Skip to content

To use your voice, you need to know that you have one

I’ve been watching #MeToo and the unfolding story of Louis CK’s sexual misconduct, and thinking about what it really means for women to say “no.”

In my role training as a coach, I’ve spoken to many women about the strengthening of boundaries. Some of who often wonder if they’re doing “enough” to strengthen their boundaries.

During Elizabeth Alexander’s interview of Michelle Obama at the Obama Foundation conference – The Summit – she discusses her upbringing in the southside of Chicago, filled with memories of blowing out birthday candles to Ella Fitzgerald, and her father being stricken with MS at the height of his life.

Michelle Obama also speaks to the idea of “voice:” that it’s not just an On-Off switch, that it’s something you develop – from practice.

If we can change our idea of “voice as binary” “voice as practice,” how can we think about developing and cultivating a person’s voice?

Moreover, what constitutes “practice?” What does “effective” vs. “non-effective” practice look like? How do we get there? 

• • • 

Part I of Elizabeth Alexander’s interview of Michelle Obama

Click here to toggle the full transcript

From 02:31 – 34:08

Elizabeth Alexander: There is an overture, because the way that this conversation was shaped and put together that’s really exciting is that so many of you were asked what you wanted to talk about with Michelle Obama. And so, those questions – those hundreds and hundreds of very very rich and wonderful questions were my basis for beginning to craft and shape some themes, some areas. So your voices are in all of the questions and areas that we will be going over today.

So I wanted to start off by saying that in the arts, we often say “the specific is universal” and the kind of topic I thought that we were really in the zone of is “the self in the world.”

So in the arts we say “the specific is universal, and from the village we can know the world.” So today in shaping this conversation around the self and the world and how all of us go about our individual lives from our communities out into larger worlds. I was thinking about how – thinking about place. You went from a girl from the southside of Chicago to the global stage filling this room here as we have come together with people who want to understand what we’re thinking about from here, to there. How do our roots define us as we move outward from where we begin?

And also just to sort of mark the space of the conversation, over the course of our many years of friendship, and your increasingly public life – oh so public – you’ve always been someone who is self-effacing about your own accomplishments, almost matter-of-fact about them, and very empowering about the collective – always turning that individual energy out to the collective. We will be thinking about how we take our power as well and and move it out for other people.

We’re going to talk about how we can demonstrate and teach and encourage young people to keep on keeping on and how taking care of ourselves is a very important part of that.

And also talk about how art and culture have a very unique and particular role in making our civic space more liveable, more beautiful, more true, more hopeful.

Michelle Obama: Sounds good, you guys like that? Alright.
Snaps, that’s what you all do right? Yes, yes, yes I love the snaps.

Elizabeth Alexander: So let’s start off with the power of words and inspiration. Because we know that words not only matter, but also words carry meaning, and they carry who we are. Our words and our language are the main way that human beings give themselves to each other and say who it is that they are. You have put some words out into the public that have been very very useful to people and I could list many but of course when they go “low,” we go “high.”

Michelle Obama: As much as we can.

Elizabeth Alexander: As much as we can.

We always can. We always have that high place, we carry that place.

I wonder because that’s been such a useful thing to so many people, what are some words, some songs, poems, prayers that have been and are meaningful guides for you?

Michelle Obama: I’ve been thinking about this, whether they are words, music, all that, there are many points of inspiration for me when you think about that. But when I think about the words that stay in my head that guide me, what I wake up to everyday is the voice of Marian and Fraser Robinson who is sitting over there right now.

Because it shows that words don’t have to be poetic, they don’t have to be set to music. Most of the words that guide us are those words that we heard growing up, those messages. For me, I had some pretty powerful parents who were very understated and humble in their own rights. But I live each day trying to make them proud.

I think a lot of that comes from my father. Many of you know my father’s story. My parents didn’t go to college. They were not of wealth. They were not of means. My father had MS and he was an athlete until he was stricken with MS at the prime of his life. He used to box and swim. So you imagine someone with that much life all of a sudden for no apparent reason not being able to walk without the assistance of canes.

That’s how I always knew my father as someone with a disability.

But the other thing I knew about my father was that even in his disability, he commanded a level of respect. He was the centre – not just of our nuclear family – but our family. My father used to sit in his chair and people would come for advice. They would come for money, they would come for love, for affirmation. He would give that affirmation so willingly. But the thing that I remember about my father is that he never complained. He got up, he went to work. Not a work that filled him with passion. That was something that my parents didn’t even understand – working for passion. You work to make a living. He worked at the water filtration plant right here in Chicago his entire life. He got up, he put on that blue uniform, he got in his car, and whatever pain he must have been experiencing throughout his life – the fatigue that comes from MS, the inability to lift your own legs without help and assistance – he never complained. And I think for me and my brother to grow up watching somebody sacrifice that much, someone with that much power and influence and love, never complain once – those are the things, the stories, the messages, the images that roll around in my head that tell me I have no reason to complain. And that I am a blessed child. Maybe I didn’t have much money but I was blessed with the love of a father and a mother who gave me gifts that were priceless. And for that, I owe so much. So I think about that, I think about making them proud.

I think about with every word I utter, what does that mean for them? How do I speak to their legacy.

