A first-hand account of encountering the First Lady.
“I shook her hand.” I can’t recall the number of times I uttered or texted those words exactly a week ago today. “I…SHOOK…HER…HAND!” “I shook Michelle Obama’s hand.” I am still elated. But that’s how the event ended. Let’s start from the beginning.
I arrived early to ensure a good seat. It was a closed affair, just for us—Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) employees, but that wasn’t going to guarantee prime seating, so I made my way to the venue, down 13th street as fast as my wedges would allow.
I was excited about the First Lady’s visit, but was a little anxious because I wasn’t as familiar with my camera as I would have liked. Buying a Nikon D-40 had been on my To-Do list for a while and news of the First Lady’s visit made it a-night-before-the-big-event purchase. Thus, I had less than 24 hours to learn to use it. Yikes!
I scored a great seat: second row center. It was like being in the orchestra section at the Kennedy Center, sans the price of admission. As more CNCS employees trickled in, many chose to mix and mingle for the next hour while awaiting the First Lady’s arrival. I used that time to read my camera manual and practice taking AP caliber pictures. Of course, it was futile for me to even attempt to achieve that level of mastery in an hour, but you can’t blame me for trying.
You know how the lights go dim just before a performance begins? Well, there wasn’t any light action, but I knew the First Lady was forthcoming when Melody Barnes entered the room. I immediately recognized her face from a magazine profile, but I was unaware that she leads the President’s Domestic Policy Council and was instrumental in getting the Serve America Act signed, until The First Lady acknowledged that fact.
Mrs. Obama was introduced and the crowd rose with great applause to welcome the First Lady, fashion maven, fist-bumper, risk-taker, public servant, wife, mother, sister and daughter. She glided onto the stage and quickly took her place behind the podium.
Side note: The short distance from the stage wing to the podium did not allow sufficient time for me to thoroughly observe her skirt. She wore a black fitted twin set, black kitten heels and topped off her look with those signature polished, bare legs. Unfortunately, the podium obscured her skirt. It was black, with white trim but I couldn’t really see it. Finally, I had to remind myself that I am a public servant and not a contributor for InStyle magazine.
It’s not everyday (or any day during my tenure with the government) that a President or First Lady deem the yeoman worthy of their presence. It matters not that CNCS is one agency on a list of many on Mrs. Obama’s federal agency tour. What matters is that she came at all…and spoke to all. We were all invited and present: senior leaders, interns, administrative assistants, middle managers, etc.
She began with the requisite acknowledgments and thank-yous but offered a very special thank you to the 33 longest serving
CNCS employees positioned behind her as a backdrop. Then she sincerely stated, “National and community service is near and dear to my heart. It is the reason that I breathe.” Yes, Mrs. Obama is just as gracious, radiant, articulate and just as “real” in-person as she is over the airwaves.
During her 15-minute address, Mrs. Obama talked about the turning points, such as her father’s death, that ultimately led her to question her life and the legacy she was leaving at the, “Big ol’ fancy law firm where I was making more money than both my parents combined.” In spite of admonitions to, “wait and to become a partner first, and then leave,” she forsook what she deemed the, “financially better option,” to go where her heart beckoned and, “Leave this big lucrative paycheck behind and a promising career, and go on to do something more service-oriented.”
After leaving the law firm, she began asking herself questions, conducting self-assessments—the very relate-able course of action we all undertake to arrive at our passion. She concluded, “The things that I cared about, the things that I was passionate about, service was always somewhere in there.” Even the things she did for enjoyment — “they were always mentoring, working with other young people, trying to help them get to where I had—I was to help them think about their lives differently.” There was no mistaking that service was her passion: “So my goal was to figure out how I could not do that in my spare time, but how I could make my work service.”
Mrs. Obama left that big ol’ law firm to do what she wittingly referred to as, “a bunch of crazy things: working in city government, and that’s when—after city government I left to start this wonderful organization in Chicago, Public Allies, which many of you know of, because it’s one of the first model AmeriCorps national service programs.”
I sat in the audience, attentively listening, all the while fumbling with my camera, still attempting to get a few good pics. I soon realized that I needed to I switch lenses. The 18-55mm lens captures a wide, but shallow image. So I switched to the 55-200mm lens and got a more narrow shot, but with more depth and clarity. Simply, it was a better shot.
My camera lens dilemma launched a revelatory thought process about both the First Lady and The President, but I’ll focus on the First Lady since this is her forum. I silently marveled at how much I believed her. That’s it! She’s credible. She’s authentic. Even Alec Baldwin named Mrs. Obama as the person he admires most in the June 2009 issue of Vanity Fair. (See the Proust Questionnaire. Although at the very back of the magazine, I always begin reading Vanity Fair there, but I digress). But why do we love the First Lady?
People, like cameras, have lenses. Our lenses are shaped by our experiences and give us our worldview. The First Lady sees through a lens shaped not only by her working-class upbringing, but also by the personal values that led her, an African-African female from the south side of Chicago, to even aspire to Princeton, then Harvard, become a lawyer then leave the corporate world to serve humanity. In essence, she has practiced and continues to practice what she preaches. Thus, she’s leading by example, which makes her an authentic, worthy messenger with a timely, resonate message.
As I previously mentioned, while capturing images during the event, even though I opted to switch lenses, the image in view (Michelle Obama) never changed, however, the new lens captured her differently, ultimately changing the perspective of the image.
Similarly, the conversation about national service and giving back has not changed. What has changed, however, is the lens of those at the head table. With the passage of the Serve America Act, Americans have been given the resources to empower them to create change. For example, this Act authorizes the dramatic expansion of AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017. Moreover, this Act will direct resources and opportunities to serve in the areas of education, clean energy, health care, economic opportunities and veterans’ issues. And let’s not forget the Social Innovation Fund—opportunities to positively impact people, communities and the nation abound.
Now, service is no longer a luxury that a working class kid can’t afford as it once was for First Lady Obama. Thus, the conversation has shifted and been reframed, resulting in the new establishment actively seeking to engage people in lives of service that haven’t always known they had a place at the table.
In order to usher in this new era of service, the First Lady emphasized the vital role that CNCS plays in bringing together all necessary parties—government, non-profits, foundations, community organizers and social entrepreneurs—to combat the current problems plaguing our nation.
As a final point, the First Lady acknowledged that, “National service helped to transform my career. I could be some rich lawyer somewhere.” Not that there is anything wrong with being a rich lawyer, but Mrs. Obama recognizes that had she gone that route, the road more traveled, she would have had a different life altogether. Had her life’s path not led to service, she would have been speaking, but there’s no guarantee her lens would have been pointed in our direction.
Thank you, Mrs. Obama!