Michelle Obama debuts initiative in Denver

By Leslie Jorgensen

Eleanor Roosevelt pioneered the concept that presidential wives should do more than serve as hostesses at state dinners; she wrote newspaper and magazine columns, hit the lecture circuit and spoke on radio shows about social and political issues ranging from stretching family budgets during the Great Depression to the role of women in the armed services during World War II.

First Lady Michelle Obama encourages students at South High School in Denver to become mentors to younger kids.
Photo by Tatianna Gruen/The Colorado Statesman

Ever since Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House, most of her successors have launched initiatives and championed causes, most of which, like hers, have been rooted in such homey concerns as health, volunteerism and education.

This week, First Lady Michelle Obama came to Denver to introduce her cause — an initiative to promote the mentoring of high school girls.

“This is one of the things that I love to do most — spending time with you people, particularly young girls with so much promise,” Obama told about 80 high school girls as they were introduced to 26 nationally prominent women at a luncheon at the Governor’s Residence hosted by Colorado First Lady Jeanne Ritter.

“I’m grateful to be in this room not just with you all, but also with the group of extraordinary women who have volunteered their time,” said Obama.

The mentors included Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis; U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, of Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, and Betsy Markey, of the 4th Congressional District; actresses Susan Sarandon and Fran Drescher; Denver Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Kelly Brough; environmentalist and attorney Maggie Fox, wife of Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall; and freelance writer Helen Thorpe, wife of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.

Obama told the girls that the women mentors didn’t achieve success through magic.

“What they all brought to their work was hard work and focus — you know, a desire to stay a little later, putting in long hours. And, more importantly, not giving up because someone else doubted them,” she said.

“We’ve all made mistakes — some really big mistakes… but what we didn’t do is let those mistakes shatter us and keep us from moving to the next set of challenges,” said the first lady. “That is something you can learn from the women in this room.”

The mentoring initiative was introduced Nov. 2, when 20 girls from high schools in Washington, D.C., came to the White House to talk with the first lady and top women in the Obama administration. It grew out of the first lady’s Women of Excellence program in March, when celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Sheryl Crow visited teenage girls at public schools in Washington.

After lunch at the Governor’s Mansion, the women spread across the metro area to meet with groups of students — mostly girls — at 10 schools.

About 30 students at South High School met the first lady face to face in an hour-long private conversation. After listening to Obama’s responses to three questions posed by the students, reporters and photographers were shooed out of the school library.

Kellyn Craig, a senior high school student, asked what attributes a good mentor should have.

“Mentors are everywhere… a mentor doesn’t have to have a certain degree or a certain education or a certain position,” said Obama. “Mentors are in your own life, whether it’s your pastor or your parent or a neighbor.”

She said students also will find ready and willing mentors at their schools and encouraged the group of students to act as mentors to their peers and younger children, particularly those who are struggling or sitting on the sidelines.

“Oftentimes my girls, for example, would be more enthusiastic to talk to you than to me because you’re young and seem really cool — and I’m not to them,” said the first lady of the presidential couple’s daughters, Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8.

Hamza Afta asked Obama what is most difficult about being first lady.

A ROTC student at South High School reviews her list of questions to ask First Lady Michelle Obama. Some questions on her list: “Do your kids have to clean their own room?” and “Why did you pick South Denver (High School for her visit)?”
Photo by Tatianna Gruen/The Colorado Statesman

“The president and I are always balancing the role that we play in public with making sure that home is home, and that we’re present… for our kids — not as Michelle and Barack Obama, but as Mom and Dad,” said the first lady, who added that she’d be home in time to tuck their daughters into bed.

“Striking the balance is sometimes tough,” said Obama, adding that she and the president want their daughters to be “as whole as possible” after this experience of being the “first family.”

Linda Jimenez, student body president and multi-medaled ROTC member, asked the first lady’s opinion of standardized tests, specifically the Colorado Standardized Assessment Program tests. The tests, Jimenez noted, are used to rate public schools and are particularly difficult for students whose first language is not English.

“I would always get nervous and feel a great deal of anxiety over test-taking. So it was always a point of frustration for me personally,” confessed Obama. “I didn’t speak a second language… some people are really good test-takers and some aren’t.”

Obama said, however, that standardized tests are part of the education system. She suggested that schools have access to resources to help prepare students to compete better in the tests.

“I had to learn not to let just a test score define me,” said the first lady, who added that if she had, she would never have considered applying to Princeton.

Princeton, however, weighed Obama’s test scores with recommendation letters from teachers, her straight-A grades, extracurricular activities and her admission essay.

“Fortunately, the universities in this country recognize that there’s more to being a good student than a test score,” she said.

“You can fight the tests or you can work with them and turn them to your advantage. But, ultimately, you’ve got to be good students,” said Obama.

She added that students who strive to earn high grades as well as high test scores, “can feel a sense of confidence and self-assuredness that you did the best that you can do.”

The CSAP tests are part of the No Child Left Behind Act adopted in 2001, and promoted by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

First ladies typically have chosen safe projects — but some of those projects, such as the No Child Left Behind campaign, have been engulfed in controversy.

Many agree that public education needs an overhaul, but critics argue that the act created a situation demanding that educators teach to the tests to prevent poor assessments of schools, robbing time from instruction in both basics and the arts. In addition, groups such as the American Federation of Teachers believe that the testing and rating systems are unfair to schools with large minority populations.

When a school falls behind in the ratings, it must develop an improvement plan, which seems punitive to the AFT.

Projects selected by earlier first ladies have ranged from the decorative — such as Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House renovation and Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification program — to the prodigious, such as Hillary Clinton’s leadership of the President’s Task Force on Health Care Reform shortly after Bill Clinton took office in 1993. The health reform was abandoned — but not before conservative Republicans railed that it was “radical.”

Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign to deter teenagers and young adults from abusing drugs and alcohol was decried as simplistic and superficial, but apparently had an impact; drug and alcohol use fell among adolescents and young adults during President Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office.

Social conservatives sounded the alarm when Betty Ford took up the cause of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have legislated equal pay for equal work for women. Ford also spoke in favor of birth control and abortion rights, leading some uber conservatives to call her, “No Lady” instead of “First Lady” Ford.

How will Michelle Obama’s mentoring girls program be received?

Critics already are complaining that it prioritizes girls — who now have a better rate than boys of staying in high school and finishing college. In response, the first lady said her husband’s staff is developing a similar mentorship program for teenage boys.

The Denver preview of the first lady’s new program showcased achieving students — mostly girls who are already applying to colleges. At its debut, the initiative didn’t show any signs of reaching out to average or borderline teenage students who also might benefit from the encouragement of mentors.

That raises the issue of whether there’s value in a program that serves elite honor students while leaving ordinary students behind. However, it’s far too soon to know how history will judge the first lady’s initiative.

The media walked through a crowd of South High students to get to Obama’s chat with a handpicked group. As the first lady addressed the student body through a PA system before meeting with the selected students, it seemed to raise a question of who will mentor the rank-and-file.

Obama may want to take a tip from Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right — for you’ll be criticized anyway,” said Roosevelt. “You’ll be damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”