Michelle Obama, vice president of community and external affairs for the University of Chicago (UC) Hospitals, was thrust into the media spotlight in 2007 when her husband, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, launched his bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Obama was among her husband's closest advisors. Many observers believed her to be a powerful asset to her husband's campaign.
Raised on Chicago's South Side
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, in Chicago, Illinois. Her father, Fraser Robinson, worked for the city's water-filtration department while battling multiple sclerosis. Her mother, Marian Robinson, was a secretary who, as of 2007, still lived in the South-Side bungalow where Michelle was raised. Michelle excelled in school, skipping the second grade, and attending the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Her mother told Cassandra West of the Chicago Tribune in 2004: "I always say Michelle raised herself from about nine years old. She had her head on straight very early." Obama told William Finnegan of
the New Yorker: "I was just a typical South Side little black girl. Not a whole lot of money. Going to the circus once a year was a big deal. Getting pizza on Friday was a treat. Summers were long and fun." She admired her father and grandfather as "bright, articulate, well-read men. If they'd been white, they would have been the heads of banks."
Michelle followed her older brother Craig to Princeton University. She told Finnegan: "It helped having an older brother who was a basketball star. Of course, it was different, being black, but I found a black support base for myself. It was also different not being filthy rich…But it helped my confidence, being able to succeed there. I actually knew lots of kids in high school who could have competed there, academically. You just had to get in. So much of getting ahead in this world is access, networking." She told the Daily Princetonian: "Being one of the school's few African-American students at the time, I found there weren't many opportunities for minorities. So we created a community within a community and got involved at places like the Third World Center." Michelle ran a daycare program there for her work-study project.
Michelle Robinson graduated magna cum laude from Princeton in 1985. The Newark Star-Ledger quoted from her senior thesis: "My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before. I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong." She feared that her future held "further integration and/or assimilation into a White cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant." For her thesis she surveyed black Princeton alumni about their racial attitudes since graduation and whether they had sacrificed their commitment to the black community in exchange for success. She "wondered whether or not my education at Princeton would affect my identification with the Black community. I hoped that these findings would help me conclude that despite the high degree of identification with Whites as a result of the educational and occupational path that Black Princeton alumni follow, the alumni would still maintain a certain level of identification with the Black community. However, these findings do not support this possibility." Nevertheless she remained determined "to actively utilize my resources to benefit the Black community." She entered Harvard Law School.
Reexamined Her Life
After graduating from Harvard, Robinson joined the large, prestigious Chicago corporate-law firm of Sidley & Austin. Barack Obama, a Harvard Law student, joined the firm as an intern in 1988 and Robinson was charged with mentoring him. She told Ebony in February of 2007: "I was skeptical at first; everyone was raving about this smart, attractive, young first-year associate they recruited from Harvard. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, he's brilliant, he's amazing and he's attractive.’ I said, ‘Okay, this is probably just a Brother who can talk straight.’" She told West: "I was more focused on my plan. I had made this proclamation to my mother the summer I met Barack, ‘I'm not worrying about dating…I'm going to focus on me.’"
In 1991, following the death of her father and a college roommate, Robinson reexamined her career. She told the New York Times: "My father had M.S. and worked every day and rarely complained. He died on his way to work. He wasn't feeling well, but he was going to get in that car and go. That's how we grew up, living your life to be sure that you make the most of it. If what you're doing doesn't bring you joy every single day, what's the point?" Robinson considered whether or not the career path she'd been on lived up to that standard.
Obama told O Magazine: "I needed to consider what I really cared about, which was work that had a community-based feel, using my education to benefit others. So while I was still at the firm, I spent about a year meeting with people…. I developed such an interesting network that people started calling me with job offers. I ultimately decided to become an assistant to the mayor of Chicago. It required a temporary financial setback, but in the end, when you're living your dream, the economic stability comes."
At a Glance …
Born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson on January 17, 1964, in Chicago, IL; married Barack Obama, 1992; children: Malia, Sasha. Education: Princeton University, BA, sociology, 1985; Harvard University Law School, JD, 1988. Religion: United Church of Christ. Politics: Democrat.
Sidley & Austin, Chicago, IL, associate attorney, 1988-91; City of Chicago, assistant to the mayor, 1991-92, assistant commissioner of planning and development, 1992-93; Public Allies Chicago, founding executive director, 1993-96; University of Chicago, associate dean of student services, director of the University Community Service Center, 1996-2002; University of Chicago Hospitals, executive director for community affairs, 2002-05, executive vice president for community and external affairs, 2005-.
Commission on Chicago Landmarks; Facing History and Ourselves, board member; Muntu Dance Company, board member; Otho S.A. Sprague Memorial Institute, board member; TreeHouse Foods, Inc., director, audit committee, nominating and corporate governance committee.
Essence Magazine, "25 of the World's Most Inspiring Women," 2006.
Office—The University of Chicago Hospitals, 5841 S. Maryland Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60637.
Entered the Public Sector
Leaving her big salary behind, Robinson worked on human-services initiatives in Mayor Richard Daley's office. Her boss David Mosena told West: "She has her feet solidly on the ground, both of them. There's not a bone of superficiality in her. She is the real deal…." Robinson married Obama in 1992, after traveling to Kenya to meet his family. That same year Michelle Obama moved to the city's office of planning and development as an assistant commissioner.
