President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama made headlines with their decision to send daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha,7, to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. But the news was no surprise to graduate damali ayo, who quickly created an online support group called Sasha and Malia: We’ve Got Your Back! Black Alum of Sidwell Friends on Facebook. After attending the school for 12 years and graduating in 1990, ayo shares her expertise with ESSENCE.com on what the Obama girls can expect and what advice she wish a big sister had given to her back then
ESSENCE.COM: You’ve made it your mission to offer support and advice to Sasha and Malia Obama. What was your reaction when you found out they were going to attend your alma mater?
DAMALI AYO: I was not surprised the Obamas chose Sidwell. It was the most liberal of the private schools in D.C. and one of the few schools where you don’t have to wear uniforms. Black alumnae have a lot of Sidwell pride, out in the world doing incredible things, and we support each other, which is why I wanted to start the group. Sasha and Malia’s success is everyone’s success.
ESSENCE.COM: What are some tips for Sasha and Malia that you wish someone had told you?
AYO: I wish someone had told me that there are a lot of different ways to be Black. When you are one of a few, you want to bond together and have a Black community, but in that, there has to be a sense of diversity. There was a lot of pressure around defining what being Black meant. Also, all of us had that experience of having to be the Black spokesperson. In English class, my teacher would ask me to be the one to read the poem about slavery and talk about how it made me feel. I want them to know they can push back and stand strong.
ESSENCE.COM: Great advice. Was Black culture ever integrated into the school, and is there a sense of community among Black students?
AYO: Sidwell has a pretty diverse population. When I was younger there was a closeness among the Black students. But, once you hit middle school, Black students tend to become really social and spread out in different clubs and groups. The Black Student Union met every week and it was a good place to go and sit around and be ourselves.
ESSENCE.COM: Were there any famous people’s kids there when you attended?
AYO: Chelsea Clinton went there right after me, and Amy Carter went to summer school with my sister. We had a lot of the wealthy and elite. The school tended to divide among economic lines and the rich kids hung with rich kids. It used to be bringing Black kids in was synonymous with bringing poor kids in, but the Black middle class has changed. That’s a problem, especially in D.C., where kids need access to really good schools. Barack and Michelle have a wonderful way of raising Sasha and Malia with a working-class mentality and keeping them humble.
ESSENCE.COM: First Lady Michelle Obama has been vocal about spending most of her time as the “Mom-in-Chief.” Is Sidwell a place where she can have an impact as a parent?
AYO: Definitely. My mom was the head of the Black student fund and organized fundraisers to help Black students get money to attend. She was the watchdog of Black students at Sidwell and she had a lot of work to do and plenty to address. She hosted a Kwanzaa celebration there for the first time and got the book “Native Son” removed from the curriculum. There are some things that Sasha and Malia won’t have to deal with and that shows progress. I’m hoping the Obama girls will be more students and less teacher. With a mother like Michelle, I’m sure they will be taught right. Sidwell turns out some really cool people and it’s a place where I learned to discover new things about myself. I hope Sasha and Malia will be able to do the same.