The feature originally appeared in the ESSENCE September 2010 Issue
I learned a long time ago that when you’ve had some success, it’s not enough to just sit back and enjoy it. You’ve got to reach back and pull someone else up too.
I keep that lesson with me every day, whether it’s as the First Lady, as a woman or as a mom. I tell my girls all the time that they are beautiful, that they are smart and that they should live life without fear of failing. I say these things because they are absolutely true and because I want to make sure they hear these words as often as possible. They deserve it. And I hope they believe it.
For 40 years now, ESSENCE magazine has given us that same encouragement. Each issue tells Black women that we are beautiful. We are smart. We are strong. Our opinions matter. We should be fearless.
ESSENCE is a community of support and a source of inspiration. Here we can be proud of ourselves and proud of one another. Here we see our contributions and our potential. We can take comfort in how far we’ve come and have confidence in where we’re headed. In 40 years we’ve gone from the shadows of our civil rights victories to leading the way as business owners, professors, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs. With each step this magazine has shown us who we are and what we can be.
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And we need to keep it up. I have met many women—some older, some younger—who do not have someone in their lives who tells them they’re good enough, that they should dream big dreams, that their hard work will pay off.
This is why I started the White House leadership and mentoring initiative and have organized mentoring events around the country. I want to help young people see their potential, to be confident in using their voices, to own the power of their experiences and to recognize that they have an important role to play in the life of this country.
With the mentoring program in D.C., we’ve paired local high school girls with women on the White House staff, who spend time with them each month. The women listen to their concerns, provide some guidance when asked, expose the young girls to new ways of thinking, discuss their future, and, perhaps most important, demonstrate that they were once just like them.
Each young woman has her own strengths, her own worries, her own dreams. As I travel around the world and meet with young people from all types of backgrounds, I see some kids brimming with confidence and others who are afraid to raise their hand to even ask a question. I’ve met students who already have a shelf full of medals and trophies, and those who seem to shrink from their accomplishments to avoid attention or embarrassment. I’ve met kids ready to embrace their future and those who feel like they have no future at all.
We need to change this for them and for ourselves. Each of us can use the guidance of someone who’s been down the road before—and who can help us see the possibilities in front of us. We need someone who can push back on the voices telling us we’re not good enough, we’re not ready or just plain no.
I was a girl who sometimes heard no, but I learned to disregard the naysayers and seek out the encouragement that got me to yes. I had a mother who pushed me, a father and a big brother who let me know I was beautiful, and an extended family and friends who were proud of me. This support set me on the path to be the professional, wife, mother and First Lady I am today.
When the first issue of ESSENCE came out in 1970, we had one Black woman in Congress. Now we have 14. We have had Black women serve as secretary of state, ambassador to the United Nations, and president of an Ivy League school. Last year we achieved another first as a Black woman became CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Black women have been crowned Miss America and American Idol; we’ve walked away with a Best Actress Oscar and a Nobel Prize for literature, and two sisters have Grand-Slammed their way through the tennis world.
We’ve come so far in 40 years, and yet there’s still so much untapped potential within us. I can’t wait to see what we’ll do in the next 40. And if somewhere along the way we need a reminder of who we are or what we can be, we’ll know where to turn. ESSENCE will reach out to us, pull us up, and show us that yes, we are beautiful; yes, we are smart; yes, we are fearless. We deserve it, and now we need to believe it.