In 1993 Obama became founding executive director of Public Allies Chicago, an Americorps National Service Program. There she provided internships and leadership training for young adults pursuing public-service careers. She told the Daily Princetonian: "we had people who had just graduated from high school taking internships alongside people who had just graduated from Harvard. I learned that you can go to the best school in the country and still not realize what you can do to help the community." Three years later Obama was named associate dean of student services at the University of Chicago, where she coordinated student community service.
Obama became executive director of community affairs at the UC Hospitals in 2002. She initiated neighborhood-outreach programs, recruited volunteers, and increased staff diversity and minority contracting. She established a collaboration with physicians and clinics to provide primary care to low-income residents who would otherwise use the hospital emergency room.
Thrust into Politics
Being a political wife had never been part of Obama's plan. When Barack first ran for the Illinois State Senate in 1996 she told him, as quoted in Ebony in March of 2006, "I married you because you're cute and you're smart, but this is the dumbest thing you could have ever asked me to do." In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack wrote openly of the strain that his political career placed on their marriage.
Barack Obama faced powerful political opposition in his 2004 Democratic primary run for the Illinois senate seat. Michelle Obama's close ties to black community leaders aided his primary victory.
His keynote address to the 2004 Democratic Convention made Barack Obama famous, and he was easily elected to the U.S. Senate. Rather than move to Washington, Michelle insisted that she and their young daughters stay in Chicago. In June of 2005 the Obamas moved into a $1.6-million historic townhouse on Chicago's South Side. She told Ebony in March of 2006: "I'm in a good place because I have a job that I care about deeply, that doesn't cause me to do that job at the complete sacrifice of my family and my kids, which is ultimately my first priority. I'm in the community where I grew up, where I live and it feels like it's all coming full circle."
Promoted to Vice President
In May of 2005 Obama was promoted to vice president for community and external affairs of the UC Hospitals. Her salary tripled. Obama was determined to increase the Hospitals' investment in the surrounding community. She announced in a press release: "We have an obligation to ensure that we use our resources on behalf of our neighborhood and our city. In this new role, my goal is to better integrate community engagement into the culture of this institution and to expand our partnerships with local organizations and institutions."
In her new position Obama established pediatric mobile units for the community, as well as "Principal-for-a-Day" and community-fitness programs. The number of volunteers doubled. In her plenary address before the 2006 Best Bosses Conference & Celebration, Obama pronounced: "We've gone from ‘community service is the right thing to do’ to ‘community service is a critical part of keeping our doors open.’"
Seeking experience in corporate management, Obama was elected to the board of TreeHouse Foods, Inc., a food processor. This garnered some criticism, since Wal-Mart was TreeHouse's largest customer and Barack Obama had made national headlines when he joined a campaign attacking Wal-Mart's employment practices. In addition, TreeHouse had announced the closure of a pickle plant that was the mainstay of a small Colorado town.
Hit the Campaign Trail
Michelle Obama told Ebony in March of 2006: "Our future is making sure Barack can get to our daughters' ballet recitals and balancing the demands of this current set of responsibilities with our need to build a strong family." However within a few short months Barack was actively campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. Initially Michelle Obama was unavailable to the press. She had told West in 2004: "If politics were my passion, I'd find out how to do it and make it work." West further quoted her as saying: "What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but me is first. And for women, me is fourth, and that's not healthy."
However in December of 2006 Obama gave her husband the go-ahead to seek the nomination on the condition that he quit smoking. By February of 2007 she was speaking at campaign fundraisers. In an appearance on the TV program 60 Minutes, as reported in the Newark Star-Ledger, Obama was asked whether she feared for her candidate husband's life. "I don't lose sleep over it because the realities are that, as a black man, Barack can get shot going to the gas station."
In February of 2007 Ebony ran a cover story on the Obamas, "The Hottest Couple in America." A Febru- ary 2007 headline in the London Daily Telegraph read: "Obama prepares to unveil his secret weapon: His wife, a Princeton and Harvard graduate, has been credited with the poise of Jackie Kennedy and the brain of Hillary Clinton." Barack Obama told Ebony: "She is smart. She's got a good perspective. She's blunt, so she can tell me things that maybe other people are afraid to tell me. If I ever ran against her, I would be in trouble."
Obama, Barack, The Audacity of Hope, Crown, 2006.
Chicago Sun-Times, October 19, 2006.
Chicago Tribune, September 1, 2004; December 25, 2005; September 26, 2006.
Daily Princetonian, December 7, 2005.
Daily Telegraph (London, UK), February 3, 2007, p. 018.
Ebony, March 2006, pp. 58, 61, 63; February 2007, pp. 52-63.
New York Times, February 16, 2007, p. 1.
New Yorker, May 31, 2004.
O: The Oprah Magazine, September 2005, pp. 22, 32, 228, 230-231, 273-274.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), February 18, 2007, p. 1.
"Michelle Obama Appointed Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals," The University of Chicago Hospitals,www.uchospitals.edu/news/2005/20050509-obama.html (March 15, 2007).
"Michelle Obama Delivers Address at Best Bosses Conference," Winning Workplaces,www.winningworkplaces.org/library/features/michelle_obama_delivers_a.php (March 15, 2007).
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