The East Room of the White House was an explosion of pink on Wednesday night, as First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a dinner program for 120 teenage girls – fuchsia tablecloths, centerpiece bouquets of pink and red roses, floral-print plates (Johnson presidential china), and even color-coordinated glasses of cranberry juice. It was the latest event to focus on the first lady’s work around mentorship, which includes a two-year-old White House mentoring program that pairs teen girls with government officials to meet once a month. Attendees at Wednesday's dinner also included 40 accomplished women from a range of professional backgrounds.
In an inspiring speech directed at the diverse group of girls, mostly juniors and seniors from DC-area high schools who came recommended by their teachers, Mrs. Obama said that despite obstacles, with hard work and faith in themselves, they can achieve their goals.
Among the adult guests were celebrity actresses (Kerry Washington, Alfre Woodard, Tracee Ellis Ross, Rashida Jones, Hilary Swank) and athletes (WNBA player Lisa Leslie, gymnast Dominique Dawes, and figure skater Michelle Kwan), but also scientists like NASA’s Johnson Space Center director/astronaut Ellen Ochoa, business leaders such as Sesame Workshop executive vice president Sherrie Westin, and government officials including White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.
Earlier in the day, all of the adult mentors, including the first lady, had visited different DC-area high schools where they shared their experiences, encouraged students to strive for excellence, and held question-and-answer sessions.
“These are women whose movies that you’ve watched, whose songs that you sing…and whose achievements that you’ve read about,” Mrs. Obama told her rapt audience. “All of you should know that these wonderful ladies are just as excited – and maybe even more excited – to be here with all of you tonight. … We’re excited to get to know you. We want to hear about your hopes. We want to hear about your wildest dreams.”
The first lady reminded them that the distinguished women in the room once stood in their shoes, with doubts and anxieties about their futures. She called attention to the particular struggles of some of the attendees, including Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation founder and CEO Nancy Brinker and singer/songwriter Ledisi.
“Ledisi recorded her Lost & Found album, one of my favorites, but she was struggling during that time,” Mrs. Obama said “A lot of folks were telling her that she didn’t have the right look to be a star, right? They were saying that she needed to straighten her hair. … They were telling her that she needed to be thinner, that she needed to look different. And she began to think about quitting her singing career altogether.”
Through perseverance, she continued, they all reached their goals. “Faith and love and hard work, those are the things that got us all through,” she said. “And that's really all you need. You don't need money. You don't need connections. You just need to work really hard and push yourselves, and push beyond your fear.”
When the first lady took her seat across from dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison, who is also the retired artist director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a brief program began. Playwright and actress Anna Deveare Smith performed (after, unfortunately, the press was ushered out) and violinist Miri Ben-Ari played a jazzy piece that she dedicated to “the fight against racism,” performed over a recording from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
During her remarks, Mrs. Obama told the girls that the event had a price for admission: a requirement for them to give back. “Your job here is to reach back and pull somebody else up,” she said, suggesting any of the younger girls in their lives. “It is never too soon for you all to start mentoring.”
It may sound a bit sappy, but I swear it was incredibly touching. When I attended a similar dinner that the first lady held two years ago, I remember her talking to each girl individually and shaking their hands – and every single one bursting into tears!
Mrs. Obama talks frequently about how important mentoring is, but it’s at events like these where she can really show it. Being identified as leaders by their schools, being encouraged to set goals by women at the top of their fields, and being personally welcomed to the White House by the First Lady of the United States — these are all things that can have a huge impact on a young woman’s sense of self and confidence, and experiences that those girls will surely never forget.
Cynthia Gordy is the Washington reporter for The Root.