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How the White House Does Mentoring

High-powered mentors give their teenage protégés access, skills -- and a request to pay it forward.

Michelle Obama meeting with high school students in 2009 (John Moore/Getty Images)

It was an idea that the first lady had mentioned several times since moving to the White House. Despite having held a range of events in those first few months engaging young people -- a rap session with teens at a local community health center's after-school program; her White House dinner for high school girls and women professionals at the top of their fields; and a visit to Southeast D.C.'s Anacostia High School, where she spoke to a small group of students about perseverance and setting goals -- she wanted to do it in a more sustained manner.

"In the summer of 2009, at a staff retreat she said, 'I want to have a mentoring program,' " Jocelyn Frye, deputy assistant to the president and director of policy and special projects for the first lady, told The Root. "From there we started pulling it together."

The White House mentoring program for girls kicked off that November, with 20 young protégées from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia high schools and high-powered mentors from the administration, including senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, former Social Secretary Desirée Rogers and then-Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes. Two months later, President Obama announced a complementary program for young men.

At the project's inaugural event, seated at a gleaming wood table in the State Dining Room with other participants, Michelle Obama explained that she and her husband wanted young people to feel that the White House is open to them. "We started thinking of new ways to bring kids in, to have their voices heard, to know that the president of the United States hears you and values you and cares about your growth and development," she said, her voice cracking as she choked back tears. She went on to say that the two of them had flourished under the wings of people who'd taken an active interest in their young lives and invested in them as resources.

Mrs. Obama also assured the students that they would not be placed under a microscope. "We're going to have a lot of fun in this process. We are going to share stories. We want you to be relaxed when you come here. There will not be cameras," she said, before turning to laughingly address reporters in the back of the room. "This is the last time you guys will be here."

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More than two years later, the first lady has kept her word on keeping a low profile. Aside from a 2010 Father's Day barbecue on the South Lawn for the boys' side of the program, White House mentoring activities have operated largely out of the media glare. Through a series of interviews, however, administration officials allowed The Root a peek inside what is perhaps the nation's most illustrious leadership and mentoring initiative.

"We Want Them to Feel That They Belong Here"

Michael Strautmanis, deputy assistant to the president and counselor for strategic engagement to Valerie Jarrett, has a mouthful of a title and multiple responsibilities managing White House communications and events with state and local officials, as well as various constituency groups. Still, he didn't hesitate when he was called to take on the additional role of coordinating the young men's branch of the mentoring program.

"At the White House I work on really important programs and issues, but they're large and sometimes my sense of the impact that I'm making can be a little diffused," he told The Root. "For me, this was an opportunity to serve in a very concrete, specific way. I would spend the day dealing with a broad set of problems, where sometimes I couldn't quite see the beginning or the end, and then I'd have young people coming to the White House for a specific time frame and purpose. Giving back in that way has always been really gratifying."