AUSTIN – Amid bursting out in song and regaling the crowd with tales of her tough upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, Michelle Obama told a crowd at the South by Southwest Music Festival that new educational efforts are needed for 62 million women around the world who do not attend school.
The first lady used the music forum to promote educational projects by Let Girls Learn, a U.S. government initiative that aims to provide the public with ways that they can help girls get a quality education. The project is partly funded by a new song by a group of female recording artists.
Obama said that while growing up in Chicago, she encountered many “doubters” when it came to her own education and achievements.
“There were always people around telling me what I couldn’t do … My reaction at that time was to prove the doubters wrong,” said the first lady, who went on graduate from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. “But not every young person reacts to that that way.”
Obama said that taking action “starts with something that moves you personally. And to me, 62 million girls not getting an education, that’s personal.”
Speaking to a crowd in a ballroom at the Austin Convention Center, Obama said that 62 million girls around the world do not attend school, some because of lack of access, others because of cultural factors in countries where women are raised to be subservient to men.
Obama said that improving global educational opportunities for girls not only helps them as individuals but also impacts their communities. Educated women make more money to provide for their families, and they raise healthier children. The gross domestic product of countries that value girls’ education also increases.
The panel discussion included hip-hop artist Missy Elliott, one of the performers on This is for My Girls, a new song on iTunes for which sales will benefit Let Girls Learn. Other performers on the track include Kelly Clarkson, Zendaya, Janelle Monae and Chloe & Halle, who performed to kick off the session. Songwriter Diane Warren was also part of the panel.
Obama’s appearance at South By Southwest came five days after her husband spoke here on technology topics, the first time a sitting president has appeared at SXSW. an annual 10-day conference and festival that also includes movies and interactive segments and draws some 80,000 people to Austin.
Another panelist, actress Sophia Bush, told the story of how she decided on her 30th birthday to raise money to build a school in Guatemala. One tactic was to encourage children to make coffee for their parents each morning, then ask them for the money that would have been spent at a coffeehouse to instead go to this cause. “That’s a small way to make a global impact,” she said. Another benefit to the parents: their kids were spending more time with them in the morning.
The session included questions from audience members and viewers of an online stream.
A male questioner asked how men can help with matters of female equality. Obama responded by saying that men in board rooms need to take a hard look at the executives they have in power. “Ask yourselves, is there diversity around the table? Are there voices and opinions that don’t sound like yours? … If you’re a man at the table, and you look around and there are only men at the table, you should ask yourself, ‘How can I do better?’ … We need you, men. Get it together.”
But this being a music festival, not all the questions were about matters of such importance. One questioner asked the panelists to cite an influential album. Obama told the story of her grandfather Purnell Shields, nicknamed “Southside,” who once gave her a copy of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. “I played that album over and over and over again. … He talked about unity. He talked about love and peace.”
Obama even burst out in song at one point, treating the crowd to a little Boys II Men tune with the line “It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.” That came in the portion of the conversation about her plans after leaving the White House next year, when President Obama’s second term expires. Asked by Queen Latifah whether she would eventually run for president, Obama reiterated that isn’t in her plan.
“I will not run for president,” she said.
Obama cited her two daughters and the strain on their lives as one reason she would not consider a White House run. But Obama also said she can continue to work in public service without some of the hurdles that come with politics.
“There’s so much more that I can do outside of the White House,” she said. “I want to impact as many people as possible in an unbiased way.”