Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at a Mary's Center Teen Program Roundtable Discussion

February 10, 2009

Q: So, Mrs. Obama, how does it feel being First Lady?

MRS. OBAMA: Well, that's a good question. I still -- I think I'm still trying to figure that out. But, you know, I'm excited and honored. There's a lot of work to be done in the country, and I think my husband is a good man for the job, and if I can do anything to support him -- you know, whether it's learning more about centers like Mary's Center and the work that they're doing -- and taking that information back so that it can help him think better about how to shape policy.

But it's -- I feel like I have a privilege being able to come out and hear about good programs, and meeting young people and to talk. It's one of the best jobs I've ever had. So I'm honored.

Q: I want to ask on -- if there's anything that's (inaudible) plan to help our school system?

MRS. OBAMA: Well, I think that most recently in this stimulus package that you hear so much talk about is one of the main things is thinking about how to make sure that kids from all communities who are headed to college have the kind of support they need; making sure that teachers have the resources they need so that as the economy struggles that we don't lay off teachers because they don't have the money that they need.

And in fact that's what's happening in our economy. You know, you've seen around the country that, you know, programs that are losing resources, and some of the schools are pulling out all their athletic programs and all the extracurriculars that make school fun, because we're -- you know, we don't have the resources to put in the schools, and the thing we want to make sure is that we don't lose teachers. I mean, that's the last, you know, resource.

But we also need to make sure that you guys have the grants that you need to get into college, if you decide to go. So there's money in this package to make sure that as we try to get the economy back on track, that there are resources for schools and for kids who are headed to college. That's just some of the ways, but there's so much work that we need to do beyond that, you know. I mean, the infrastructure of the schools are falling apart, and people need capital to keep buildings running, you know, moving. So there's a lot of work left to be done, for sure.

But, you know, coming from public schools -- and I'm a graduate of public schools -- I grew up in Chicago on the South Side, and my parents didn't have a ton of resources, so I know how important it is, and so does Barack, of having the kind of resources we need to make sure that every child, regardless of where they live or where they're from or how much money their parents make, that they have the right to good resources and a chance for college. So we still have a ways to go.

Q: We were saying that we need more resources for our students to be able to go to college and things like that. And actually Mary's Center has a scholarship program -- we're still working on it -- to try to help seniors have money and other resources to go to school, and it's been very helpful. And I've been here for three years at Mary's Center, working in the Teen Program, and they help us with our homework and with anything we need, whether we have problems at home or anything else.

MRS. OBAMA: So you're thinking about college?

Q: Yes.

MRS. OBAMA: So what year are you?

Q: Pardon?

MRS. OBAMA: What year are you?

Q: 2010.

MRS. OBAMA: 2010, so that's coming up, then. So, one of the things that I didn't realize, as I was talking to Maria -- I know that the resources here are pretty extensive for a health center. I don't know if you realize, but many health centers around the country don't have the ability to provide this broad range of resources. I mean, most of them just barely have the resources to provide medical care. The fact that here you've got pre-school, you've got teen centers, and you've got help for college, and you -- you know, this is the kind of center that's taking care of not just women and children, but the whole family -- that's a unique and important model.

So in so many ways you all are lucky to have this kind of center, because communities all over the country need this kind of resource -- in some way, shape, or form -- because as you know, it's hard if you don't have a place to go. I don't have to tell you all that. But this has been a treat for me to see.

So what would you tell the nation? Because they're all listening. You know, these cameras represent some ears out there. What would you tell them about the -- whether it's the Mary's Center or what you guys hope and wish for this country, what you need? What would you tell the President? I might talk to him tonight -- (laughter) -- to pass on a few things.

Q: I have a quick question -- and it involves immigration -- because you're always hearing stories about families being split up. I mean, students are here to learn; they want to go out -- and their parents are helping them as much as they want, but many of them are being deported back to their country. And I want to know what could you guys do to avoid that. Because, I mean (inaudible) for family members or for us as very supportive (inaudible) you see what we suffer (inaudible). So what would you say -- or how can you help us to avoid that from happening?

MRS. OBAMA: Well, I think that's something that the President has talked a lot about, in terms of immigration reform, which has to be tackled at some point, is keeping families together. So that definitely has to be a part of the conversation when we talk about any kind of immigration reform. And I think some of it is creating awareness through your own stories about, you know, the challenges that you're facing, and, you know, what happens when you've got a parent who's in one place and a parent in another, and kids who are here learning and contributing, and how important it is to make sure we keep families together.

But one way most recently that the current President has helped us is passing this --what's called this CHIP bill, most recently. I think it's the Children's Health Insurance Plan -- that's what CHIP stands for. And that funding -- signing that bill basically puts more resources into providing medical care to families who don't, you know -- who are immigrants. You know, it's taking care of the whole family, it's not only just bringing people here but once they're here, making sure that they have access to the kind of health care and support. This CHIP bill is going to go a long way into putting more resources into families who need the kind of medical care.

The important thing now is making sure that families know that these resources are available -- and that's an education. That's something that you all can be a part of in your own communities, is making sure that people know that places like the Mary's Center exists; that there's help through CHIP so that people reach out and get whatever assistance is available. And that's something that if you're talking to your other friends or your neighbors or relatives, it's having those kind of conversations to make sure that they know that resources are available, because this bill is going to make sure that millions more young kids, of all backgrounds, have access to the health care that they need.

