Photo: The Obama Foundation
In the three years since leaving the White House, Michelle Obama, the country’s first African-American first lady, has traveled the world giving inspirational speeches, writing a best-selling book and repeatedly deflecting calls that she herself run for president.
In addition, Obama has continued to use her power to enact change via the not-for-profit Obama Foundation that she founded with husband, former president Barack Obama, in 2014. The couple have also signed a major deal with Netflix, which has seen their production company, Higher Ground Productions, working on several documentaries and drama series exploring issues that matter to them, including the Oscar-winning film American Factory.
Most importantly, Obama has made it her mission to champion women and adolescent girls around the world. In October 2018, she launched the Girls Opportunity Alliance, which empowers girls internationally through education. It’s an issue that the former first lady—who documents her journey from Chicago’s South Side to the White House in bestselling 2019 memoir Becoming—describes as hugely personal. “Neither of my parents and hardly anyone in the neighborhood where I grew up went to college,” she explained in a CNN op-ed in 2016. “For me, education was power.”
Programs supported by the Girls Opportunity Alliance will be profiled in Creators for Change, a new YouTube Originals series that will broadcast conversations on tough global issues. In honor of Women’s History Month (which runs from March 1 to 31), its inaugural episode will see Obama discuss the state of girls’ education around the world with YouTube creators Liza Koshy, Prajakta Koli, and Thembe Mahlaba.
Here, Michelle Obama speaks exclusively to Vogue about the women who helped raise her, how she deals with imposter syndrome, and why educating girls means a better future for all of us.
The Girls Opportunity Alliance is dedicated to empowering adolescent girls through education. Why did you choose to focus on education as a path to empowerment?
“As a girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, my access to a good education wasn’t always a guarantee. But I had a powerful advocate in my mother, Marian Robinson. She stepped in to help wherever she could—holding fundraisers for new classroom equipment, throwing appreciation dinners for my overworked teachers, and lobbying on my behalf whenever she sensed standards were slipping. Not only did my mother make sure I was learning my multiplication tables and planetary systems, her actions instilled in me a sense of my own worth: that my voice, talents, and ambition mattered. My life would look a lot different today if I hadn’t had that support.”
“I want every girl on this planet to have the same opportunities that I’ve had. But right now, more than 98 million adolescent girls around the world are not in school. That’s an injustice that affects all of us. We know that girls who go to school have healthier, happier lives, and when that happens, the whole world benefits. That’s why the Obama Foundation started the Girls Opportunity Alliance—we work to lift up the grassroots organizations and leaders around the world already doing the important work of clearing away hurdles to girls’ education in their communities. Every single girl deserves the chance to pursue her passions and fulfill her boundless potential.”
What women have impacted you the most in your own education journey?
“I already mentioned my mother Marian Robinson, who has a kind of quiet perseverance and strength that I still look to emulate. My great-aunt Robbie has been another huge influence on me. She taught me to play piano when I was a little girl in Chicago, and she gave me some of my earliest lessons in self-discipline and good old-fashioned debate. We often butted heads—I kept skipping ahead in my lesson book, itching to learn more complicated songs—but she just wasn’t having it. She believed in the value of patience and diligence, concepts that five-year-old me didn’t yet understand.
In one of my first recitals, I sat down to play my song only to realize I had no idea where to put my hands—our piano at home had chipped keys, and I’d always used them as a guide. Just as I was beginning to panic, Robbie gracefully rose from her seat in the audience and walked to the bench. She gently placed my finger on middle C. And then I played my song.
I think about that moment a lot, because I hope it’s what we can offer all girls—a chance to learn and try new things, a guiding hand to support them when they stumble, and then the freedom to express themselves through whatever medium they choose.”