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The First Lady's Ambassadors of Success

By DeNeen L. Brown and Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 20, 2009

First lady Michelle Obama and 21 other megawatt stars, billionaires, actresses, philanthropists and businesswomen met at the White House yesterday morning, where Obama told them their task was to go out to schools and share their life stories -- real stories and real challenges -- with students across the Washington area, and "make the kids understand where we stand is not an impossibility."

In the White House Diplomatic Reception Room, a quaint oval room with soft, pale carpeting and soft lights, the scene was jaw-dropping in its concentration of talent.

Actresses hugged singers. And singers hugged actresses. There was Sheryl Crow in black jeans and black platforms chatting with WNBA star Lisa Leslie. Across the room, actress and choreographer Debbie Allen, in a white baseball cap, was talking with actress Alfre Woodard. Near the back, actress Phylicia Rashad spoke with Olympic medalist Dominique Dawes.

Singer Alicia Keys, in jeans and a blazer with broad blue stripes, stood in front of an oil painting of George Washington, talking with actress Fran Drescher. Oscar nominee Woodard helped cosmetics company founder Bobbi Brown with her earring.

They all applauded when the first lady walked into the room.

Obama told those assembled that she had long envisioned an event like this, for which she would bring accomplished women together on one day to go to schools in the region and talk to kids -- girls especially -- to inspire them, to help them reach their goals. To dream big. To work hard.

Her office said planning for this event began in February to time it with Women's History Month.

"This was one of my dreams," Obama told the gathering of women. " . . . I couldn't have imagined this a year ago, but as we started moving towards this trajectory, that it became increasingly clear that Barack Obama might be the next president of the United States, and as I started thinking about the . . . kinds of things that I wanted to see happen, this day was one of those things -- gathering an amazing group of women together, and going out, and talking to young girls around this country."

She said she wanted students to feel close to the White House, to let them know they are welcome.

"The D.C. community, many of these schools need to see us," she said. " . . . Even though they've got this wonderful image of the White House, they need to be reminded that we are -- we're close, this isn't a distant relationship; that they can imagine the people who live here and what goes on here, and that there's a close connection between their lives and ours."

From the White House, a caravan of black vans and limousines pulled out of the circular drive, carrying the women to 11 high schools in the District and in Montgomery, Arlington and Fairfax counties.

Keys went to Dunbar High School with Gen. Ann Dunwoody, who broke the "brass ceiling" as the first woman to attain the rank of four-star general in the U.S. military.

"My name's Alicia Keys," the famed singer said to laughter as she introduced herself to a group of 15 Dunbar young women and men, who as seniors and juniors were picked for their academic and athletic achievements. "We officially are probably the baddest team that's out today."

The first lady headed in a black limousine to Anacostia High School, in a neighborhood that has been the scene of much violence over the years.

In a small classroom, she met with 13 students: 10 girls and three boys. She went around the circle of students, giving them hugs. Then she sat in a plastic chair near a chalkboard.

"Do I need to introduce myself?" Obama asked.

"Yes," a girl said.

"Well, my name is Michelle Obama and I am the first lady of the United States of America."

She told them about her life in the White House. She told them about growing up on the South Side of Chicago, and how she never set foot on the campus of the nearby University of Chicago -- it seemed so fancy and so foreign to her.

"I sort of thought, well, if that was the case then, then maybe there are a lot of kids who feel that way about the White House, especially in D.C.," she said. "I wanted to be a part of opening the doors and taking off the veil and saying, 'This is what's going on there.' And one of the best ways -- or most fun ways -- for me to do that is to come and see you all, and do as much as I can, and eventually have you guys come see me in the White House."

A girl asked: "Are you living a normal life?"

"As normal as I can be," Obama said. "We have two little girls." She told them one was in school and the other was doing a service project yesterday. "We try not to pull them out of school," even for special events. She told them about how she is trying to instill discipline in her girls. "My oldest daughter had to be out of the house at 6:30 this morning. She had to wake up at 5:45 and she did. . . . When they have to go to college, they have to have discipline."

"Responsibility," said a girl with a ponytail.

Yes, the first lady said. "I get up because I have to. It's part of being responsible. I want them to live a normal life."

One girl asked, "Do you do your own makeup every day?"

Yes, was the answer, except for on special occasions. Then someone else does it.

Another girl: "How did you get to where you are now?"

"There is no magic," Obama said, "to getting here. My parents were working-class. . . . We didn't have a lot of money. I lived in the same house my mother lives in now. . . . I went to public schools. The fact is, I had somebody around me who helped me understand hard work. I had parents who told me, 'Don't worry about what other people say about you.' I worked really hard. I did focus on school. I wanted an A. I wanted to be smart. Kids would say: 'You talk funny.' 'You talk like a white girl.' I didn't know what that meant."

She said people told her she couldn't go to Princeton. "That never stopped me."

Later, the first lady hosted a dinner for 110 girls from local high schools as well for the luminaries, who were seated among the students. Deep purple flowers sat in shallow vases on the tables. Crow and Keys were both set to perform later in the evening. The first lady took the stage and spoke of all the firsts sitting in the room: the first woman to dunk a basketball in the WNBA, the first woman of color to go into space.

"The first African American woman to be the ambassador to the United Nations. And then there's me, the first lady," Obama said. "As I look around the room into the faces of the young women who joined us today, I can't help but wonder who among us will be the next first."

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