Michelle Obama, Former First Lady of the United States
Michelle Obama talks about growing up on Chicago's South Side, graduating cum laude from Princeton University, quitting her job at a law firm, and becoming the first African American First Lady of the United States.
Maya Lin, Artist, Architect & Memorial Designer
- I realized that as First Lady you can bring so much attention and marshal so many resources to really help on whatever issue that you're focused on so I have always taken that responsibility very seriously. I'm a Chicago native, I grew up on the South Side in a really small apartment with my parents and my older brother Craig. My dad worked as a pump operator at the city water plant. My mom stayed at home and so we didn't have a lot of money but my brother and I were blessed with something far more valuable because our parents truly gave us unconditional love and encouragement to go places they never imagined for themselves. Neither of them had a college degree but they made it very clear that they expected me and my brother to get the best education possible so school was always, always the center of our lives. So I made it my point to give it 120%. The early part of my life was focused on sort of reaching those traditional markers of success. I focused on getting the right degrees, going to the right schools. So by the time I was in my mid 20s and working at a firm I had everything that I was told I should want but I could still feel that there was something missing. I started to ask myself some more important questions like what do I really care about and how do I give something back? I wanted to be in a position to help folks from neighborhoods like mine, especially young people, have the opportunities that I had. So I quit my job at the law firm and found myself working in careers where I could spend my time lifting up the kinds of communities that I grew up in. The inauguration was one of the coldest Januaries that I've spent here in Washington D.C. It was freezing. I really remember what it felt like to walk out the steps of the Capitol and stand there with Barack as he took the oath of office and look out at what felt like endless amounts of people standing as far as the eye could see from every race, age, background you could imagine would come from every corner of the country just to witness this historic moment. It was probably one of the most profoundly moving experiences that I've ever had. And to have our girls there with us, those two little bitty girls standing on that stage is a moment I'll never forget. This role, it's a real gift because it brings with it this big bright spotlight and that's why I've worked hard to choose work on issues that I care deeply about, that I feel really defines me or that I'm connected with, that will really make a difference in peoples' lives. We've really worked to raise the profile of this issue. I've had the opportunity to travel the world and everywhere I go I meet these amazing young women and they impress me with how bright and how hungry they are no matter what their circumstances are, they'd risk their lives for an education. And they have so much promise that we can't afford to waste. I see myself in these girls so I want Let Girls Learn to be part of my life's work for decades to come because for me this issue is personal. I hoped that I've used my big spotlight to move the needle on a whole range of issues but I feel honored and blessed to have served this role for my country.
ALICE WALKER: My mother tells the story about me as a writer before I knew what a writer was. She said that she would miss me, and I would have crawled all around to the back of the house. And I would be sitting there with the Sear-Roebuck catalog, and I would be writing in the margins of it with a twig.
The sharecropping system was basically slavery with a new name. My parents milked the cows and took care of home dairy for the woman who owned the land. My mother planted so many flowers around our shack that it disappeared as a, shack and it became just an amazing place. So my sense of poverty was always seen through this screen of incredible ingenuity and artistic power.
When I went off to college, my father took me to the bus stop and I sat down in the front of the bus and there was a white woman who just went into a fit. So she complained to the driver, and he got up and he forced me to sit-in the back. I thought, OK, I can refuse and sit-in the front and I can be arrested in this little town, or I can stay on the bus, get to Atlanta, check into my college, and immediately join the movement for civil rights.
In most literature, the lives of the people that I knew did not exist. My mother, for instance, was nowhere in the literature, and she was all over my heart. So why shouldn't she be in literature? People like my parents and my grandparents, the stories that I heard about their younger years were riveting.
I started writing this novel longing to hear their speech. I was so determined to give them a voice, because if you deny people a voice, their own voice, there's no way you'll ever know who they were. And so they are erased. What I would like people to understand when they read The Color Purple is that there are all these terrible things that can actually happen to us, and yet life is so incredibly magical and abundant and present that we can still be very happy.
DOLORES HUERTA: I think the one thing that really kind of hooked me for life was going to the home of some workers who did not have linoleum or wood on their floor, only dirt. And yet these are people who are working. They're working very hard, and you know that this is wrong.
Growing up as a person of color, you just see so many injustices. As a teenager, you saw the way that I was treated, my friends were treated. And it just-- at some point you just wish that things were different.
Conditions in the fields were very bad. Farm workers are not respected at all, to the point that they didn't have toilets in the fields for workers. They didn't have cold drinking water. Workers were earning, like, maybe $0.75 an hour.
I said, Cesar, I think the only way that we can do this is if we boycott all California table grapes. And Cesar thought no, I think we should boycott potatoes because this particularly grower also had potatoes. And so I said, well, you know when people think of potatoes, they think of Idaho, they don't think of California.
Boycott grapes. Boycott grapes.
So we went ahead and started the grape boycott.
One of the tactics that we used very successfully is we got the chain stores to take the grapes out of the whole chain.
During the strike, there were times when my home was terrorized in the middle of the night, my windows broken when I'm there alone with my children. And we had shotguns and rifles aimed at us. When you're in the movement, when you're on this path for justice, you know that things are going to happen.
Within months we were able to win the boycott.
We, as women, that we've got to put big lights around our accomplishments, right, and around our ideas, and not feel that we're being egotistical when we do that because it's a way of letting the world know that yes, we as women can accomplish great things.
