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‘When I met the President, I knew he was special’

 The Big Issue in Scotland 01 August 2019

Michelle Obama reveals home truths about Barack and coping with family life at the White House as she answers the questions of two British teenagers chosen by No 10 Downing Street to interview her. (1113 Words) - By Staff Writer

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Obama and his wife Michelle walk to an Independence Day barbeque for members of the military at the White House in Washington. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

They'd already admired Michelle Obama from afar, so when two London teenagers were handpicked to quiz America's First Lady directly it was the chance of a lifetime.

The pair, Alice Parker, 18, and Abimbola Odukoya, 17, have been making a great impression in community volunteering - a subject dear to Michelle Obama's heart.

They both took part in a volunteering programme called The Challenge, a pilot for David Cameron's vision for a National Citizen Service open to all 16-year-olds. They met David Cameron and Michael Caine at the launch of National Citizen Service in 2010 - and were picked by the PM as the perfect candidates to interview the First Lady about her own community involvement.

National Citizen Service is a programme that encourages teenage volunteers from different backgrounds to work together to help out in their community. It is currently being piloted across England, with plans for 30,000 teenagers to take part next summer. Having got their chance to find out what life was like for one of the world's most famous women, Alice and Abimbola were surprised and delighted to find they had plenty in common with her.

"When we started researching what Michelle Obama actually does it was really surprising," says Abimbola, who attends the City of London Academy in south London. "She campaigns on things from education to literacy to homelessness. We were astounded by the number of causes she gets involved in."

"She not only champions community, she's completely involved in community," adds Alice. "So, we were really keen to learn more about her." Both agree The Challenge set them on a life-changing path. Under their own steam, they took time out of their summer holidays to take part. In two separate teams, they planned and executed their own community activity. In Abimbola's case, it was to connect the elderly with young people. "We went to an old people's home and organised dancing and singing with them," he explains. "We felt it was important to bridge the generation gap."

Alice's group chose to organise a health day where teenagers could learn more about sexual health and ask a trained nurse questions. "Teenagers have misconceptions about the reality of sex and relationships and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases," says the former pupil at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich.

"We felt there was a lot we could do to help other teenagers." Throughout her career Michelle Obama has made harnessing the potential of young people a priority. She was recently pictured on her visit to the UK with girls from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, an inner city comprehensive in London, whom she took to Oxford University. Her work with children, meanwhile, spans the globe, supporting projects in, among other places, Botswana. She has also vowed to combat childhood obesity in the US with a focus on healthy living. The idea that teenagers aren't interested in improving their communities and lives is a myth that needs to be dispelled with the help of people such as Michelle Obama, Abimbola and Alice both agree. "You hear people saying teenagers don't want to get involved in making the world better, but that just serves to isolate teenagers," says Alice.

"If you sense that negativity and you feel like people think you don't want to get involved, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality is, teenagers do care."

For Abimbola, his sense of community came from his parents and the multi-cultural area he grew up in, while for Alice it's been the exposure to a variety of people she has enjoyed through volunteering.

"When you go to a girls' private school it can be hard to break out and meet people from different backgrounds," she says. "I've learned through volunteering to never judge a book by its cover. We're all different yet we've all got something in common."

Both have now encouraged their friends to take part in The Challenge while expanding on their own achievements. Alice has volunteered at an orphanage in Romania, while Abimbola has been raising awareness of knife crime in schools. So do they think it is a good idea for volunteering to be made compulsory for teenagers?

"Part of me says yes," says Alice, "but if you make [it] compulsory you can lose the passion and spontaneity and sense of challenge. They're all the things that Michelle Obama inspires.

Alice and Abimbola quiz Michelle Obama…

What is it like to be married to the most powerful man in the world?

When I met the President, I knew he was special. And it had nothing to do with his education or his potential. It had to do with his work ethic and the way he treated the women in his family - his mother, grandmother and little sister. I also respected that he was a community organiser. He was one of the smartest students at Harvard Law School and one of the smartest associates in our firm. He had the chance to clerk for the Supreme Court, but he thought he could have a greater impact working with folks in churches. The lesson, particularly I think for women, is to reach for partners that make you better. That's not just with somebody you want to marry, it's with the people you surround yourselves with too.

If there were one issue in the world you could solve, what would it be?

I've been spending a lot of time working on trying to end the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States within a generation. I've seen how children's diets and habits have changed. When our girls [Malia and Sasha] were young and my schedule was busy, I would get into the habit of feeding our girls what was easy rather than what was best for them. I know American families feel stretched in the same way. That's why we've developed a programme we call Let's Move. It's designed to get kids moving and eating better. We started by planting the White House kitchen garden to get kids involved in healthy eating habits, and the programme has really taken off in schools and communities across the country.

What is a typical day in your life like?

There really is no typical day. It can range from the very basic to things I never could have dreamed would happen. One day I might be visiting the brilliant young women at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London and the next weekend I'll go home and watch our girls' soccer games. My husband and I have wanted to use our platforms to encourage others to give back to their communities, but we still always make time for our family commitments.

You have had the privilege of meeting lots of amazing people as the First Lady. Who was the most memorable and why?

I've met incredible authors and playwrights and scientists and soldiers. I really enjoy meeting everybody, but having the opportunity to visit Nelson Mandela at his house in Johannesburg was truly an incredible experience. Nelson Mandela's legacy helped to make me the person I am today and meeting him was something I never thought would happen in my lifetime.

How tough is it to juggle politics with family life?

The right support network definitely helps. When my husband was serving in the Senate and also running for president, I relied on a group of my girlfriends who had children Malia and Sasha's ages. We took turns taking the kids to activities. Now that the President works so close to our home, we are able to enjoy regular family dinners and spend more quality time together.

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