First lady Michelle Obama spreads message of hope to Detroit students

mentoring roadshow: The first lady talks with students Wednesday at a leadership luncheon at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
mentoring roadshow: The first lady talks with students Wednesday at a leadership luncheon at the Detroit Institute of Arts. (Paul Sancya/associated Press)

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By Robin Givhan
Thursday, May 27, 2010

DETROIT -- First lady Michelle Obama brought her passion for mentoring to this beleaguered blue-collar city, urging a crowd of some 5,000 high school students -- and an equal number of grown-ups -- to "fight for every inch of your future."

She preached a no-nonsense, motivational message to young people, urging them to take responsibility for their own lives as well as the welfare of their community. But from the start of her speech, which lasted about 15 minutes, Obama made it clear she was not only speaking to students but to every resident of this city -- a place that is often held up as an example of all that has gone wrong with industrial economies, modern families and government itself.

"The last thing any of you need is someone to come here and tick off statistics, to tell you what you already know is going on in your own lives," Obama said to a cheering crowd that was sweating -- and occasionally wilting -- under the bright Wednesday morning sun. "I'm here because I know something that I want everyone in America to know -- and that there is a brighter, better future ahead for Detroit.

"Despite what some may think they know about this city, what I know is there is plenty of hope here."

She also brought along a message from the White House: "I am listening. My husband is listening. There are so many people who haven't given up on you."

Obama, dressed in a sleeveless fuchsia sundress and taupe flats, spoke at Wayne State University, a public research school in the heart of the city. The audience, made up of Detroit area students, community activists, VIPs and members of the public who had stood in line for free tickets, filled the open-air football field and its green-and-gold bleachers.

Obama began her mentoring initiative in 2009, when she announced that the East Wing would establish an ongoing relationship with a group of Washington area girls. The program was later expanded to include young men who would be mentored through the West Wing.

To give students outside the Washington region an opportunity to rub shoulders with a wide swath of accomplished men and women, Obama also hit the road. Her first stop was Denver in November. The Detroit visit is her second outing. As she has in the past, she brought along a collection of men and women from fields as diverse as entertainment and business, media and sports, to offer encouragement and advice.

But be forewarned, she told the students, "Do you want the secret [to success]? . . . There's no secret. It's education."

Obama spoke emphatically, telling the students that getting an education was their "job," not "playing video games, not shooting hoops . . . not talking about how you're going to make it big."

The first lady was the star attraction of the morning, but she'd had a well-received opening act: basketball star and entrepreneur Magic Johnson, director Spike Lee, singer Kimberley Locke, Hearst Magazines executive Cathie Black, Susan Taylor of Essence, and assorted political heavyweights, including Michigan Reps. John Conyers Jr. and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. They were all part of Obama's mentoring roadshow.

They took the stage before the first lady's arrival to answer preselected questions from high school students. As is often the case, the questions all sought an answer to the fundamental question: How do I make my dreams come true?

Lee repeated the story of how his grandmother saved her Social Security checks to send her grandchildren to college. She sent him to Morehouse College, supported him through film school at New York University and provided him with the seed money to make his first movie, "She's Gotta Have It."

Taylor described being inspired by her father's work ethic and implored the students to remember: "No one can define you but you."

The students waited almost three hours for a chance to hear the first lady speak. They arrived by the busload, with school colors flying. Some students came to shout "I love you's" to the first lady. Others wanted an opportunity to glimpse history -- even if it was from the nosebleed section of the bleachers. Some, who already define themselves as leaders and community volunteers, were hoping for something tangible to take home.

"She's talking about youth leadership, and that's what I'm interested in, and I'm hoping to get some tips," said Michelle Clark, 17, freshly graduated from Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Her interest in community service was piqued by school projects, she said.

But for Elizabeth Morales, the first lady's visit provided something far simpler but much harder to come by: a reminder that Detroit is not just sobering statistics and sad stories.

"Coming here, she's saying she's with Detroit; she cares about us," said Morales, 17, a student leader who received a ticket through the Skillman Foundation. "Living in Detroit, we need that."


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