HILLARY CLINTON: If the 19th century was about ending slavery and the 20th century was about ending totalitarianism, the 21st century is about ending the pervasive discrimination and degradation of women and fulfilling their full rights. My father was a rock-ribbed conservative Republican. One of the worst things that you could say in our house was anything positive about any Democrat. And when I went to Wellesley, I initially was the president of the college Republicans. And then I got to thinking, you know, I'm not sure I really agree with what the Republican Party was standing for.
I get a little annoyed when people denigrate the 60s and kind of characterize it as drug, sex, and rock and roll. It laid the groundwork for the success of our civil rights movement, for the continuing equality of women. It was about human empowerment and freedom. After graduating from law school in 1973, Hillary Rodham began making a name for herself in Washington, working in children's rights and government. Career opportunities were opening up for her and other women as a result of the women's movement.
It was exhilarating. It was also somewhat torturing, because we were breaking new ground. We were trying to figure out, you know, how you balanced what you wanted to be individually, with being in a relationship. I certainly fell in love with an extraordinary, complex, dynamic human being. Now, there were many friends of mine who helped me pack up and drove me to Arkansas, who all along the way was saying, do you know what you're doing? Do you know what you're getting into?
I didn't know. I couldn't have sat there and said, oh, yes, I'm going to go to Arkansas, and eventually I'm going to marry Bill Clinton, and eventually he's going to become President. No. I mean, I did it because it felt right for me. I continued to work when I was the first lady of Arkansas. And I had been my husband's partner on really significant policy efforts on education and health care and children's welfare and the like. After her husband was elected President of the United States, he appointed her to lead an initiative to reform healthcare. Opponents dubbd it "Hillarycare."
Oh my goodness. It was just such a firestorm. And I really understood that, to some extent, it was because there were greater concerns about the influence that the first lady might exercise on policy. And I think that you know, it was a great lesson for me. The First Lady moved on from the healthcare fight, but continued to work for children's and women's rights at home and abroad.
Human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights once and for all. What seemed to me to be a common sense statement of values has become a rallying cry. In 2002, Hillary Clinton became the first former First Lady to win a seat in the US Senate. In 2008, she became the first woman in serious contention for the US Presidency. Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it. A month after Barack Obama won the Presidency, he named Clinton as his Secretary of State. She set up the first Office of Global Women's Issues, and within two years had traveled more miles than any of her predecessors.
There's a great hunger for women to look for examples, role models, mentors, even someone all the way across the ocean. You know, the recent Nobel Prize winner from Yemen, this incredibly brave woman, had a picture of me on her mantle. And I cannot even tell you how honored I was that she would look to me to try to give her courage when she is on the front lines of bullets and clubs.
I want to see more of the reality of women's lives changed, in however much time I've got left on the earth, so that I don't continue to cringe at women denied the right to be whoever god meant them to be.
DIANE NASH: A lot of people say, oh, you're so brave and think I wasn't afraid, and that is not true. I was really, really, afraid.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. That was the first time that I personally had encountered signs that said white and colored on water fountains and restrooms. It was possible for blacks to buy food in a restaurant on a carry-out basis, but you couldn't sit in the restaurant and eat it. I found that humiliating.
I did not want to be chairperson. I was afraid to be chairperson, and I remember thinking, we are facing white racist businessmen and politicians, and who are we? A group of students, 18, 19, 20 years old.
Our first sit-in was February 13. We targeted six lunch counters. People often have the impression that a group of black students would say, hey, let's have a sit-in, but there was a great deal of work and planning that went into it.
One of the things that we anticipated was that white people, segregationists, would say they didn't want to sit next to dirty, smelly Negroes in restaurants. So we developed a dress code. The young men wore suits and ties, and the women wore dresses. I got confidence in my ability to work effectively in the movement.
We had prepared for that in the workshops. Everybody who went had pledged to be nonviolent. When they announced that we were under arrest, everyone got up and walked willingly to the patrol wagon. And when the police turned around, a whole new set of demonstrators had taken seats at the lunch counter.
That very day, we organized a march to City Hall. Several thousand people marched. It was a silent march. We met the mayor.
I asked the mayor, Mayor West, do you feel that it's wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?
BEN WEST: I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to refuse them service, and I had to answer it just exactly that way.
DIANE NASH: That was a turning point. The following day, "The Nashville Tennessean" ran a headline and it said, "Integrate Counters-- Mayor."
The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out things that even you didn't know were there. You didn't have to be a man to be courageous.
- You do a lot of research. You put all that research aside, and you wake up with a moment's inspiration.
- My parents immigrated from China. My mother, she always said in your generation you should do whatever you feel like doing.
- My senior year at Yale, someone saw a poster for a competition for the Vietnam Memorial. And we said, well what a great way to end the class, we'll all design Vietnam memorials for the class, which is what I did. And I saw the site having researched for about six weeks to eight weeks. And the next morning, I thought let's cut open the earth and open it up. That's all it was.
- Some of the highest priced architecture firms in the country did enter this competition, and they all lost.
- I thought that the most insulting and demeaning memorial to our Vietnam experience that was possible. One needs no artistic education to see this memorial design for what it is, a black scar.
- You know, I will never know how much my age, my gender, my race, played into the controversy. We'll never know.
- I knew I was right. It wasn't just about the aesthetics. It was about I knew that if that project was built it would help people. I cannot answer why I knew that. I'd never known anyone who died. All I knew is if we could face death, face it honestly, only then can we get over it.