Who among us doesn’t savor a public appearance from Michelle Obama? This week she indulged us. The former FLOTUS, along with her husband, former president Barack Obama, gathered in Chicago for the Obama Foundation Summit. Since leaving the White House, she has worked with the foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance, which seeks to empower girls through education. At the summit, Obama brought this effort to the forefront, hosting a roundtable about the alliance’s progress, nationwide.
Obama hosted a conversation that included the alliance’s executive director, Tiffany Drake; new Time’s Up president and CEO Tina Tchen; and Maya Soetoro-Ng, who’s an advisor to the Obama Foundation’s international team (and the former president’s sister), as well as 16 other participants from the GOA. “We want young people in the United States and around the world to learn about this issue and get involved,” Obama said. “From encouraging young people to share a presentation on this issue at school to collaborating with girl-group organizations who have expanded their programming to include work on adolescent girls’ education, the foundation is offering resources to help young people turn their passion about this issue into action.”
Obama also shed light on what inspires her to champion this work—the knowledge that there are millions of girls around the world “who don’t have advocates and parents who don’t have their voices heard, but they have the same brain, the same heart, the same knowledge.’
“You don’t become a different person because you’re educated,” she said. “That is always there. Right? And it’s either nurtured or it’s dropped, but you’re born with that. That doesn’t come with your last name or your language or your skin color. That is in in you. So in my mind, I think, What about those girls who have all that I had in me who are not being invested in? What a waste. What a waste for society, what a waste for a family. What a waste for that girl’s soul to be trapped by her fate and not by her ability.”
The former first lady added, “The work that I do is really in recognition of the truth. That is the communities that I come from, that we all come from. It’s no different whether it’s the South Side of Chicago or a small village in Cambodia; we’re not different…. The earth is one place, [and] we’re all on it. We’re all humans with the same feelings and hopes and dreams and desires. And I hold that with me—that knowledge.”
Obama also used her time on the stage to share messages of hope and insight into her hard-won truths. She opened up about the importance self-care, empowerment, and essential lessons on how to be a leader. Read on for more wisdom from Obama.
“You need a support system when it gets hard. You need a support system because doing this work doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own life, that you don’t find love, that you don’t marry and have your own children. And I’ve met young women who felt guilty about continuing their lives as they’re helping so many. But if you’re going to sustain yourself through this work, you can’t do it on nothing. You need oxygen and air and love and time off and happiness and joy because if you don’t get it, you will break. And we can’t. I’d rather have you whole and doing less for longer than broken and out of the game completely. That’s where self-care comes in.”
On doing the work:
“All you can do is wake up and do the work every day and hope that the work that you do, the messages that you leave, the pebbles that you leave scattered along the pathway, will show somebody else the light. And it may not happen in our lifetimes. We don’t do this work because we’re going to get the reward at the end. We do it because it’s the right thing to do day in and day out. And I’m doing it not for my children, but maybe for their children and their children. That’s the work we’re doing. It is not immediately gratifying today, but if we quit today, it never gets done. No one ever puts down that first pebble.”
“You never know what little girl is going to benefit from that pebble you put down. All it takes is a pebble to change a girl’s life. Sometimes all it is is a message that they hear. It is that simple sometimes. Some girl somewhere sees you and goes, ‘I can do that.’ It isn’t magic. It’s just that they saw it for themselves, they heard it. Somebody told them they could.
“As a mother and a father bringing a life into world, you make that little life feel so special just by the conversations that you have around the table, the way you look at them, the way you address them, the way you give validation to their voice at a very young age. I had that, and that took me so far and it gave me the fuel to combat all the truth and the doubt, the lies, the haters, the people who were afraid of me, the people who set their bars low for me. But I have that special thing in me that my parents gave me, and that was my little sword that I took with me everywhere.”
“One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that we have to have broader definitions for what leadership is so that we can see it in all forms that it takes…so that we can recognize it in ourselves, and in others, and we don’t overlook it. We’ll miss a powerful answer if we think leadership is men only. So, I’ve learned to be open, to be open to listening and learning and finding the leaders out there and to accept the leadership and myself.
“Leadership is bravery, it’s courage, it’s sacrifice, it’s strength that has no race. It has no gender. It has no income. It has no nationality, no religion. It’s there in so many of us.”
Originally Appeared on Glamour