So there are many, many pieces to this puzzle, you know, and it's a complicated puzzle. But part of it is starting with awareness and making sure that people see the faces of these families -- through you, you know, so that it's not just some abstract story, but there's a real kid and real families behind it.

Q: In our community lately we've been seeing a lot of violence. And what it does here -- like, the victim is not getting any help, and the thing is, like, it's not fair because, like, there's (inaudible) for the victim (inaudible) like everyone is (inaudible) because it puts fear into the victim and the person, because (inaudible). Like, for example, there was a homeless man (inaudible) and everybody was walking past him and nobody wanting to help him. And also the same thing occurred -- (laughter) -- so people were walking by and they didn't help him, even when he asked for help. So, I mean, I want to know if there's anything that's going to be done about that.

MRS. OBAMA: Well, I mean, the problem that you laid out, you know, has two components. I mean, some of it is resources, right, having the support in cities like D.C. to get people through the criminal justice system to make sure you have enough law enforcement that, you know, that the system is working in that way. That requires money.

But the other piece of it that, you know, I know my husband has talked about a lot is sort of where is -- where's your community in that, you know? I mean, it's sort of that -- there's the government piece, but there's also the self-responsibility piece, you know? And that's a message that, you know, we have to talk about.

I mean, can you -- you can't legalize people making the choice to stop and help a neighbor, right? I mean, no matter what you do, you can't pass a law that makes somebody do the right thing, right? You can't pass a law that makes a parent read to their child every night. You can't pass a law that, you know, you treat your neighbor with respect and decency. You can't pass laws like that. You know, that comes from all of us deciding in our own communities, in our own individual lives, in our own families, who are we going to be.

You know, that's the difference between being a kid and an adult, you know. I mean, it's not the money you make or the degree that you have, but in many ways it's the choice that you make to be an active and involved and responsible citizen. And no President can mandate that. No mayor can mandate that. That comes from us, you know -- our faith, our belief in one another, you know. So there are always two pieces to these problems, whether it's education, or health care, or crime or immigration, you know. There's the law, but there's also who we are as people.

And, you know, hopefully that's something that you all are talking about, you know, in programs like this. It's not just sort of what I need and who's going to give it to me, but what can I do; who am I going to be; what kind of citizen am I going to be; what kind of parent am I going to be; what kind of neighbor am I going to be? And what am I going to do the next time a crime is committed? Do I walk by? Do I call the police? Do I get involved?

That's all a part of the conversation that we need to have as a society. And hopefully you all as young people will take the lead in helping this country move to a different place, because there is no reason why that should ever happen in your community, even if no police exist anywhere. It's choices that we make, as well as the laws that are made. That's why voting is important. That's why staying in school is important. That's why -- those are all individual choices.

And even if Barack Obama could snap his fingers and all the resources exist in the world and every school had education and every parent had health care, that still doesn't determine whether or not you're going to be a good person. It doesn't mean -- it doesn't determine whether you're going to take an advantage of the options that are -- and it doesn't mean that people will alone make good decisions and do their homework and stay out of trouble and listen to their teachers. All that power is within us already -- without any President, without any laws, without any money. Those choices are ours to make.

Q: I ask this question earlier (inaudible). I wanted to know, like, why did you want to come out here to meet us?

MRS. OBAMA: Well, a whole bunch of reasons. Number one, this is the best part of my day, you know, really -- short of being with my own kids. I have always -- I was raised to believe, number one, when you get, you give back. And we've now just moved into this new community. We're not from D.C. I've visited here. Barack has been a senator. But we've been visitors.

Now we live here. This is our community now. And we were taught that you have to get to know the community that you're in, and you have to be a part of that community, you have to get to know it in order to, you know, actively engage in it. And D.C. is our community now, it's our home.

So Barack is real busy right now. So I figured, well, I got a little time on my hands, and, you know, while the kids are at school I want to come out and hear about the programs, I want to meet the students.

The other thing is that, you know, I have, in some way, been where you are, because, you know, I didn't come into this position with a lot of wealth, with a lot of resources. And I think it's real important for young kids, particularly kids who come from communities without resources, to see me, not the First Lady, but to see that there is no magic to me sitting here. There is no miracles that happen. There is no magic dust that was sprinkled on my head or on Barack's head.

You know, we were kids much like you who figured out one day that our fate was in our own hands, you know, and we made decisions to listen to our parents and to work hard and to work even harder when somebody doubted us. When somebody told me that I couldn't do something or be something, that just gave me a greater challenge to prove them wrong. And with every little challenge like that, and every little success, I gained more confidence. And, you know, life just sort of opened up.

So I feel like it's an obligation for me to share some of that with you. If it's as simple as sitting around in a circle answering questions or being in a room shaking a hand or giving a hug or reading a story, I want you all to see me and to see Barack, and to have access to whatever we can offer. Those are some of the reasons.

And I want to learn. I want to learn directly from you what's going on in your lives. I can guess. I can read in the paper. But I also get a better sense when I look at you all in the eyes and hear your stories directly from you. So that's why I'm here.

Anyone else have anything? No? Okay.

You have stuff for me?

(Mrs. Obama signs posters.)

And also, it's my hope that if one day any of you all get in the position, that you do the same thing; that you always think about where you came from and what you're going to do to give back. Sound right?

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at a Mary's Center Teen Program Roundtable Discussion Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/323724

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