America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama, appeared at Austin’s SXSW with her Let Girls Learn initiative. Joined for the panel discussion by Missy Elliott, songwriter Diane Warren and actor/activist Sophia Bush, Queen Latifah also made an appearance as moderator. The initiative was launched by Obama last September, and “aims to break barriers for the 62 million girls around the world who are not in school today, more than half of whom are adolescent.”
Grounded in the idea that girls need their own language to address the inequality of gender, Let Girls Learn ties strongly to the women present at the discussion. These three were there representing the strength and success that women can achieve, and particularly those women who hold a real place in America’s culture as hip-hop artists, and as such, as a real part of American culture.
The discussion centred around each lady discussing what was a pivotal moment in her career or lifetime. Something that changed their way of thinking and their view of the world. Missy Elliott shared the story of her mother and her survival of domestic violence, Queen Latifah spoke about the effect the rise of AIDs had on her in the 80’s. She remembered how she was drawn into activism through this, and also seeing friends fall into the use of crack cocaine at the same time.
Obama, or #FLOTUS, chose her childhood in Chicago and a determination to overcome the doubt that was so inherent at the time;
“I was trying to make my way and do good in school and apply to good colleges, there were always people around telling me what I couldn’t do… My reaction to that at the time was to prove the doubters wrong. But not every young person reacts to it that way and there are many people whose dreams get snuffed out.”
The conversation also covered the very real difficulties and dangers that girls face all over the world in their determination to receive and education. The panel touched on the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who was shot by the Tailban, aged just fifteen, for promoting girls’ need for education. Also the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in northern Nigeria – both are extreme instances but very real indicators of a global problem.
The serious topics of the discussion seem to have been tempered by plenty of lighter moments, fostered by Obama, such as calling for men to “get it together” whilst the ladies were throwing out love for “the good guys”, all alongside her insistence that women find places within every circle of power. She also revealed that Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, gifted to her by her grandfather, is her favourite album of all time. One of the most memorable moments came as the First Lady responded to a question about whether she would be sad to leave the White House. In reply the FLOTUS sung the titular refrain from Boyz II Men’s It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.