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Michelle Obama - From Working Class Girl to First Lady

Childhood Experiences and Family Struggles Influence Who She Is Today

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Updated February 17, 2009
From the presidential campaign trail to the White House, Michelle Obama has defined herself as one of the "regular folks," and that designation carries even more meaning in her role as First Lady.

Back in January 2008, TIME magazine observed that "she has become the real-life example of Obama's soaring rhetoric" as she toured college campuses in the South:

"I was raised in a working class family on the South Side of Chicago, that's how I identify myself, a working class girl," Michelle told a group of students at the University of South Carolina...."My mother came home and took care of us through high school, my father was a city shift worker who took care of us all his life. The only amazing thing about my life is that a man like my father could raise a family of four on a single city worker's salary....

You think of my parents who didn't go to college, who sent not one but two of us to Princeton, my brother and I....And the one thing that is clear to me as I've traveled the country is the story of my father is the story of America"....

According to BlackChristianNews.com, it's a story Michelle frequently told to audiences eager to find out more about the candidate's wife. This glimpse into her childhood emphasizes the influence her father had on her. She viewed his personal journey not as an example of hardship but as a source of strength:
Campaigning for her husband in the pivotal Midwestern state of Ohio, Obama described with admiration her own parents' working class values....[and] her father's struggle with multiple sclerosis, which struck him "in the prime of his life," and how he inspired the family despite his debilitating illness.

Her father was a man "that never complained about his own problems and issues," she said.

Like many Americans "he got up, he went to work, and every day, he was never late."

Michelle's mother and father "were proud of the fact that they could get up and go to work. That was what they enjoy and [gave them] a sense of meaning."

"What my father and my background remind me of deeply is that American dream that we are fighting for," she said.

It's a dream that Michelle Obama has achieved for herself despite significant roadblocks in her path, including a lack of support from both her high school and college advisors. As TIME noted, this 'underestimation' of her abilities served as a rallying cry during her stump speeches, most notably in South Carolina:
[A]t Benedict College in Columbia.... she told the audience...."We are confronted with the doubters. People who tells us what we can't do. You're not ready. You're not good enough. You're not smart enough....

Each and every one of you here has heard and felt those ceilings, somebody pushing you down, defining your limitations, who are you? You know damn well what you are capable of doing....

You know every time somebody told me, 'No, you can't do that,' I pushed past their doubts and I took my seat at the table."

Why does Michelle Obama stress her 'working class' roots? One answer may be found in the concept of authentic leadership. According to Harvard Business Publishing blogger Christina Bielaszka-DuVernay, who shared her impressions of Michelle Obama on day one of the Democratic National Convention:
Most of us today want leaders who resemble us rather than stand apart from us; at the end of the day, we want assurance that our leaders can recognize and empathize with our struggles....Obama [and] his wife... are striving to communicate that he would be a president in the mold of what Bill George...current HBS [Harvard Business School] professor, calls "an authentic leader."

As George and his coauthor, Peter Sims, define the term in their book, True North: Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, authentic leaders are marked by a keen self-awareness and deeply held values that enable them to lead with empathy. They recognize, share, and support the goals of their followers....[M]any authentic leaders endured hardships that irrevocably shaped their character and values....[They] are able to connect deeply with others despite apparent differences, and motivate them to take on formidable challenges.

A career professional, Michelle Obama recognizes that the role of First Lady involves a style of female leadership more influential than it is apparent. Although it is not a position she is paid to fill, as she finds her footing and moves ahead in identifying and promoting her causes during the Obama presidency, her job as First Lady will require her to inspire and connect with the American public just as deeply as her husband is doing.

By reminding us of her roots, she bridges the gap between rich and poor. She serves as living proof that if a "little black girl from the south side of Chicago" (as she describes herself) can rise to First Lady, similar opportunities are possible for the rest of us.

Sources:

Bielaszka-DuVernay, Christina. "DNC Day 1: Michelle Obama and Authentic Leadership." Harvard Business Publishing, 26 August 2008.
"Michelle Obama Campaigns in Ohio." Black Christian News BCNN1.com, 24 October 2008.
Newton-Small, Jay. "Michelle Obama Finds Her Voice Too." TIME, 24 January 2008.

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