When it comes to education, First Lady Michelle Obama hasn’t shied away from the frontlines. And as she told 500 young Africans in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program, the issue is “deeply personal.”
In her remarks at the Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit, Mrs. Obama told the first class of fellows, whom she addressed as her “brothers” and “sisters,” that the “blood of Africa” runs through her veins.
“The roots of my family tree are in Africa,” she said. “As you know, my husband’s father was born and raised in Kenya and members of our extended family still live there. I have had the pleasure of traveling to Africa a number of times over the years, including four trips as First Lady, and I have brought my mother and my daughters along with me whenever I can.”
The remark was met with great applause from the audience of fellows, who range from 25 to 35 years old and represent more than 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. President Barack Obama renamed the fellowship program in honor of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected leader of South Africa who passed away last year.
Mrs. Obama spoke to ESSENCE recently about the importance of investing in our children’s education and the goal of her “Reach Higher” initiative, which aims to encourage all students to get an education beyond high school. In her remarks to the fellows, Mrs. Obama also charged others to reach globally to educate young people everywhere, especially women.
But she made it a point to stress that women must be treated better. She said a woman’s limited access to education cannot only be attributed to lack of resources. Mrs. Obama said the attitudes and traditions of certain societies can oppress and exclude women.
“I don’t think it’s really productive to talk about issues like girls’ education unless we’re willing to have a much bigger, bolder conversation about how women are viewed and treated in the world today,” she said. “And we need to be having this conversation on every continent and in every country on this planet.”
Mrs. Obama said women can empower themselves by choosing not to internalize these damaging messages.
“Without even realizing it, we as women internalize the oppression we face in our societies by believing harmful messages about how we should look and act, particularly as women of color,” she said. “But, my sisters, you all are here today because you have found a way to overcome these challenges, and you have blossomed into powerful, accomplished women. And we need you all to help others do the same.”
While Mrs. Obama was speaking to these young leaders at the time, it is clear that she is speaking to all of us as well.