Today, First Lady Michelle Obama appeared as the opening keynote for the music portion of South by Southwest in Austin, Tex., to promote a message of women’s empowerment and the need for women worldwide to have access to education.
Obama discussed the Let Girls Learn initiative, which calls attention to the estimated 62 million girls who are not in school today. Her commentary also had a heavy sense of “passing the torch.” She emphasized the importance of all citizens, rather than just the leaders, to get involved, and encouraged public service, which reflected sentiments voiced by President Obama in his talk here last week.
“That’s how you change the needle,” she said. “People look to the President, but the truth is the change is on the ground from the bottom up.” Change starts, she said, at home. “Then that trickles up to the leaders.”
When asked what motivated her early on, Obama shared personal anecdotes that inspired her. “The expectations of me were limited. My reaction was to prove the doubters wrong. That gave me strength, but not every person reacts that way. And that brings me to today, now that I’m First Lady.”
That drew a round of applause and cheers from the audience at the Austin Convention Center. Earlier, Halle and Chloe Bailey introduced the panel with a song, “This Is For My Girls,” whose proceeds go to Let Girls Learn Peace Corps fund. The song features the sisters along with Missy Elliott, Zendaya, Janelle Monae, Kelly Rowland, Kelly Clarkson, Jadagrace and Lea Michele.
Now as First Lady, Obama said, situations such as the Nigerian girls who were kidnapped and Malala Yousafzai generate the same sense of anger and inequity.
“What I could do as a little girl, I’m trying to carry that spirit to millions of young girls,” she said. “It usually starts with something that moves you personally, and 62 million girls not getting an education? That’s personal.”
She also encouraged men to be empathetic.
“When you have a seat at the table or when you have access to power, ask yourself, ‘Is there diversity around the table?,’” she said. “Are there voices and opinions who don’t sound like yours?”
Finally, Queen Latifah said of all the submitted questions, one was very popular: if the First Lady would run for president. Obama said she wouldn’t, partly because she had two daughters and “enough was enough.”
She described the platform of First Lady as vast and unique. “My goal has been to make sure I don’t waste it, to make sure that I’m being relevant and having an impact and making a difference in the lives of young people.”
Still, she said, she would not stop with her initiatives and encouraged those in the audience to “carry this over the finish line.”
“I encourage you all to consider a life in public service, even if you want to make money, find a way,” she said. “And with that, I will go off into the sunset.”