopped by our fair city last week to do a talk with interviewer Cassie Campbell. I was beyond thrilled to be in the same room as the former First Lady of the United States! I’ve always had a deep admiration and respect for Michelle Obama and the evening was more than I could even imagine it would be.
The night featured topics on everything from family to living in the White House to women in the workplace. No matter the issue, Michelle told her story with so much passion, intelligence and a touch of humour about her life and work. I left feeling absolutely enthralled and energized to pay forward the same kind of civic engagement that the Obamas continue to espouse.
I’ve had many people ask me about my evening with Michelle Obama and what she talked about so here are some of the highlights – that I could remember that is. I’ve paraphrased what I could so you can also enjoy and learn more about this incredible woman. I would have recorded it for you guys but I didn’t want to get jumped by Secret Service and all.
Did you get a chance to see Michelle Obama in Calgary? Tell me what you enjoyed about the evening in the comments or on social at @heyseto.
- Michelle grew up in the South Side of Chicago to a working-class family. Her parents never attended college which made it extra inspiring for Michelle to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School. Her father suffered from multiple sclerosis but still went to work at his blue-collar job every day. Michelle described the importance of her parents as her role models – no matter what she does she always asks herself, “Will my parents be proud of me?”
- She describes herself as a hugger. She loves to take energy from the people who are around her and hugging is her way to get close to others. Cassie Campbell said she was so nervous to meet Michelle Obama but once Michelle hugged her she felt much better. (I would love to be hugged by Michelle Obama!)
- Michelle met Barack for the first time when they were working at the same law firm. He asked her out but she was hesitant to accept she was his advisor at the time (and technically his superior). They started dating a month in as Barack was very compelling and persuasive. Michelle describes it not quite love at first sight but she knew by the end of the summer that they would get married. In Chicago, there is a plaque at the site of the former Baskin Robbins where Michelle and Barack had their first kiss. Michelle finds it humourous that it is a popular spot for tourists to stop by and take pictures at.
- Cassie and Michelle talked about how their moms help keep them humble. When Cassie was first tasked with the role of interviewing Michelle Obama, her mom was like, “Why you?” Michelle replied that her mother was never really impressed with anything that went on at the White House as it was all just “hooey.”
- The Obamas chose Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley to paint their portraits for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, making them the first African-American artists to paint the President and First Lady. Michelle says this was their chance to do something more “avant-garde” than the official White House portraits that are still to come.
- Michelle initially didn’t want Barack to go into politics. She knew her husband was too kind-hearted and didn’t have the temperament to be in politics. She ended up changing her mind because she knew Barack would be the best person to become President as he is very credible, ethical and the person to make change. She didn’t want to be the reason to hold him back and prevent what he could do for so many people as President.
- As soon as Barack became President-elect, their whole lives changed. Michelle described how as soon as it was announced in the polls, the security protocols immediately changed, phone calls started coming in from world leaders from all over and they had to jump immediately to start the transition to the White House.
- Part of this meant leaving their home in Chicago behind very quickly and literally leaving everything behind. Years later, as the Obamas were winding down their time in the White House, they went back to the Chicago home to clean things up and the home was still the same – the same drawings on the fridge, same pictures hanging, the height chart for the kids still left on the wall. Malia and Sasha wondered why their mom had kept so much stuff around like their old Polly Pockets toys. Michelle responded that she thought they might have still wanted them, not realizing that her two girls would grow up and not need them anymore.
- Sonny and Bo are probably two of the most famous dogs to have lived in the White House. Michelle described them as very sheltered dogs. After the Obamas left the White House, the pups finally experienced civilian life for the first time as they had never heard a doorbell before, or heard other dogs barking in the neighborhood. They saw their very first cat last month.
- During their tenure at the White House, the Obamas hosted many dignitaries and celebrities. A highlight for Michelle was having Paul McCartney sing The Beatles’ classic “Michelle” to her.
- The Obamas also hosted the first-ever poetry slam at the White House. One of the artists that came by to perform was Lin-Manuel Miranda who was a rising star on Broadway at the time. He performed an act about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton which the Obamas found surprising but loved it. He told them that he was going to write an entire play about Alexander Hamilton. Michelle definitely thought it was an unusual idea, but wished Lin-Manual luck with it. And as we all know now, Hamilton is now the most popular Broadway show ever. The Obamas brought the award-winning cast back to the White House to perform and host workshops for young kids.
- A common theme throughout the evening focussed on parenting and motherhood. Like many other working moms, Michelle had to manage both a thriving career and be a supportive mom, which become extra magnified and stressful when she also had to add First Lady to her list of duties as well. Michelle talked a lot about the practicalities of trying to raise two kids in the White House such as the logistics of setting up new schools, friends, sleepovers and more. She described one of her most devastating “breakups” was when her nanny left them joking that she would have rather had the nanny than Barack.I think one of the most surprising things to come out of Michelle’s talk was her candid views on how women can try to juggle all these roles – and that women “can’t have it all.” What Michelle described instead was that you can have it all – just not all at once. It’s really important to find balance in your life because it’s impossible to do everything for your family, career and more all the time. We shouldn’t be teaching our young girls that they can have it all.
- Her advice for women is to find a support system and to ask for help. You can’t do it all by yourself and shouldn’t be expected to. Michelle talked about the group of mom friends in Chicago that she could rely on for friendship and parenting support as well as her own mother retiring to help out with Sasha and Malia.
- As her daughters continue to grow up, Michelle hopes that Sasha and Malia go into the world confident and empowered as women. But she acknowledges that there is still a long way to go for women to be able to be successful in the world. Equality is something that both men and women need to work together to achieve.
- While the evening didn’t delve too deep into current politics, one of the final questions Cassie Campbell asked was “When do you think there will be a female president?” To this, Michelle responded that there are many countries that have already put female leaders in place, but the United States will have a female president “when women are ready” to have one. She referred to Hillary Clinton as an excellent candidate who was very well-educated, had lots of political experience and had even had first-hand experience at the White House before. But voters and, especially female voters still found her to be wanting.One of the most poignant descriptions that Michelle described about this situation is how we let men “fail up” with opportunities for advancement and leadership, but a woman must be perfect in order to get the same chances. I think we can see this here in Canada as well in the way we treat female representatives as less than their male counterparts sometimes.Ultimately it comes down to the fact that women need to support other women. Women need to be allowed to fail. Women should not have to be perfect.