INDIANAPOLIS— The start is being at the table, the place where the decisions are made. Then, you have to learn to disagree and to insert your opinion.
Speak up, former first lady Michelle Obama cautioned, or eventually you will be overlooked.
“Have the courage of your convictions and have the confidence in your experience, the confidence that the life you’ve lived, and what you’ve seen has value at the table,” Obama said.
Obama spoke Tuesday evening at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to a crowd of more than 12,000. The thousands of people included nearly 300 girls and chaperones from Indianapolis Public Schools who received free tickets from the event’s organizer, the Women’s Fund of Central Indiana.
“Hey y’all,” Obama greeted a section of young girls to the side of the stage. “I’m so glad they’re here. Love you guys.”
They responded with shrieks.
Obama, who has been out of the White House for just over a year, has made few public appearances since her exit. She appeared in an interview earlier this month with Ellen DeGeneres on her afternoon talk show. She also presented the 2018 School Counselor of the Year Award at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts the week before her Indianapolis talk.
On Monday, her and former President Barack Obama’s portraits were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery.
The former first lady, an advocate for women and families, is known for initiating policies to help children while in office. Her Let's Move! campaign aimed to reduce childhood obesity. The Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn movements championed greater access to education, both for U.S. students and young girls globally.
Obama said she is working on a memoir. Part of her writing process she said includes her reflecting on how her upbringing influences the way she acts today.
She grew up on the south side of Chicago in a working class family. While her parents couldn’t give her many material things, they were present in her life.
“There was so much support just in the small things, listening, valuing our voices, letting us talk and complain and argue and ask questions and push,” Obama said.
She said she shared stories from her childhood because she wants young people to know that anyone who’s been successful, especially women of color, grow up with doubts. Sometimes those are other's perceptions or subconscious messages woven into society.
It’s really a drumbeat of doubt, she said.
“You grow up knowing that there are people that just decide not to like you because you’re brown,” Obama said. “So you always wonder, what are they thinking about me? I’m just a kid walking around, but that person is afraid of me, and they don’t even know me.”
You have to practice ignoring it, Obama said. You have to practice pushing through it and achieving beyond people’s expectations.
She entered her adulthood with a sense of self, she said. Obama advised young people to pick a career where they can be themselves.
“I was never trying to be a first lady that I read about somewhere,” she said. “When you know who you are, nobody can take that from you.”
Junior Naomi Byrdo came from IU to hear Obama’s speech. Byrdo said she liked Obama’s emphasis on being yourself and being comfortable with yourself.
“It was absolutely inspirational,” she said.
In college, Byrdo has taken time to find herself by studying abroad in places like London and France.
Her admiration for Obama also includes the initiatives she started in office. Brydo is a human development major with a minor in education policy, so Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and her push for healthier eating in schools are things Brydo is also passionate about.
“I’m really interested in starting from the beginning,” she said.
Byrdo was also at the talk with two other friends from IU, including senior Maya Caine. She said before Obama, there were no role models like her.
Michelle Obama was in office while Caine was in high school and for part of college.
“If she can do it, I can, too,” she said.