Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the Time 100 Most Influential People Awards in New York City

May 05, 2009

Thank you Rick for that kind introduction and thank you for including me in tonight's festivities.

It is a pleasure to join you all.

There are few times in history when the saying 'we are all in this together' would be more applicable than now.

Events like this one show how truly connected our world is;

How one person's invention can create an entirely new economy;

How one person can change how we see the world.

The ability of one person to influence the outcome of someone else's life inspires me.

When I made the decision to leave my job to found Public Allies Chicago, an AmeriCorps program that prepares youth for public service, I realized right away that I had made the right decision.

There are few things more rewarding than watching young people recognize that they have the power to enrich not only their lives, but the lives of others as well.

But careers in public service are not always encouraged.

We push our young people to strive for things, an advanced degree, a job title, a big salary.

Rarely do we urge them to stop and think about what their passion is, what kind of life they want to live, what kind of neighbors and colleagues and parents they want to be.

In doing so, we, as a society, often miss out on their creativity, their inventiveness, their resourcefulness– and some really good ideas!

We also miss out on the opportunity to inspire a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs who will direct their energy and talent toward solving their community's – and our nation's – most serious social problems.

Careers focused on lifting up our communities – whether helping transform troubled schools or training workers for green jobs or helping low-income families access health care – are not always obvious.

But, at a time when our nation is facing unprecedented challenges, encouraging careers in public service and social innovation is more important than ever.

Already, we are seeing young people leading the way with their entrepreneurial spirit, energy and commitment to serving their communities.

For example, Charles Best, a former Bronx public school teacher, started an online philanthropic marketplace called Donors Choose to help teachers who were spending up to $500 a year out of their own pockets for basic classroom materials.

Through Donors Choose, ordinary citizens can directly fund projects initiated by enterprising public school teachers.

Online donations have helped students in San Jose become avid readers through the Dr. Seuss series.

An art class in the Bronx had no paint brushes. Now every student has a set.

Rebecca Onie is a social entrepreneur who founded "Project Health" to help break the link between poverty and poor health.

I remember meeting Rebecca when I was at the University of Chicago and I was very impressed with her.

Rebecca organizes college students to staff Help Desks in urban medical centers, universities and community centers.

Students then connect low-income families to other critical community and government resources – such as housing vouchers, supplemental nutrition assistance, and educational support.

This year, 600 college volunteers will dedicate 100,000 hours to connect over 15,000 low-income children and adults to the resources they need to be healthy.

And then there is John Alford who grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, attended college in North Carolina and then Harvard Business School.

John recently launched NOLA 180 a 'turn-around' organization for failing public schools in New Orleans.

NOLA 180 transforms these public schools into high-functioning charter schools that prepare every student for college.

Langston Hughes Academy is the first school to benefit.

Students spend 50 percent more time in their classrooms.

Parents are given teacher's cell phone numbers so they can call for help with homework.

And, in honor of their namesake, Langston Hughes, students receive instruction in persuasive writing, public speaking, debate and poetry.

In its first year, Langston Hughes students outperformed the city's public school average in reading, writing and math.

Charles, Rebecca and John. I know they are here somewhere. Congratulations and thanks for all of your hard work.

This is exactly the kind of social innovation and entrepreneurship we should be encouraging all across this country.

And that is why tonight, I am pleased to announce that as part of the new Serve America Act, the Administration is creating a Social Innovation Fund to help innovative nonprofit groups and social entrepreneurs, like the ones I just mentioned, expand their successful approaches to tackling our most pressing national challenges.

The idea is simple: find the most effective programs out there and then provide the capital needed to replicate their success in communities around the country.

By focusing on high-impact, results-oriented non-profits, we will ensure that government dollars are spent in a way that is effective, accountable and worthy of the public trust.

In this room of Leaders and Revolutionaries, Builders and Titans, Artists and Entertainers, Scientists and Thinkers, Heroes and Pioneers, I think we can all agree, we did not get to where we are alone.

Our success was made possible with the encouragement of a diligent parent or teacher, a grandparent who told us we had real talent, an older sibling who paved the way and set a good example, a scholarship or grant that created an unexpected opportunity, or a neighbor or community leader who told us to dream big.

That's certainly been the case in my own life.

I stand here today because of people who loved me, and pushed me and believed in me.

I stand here today because of scholarships and grants and experiences that gave me opportunities I was afraid to dream of.

I never imagined that, as a result of all that support, I would be in a position to be a role model for girls around the globe.

Girls who look at me and see something more for themselves, more than society expects of them.

Girls who now think anything is possible.

As global leaders, let's not underestimate the power each of us has to change the world for someone – and let us not be afraid to try.

NOTE: Remarks as prepared for delivery

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Time 100 Most Influential People Awards in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320199

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