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."
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."
Both the male and female arms contain 20 students each, juniors and seniors selected by leaders at their schools who remain in the program until they graduate from high school. "What we ask schools for are young people who they think would really benefit from having a mentor," said Strautmanis, adding that the vague request draws a mix of students. "Sometimes it's the valedictorian. Sometimes it's a young person who is doing less well but has a lot of potential, and who, with some mentoring, could really take off."
Mentees and mentors — officials who work throughout the Obama administration, including Tina Tchen, chief of staff to the first lady, and Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — gather once a month for group events. Students are also individually paired with adults who check in with them periodically, but the monthly commitments are the program's heartbeat.
Activities over the past two years have included service projects such as cleaning up and beautifying local elementary schools; a trip to the Supreme Court for a meeting with Justice Stephen G. Breyer; workshops on financial literacy and writing skills; attending the State Department's Women of Courage award ceremony hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; visits to Howard University and George Washington University; and a tour of Air Force One.
"We want every student to feel comfortable in this environment, to feel like they can thrive here, and that they belong here," said Frye of the program's design around a wide range of experiences. "We want them to believe that they can develop the skills to perform anywhere, whether it's a high-powered environment like the White House or any place else."
Jackie Mutai, who was selected for the White House program in 2009 as a Silver Spring, Md., high school junior, says that it equipped her with that confidence. "It made me more driven by showing me what I was capable of and how far I could go," Mutai, now a 19-year-old freshman at Rice University majoring in political science and policy studies, told The Root. "Getting better skill sets for life, and having the support of these amazing leaders, helped to push me more."
Paying It Forward
Another reason that Strautmanis jumped to contribute to the program is the difference that mentors have made in his own life. "I wouldn't be here if I hadn't found the first lady as a mentor," he said.
Strautmanis first met Michelle Obama, then Michelle Robinson, during his summer job as a paralegal at a Chicago law firm. She worked there an associate. "I remember asking her what she did, and rather than blowing me off or giving me some pat answer, she invited me in her office to show me what she was working on," he said. "Thinking back, she probably took five minutes, maybe less. But the fact that she valued me enough to invest in me in that small way changed my life."
That initial encounter grew into a friendship, and the new mentor eventually introduced Strautmanis to her fiancé, Barack Obama. "I haven't made a career move without talking to them, but they've been mentors to me in ways both professional and personal," he said. "I'm not only a better public servant, but I'm a better husband and father having had them as mentors. It's been a terrific experience for me."
This pay-it-forward mentality is another critical component to the White House mentoring program. "The only thing that we ask in return is that, when this is all over, that you give back, that you do the same for someone else," the first lady told students at a 2010 National Mentoring Month reception. "The beauty of being a mentor is that anyone can do it at any age. That means if there's a sibling in your life, a friend, a cousin, another person down the road, you can thank your own mentor by turning around and helping pull someone else up."
Mutai heeded the first lady's request by mentoring freshman students at her high school, an extension of her volunteer work as a peer tutor. She says she plans to continue that service now that she's in college. "I feel that being a mentor really humbles a person," she said. "Being a part of a community and helping someone grow and become an adult, it's something that we can learn from. It makes me feel complete."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.