So I don’t know that it’s a song. If I were to pick a song, it would be a Stevie Wonder song of any kind. If there were poetic words, they’d be the words of Maya Angelou – powerful, true. But if they’re everyday words, they’re the words of Marian and Fraser Robinson telling us to do what you say you’re going to do, to be honest and true, to treat people with dignity and respect. And it wasn’t just their words, it was their actions. Be open-hearted, to be empathetic, and to make your life useful and to define that usefulness as broadly as you can. Those words guide me.

And they led me to Barack Obama, who reminded me very much of my own father in his decency and his honesty and his compassion. That was my foundation.

Elizabeth Alexander: What’s so interesting is also about the words that weren’t spoken. The words of complaint that weren’t spoken and how much silences also teach us. I think also, one of the amazing things about you is that you have such a healthy skepticism. I say that – true skepticism – which is to say, I wonder if your parents ever said anything to you along the line of “don’t believe the hype.”

Michelle Obama: Oh gosh. Having Marian Robinson in the White House with you for eight years is a grounding experience – for all of us. For every Obama, Marian Robinson was just not pressed – ever. She’s like, “I can go home anytime.”

We know you can Mom.

But yes it’s that sort of matter-of-fact. It’s not where you live, it’s not what you have, it’s who you are. That was sort of the ethos of my entire family. We were working class folks from my immediate family to my extended family. We were a family of carpenters and teachers and police officers and seamstresses. We weren’t lawyers and doctors. There was a skepticism of those folks who tried to be uppity. There was a skepticism of unabashed wealth or privilege. There was a skepticism – my father was somebody who never believed in joining. You were independent throughout your life. Those were the messages that we got, not just from my father, but from my grandparents. My grandfather. We were privileged to have been raised by with all of my grandparents: maternal, paternal. We talked about this at dinner, but in Chicago you were very much a part of your neighbourhood. In our neighbourhood, it was mostly comprised of my extended family. So we lived in a house above my maternal aunt. We lived around the corner my grandmother and another aunt. My grandfather, my mother’s father, they were separated, never divorced but lived around the corner from each other. That’s Black Chicago right there. They lived right around the other corner.

Elizabeth Alexander: It’s functional.

Michelle Obama: It’s functional dysfunction.

They didn’t speak to each other either. They lived around the corner, but you didn’t talk to them – you didn’t talk about the other one to the other one.

My paternal grandparents lived in Park Way Gardens, which is really just a five minute drive from our house. So we grew up with a lot of these messages. My maternal grandfather – Southside we called him – he loved jazz, and filled the house with music. He put speakers in every room of the house even when my mother was young. Because he didn’t have a lot of money, all of his music collection was sort of hodgepodged together: turntables that didn’t match, a reel that he found in the alley, cabinets that he made, speakers that he borrowed. But the house was filled with Miles Davis and Coltrane. We blew out candles to Ella Fitzgerald at birthdays and he fried chicken and made milkshakes at midnight and they played bid whist until all hours of the night.

In that household, there was was healthy skepticism and fear. There was fear of other people, fear of leaving that unit, there was fear of what could happen to you out there in the big bad world. We came from a place of skepticism but it was interesting that my parents out of all of that, they always pushed us beyond that initial fear.

One of my favourite comedians Chris Rock tells this joke about what it’s like living in a dangerous neighbourhood. That your world just gets more narrow. First they tell you to just stay on the block – don’t leave, then stay in front yard, then stay on the porch, then stay in your room because it’s dangerous. Before you know it, you’re just hopping around on one foot in your living room.

A lot of Black people live like that because fear is real. But I had parents who pushed us beyond that fear. They encouraged us to not be so skeptical that we couldn’t explore and experience and take risks.

I don’t know where they got that from because that’s not how they were raised. They were very much raised to be within the limits that were set by segregation and Jim Crowe and lynchings and inequality. But my parents pushed us beyond that. But skepticism still was the foundation that would protect you. In many ways, it’s that skepticism that I carry with me. Don’t be too high. Don’t enjoy the highs too much, don’t wallow in the lows too much. There’s a balance that you have to have in life to succeed and it takes a little skepticism to sort of hold onto that.

I got some snaps.

Elizabeth Alexander: I think also, in that skepticism are real critical thinking tools. I remember there was a magazine profile in New Yorker – an early profile of you – where you talked about some of your uncles and said, “in another social order, they would have been bank presidents.” In their quality of mind, what they were good at in particular, but you were in a particular social order. I think that being able to really have critical understanding of the lay of the land is also something that you brought forward with you.

Michelle Obama: Absolutely. Some of it is life context. Some of it is study. Some of it is statistics and understanding charts and graphs and how things work. That’s also what I think makes Barack and I such a good team. He is a lot of the head and I operate a lot from the gut. Stuff that you learn about, how the world works. And that has informed me, and maybe it’s growing up in the inner city. We’re walking around the block to school, you could get your butt kicked if you talk like a White girl. You had to figure out how to exist in a world where you were intelligent but still had to survive. There’s a lot of that that comes into play as I understand how the broad world works. And how oppression and segregation and all of that gritty stuff works.

Elizabeth Alexander: And you also just – in that beautiful portrait of your growing up – talk about living with art in the music that was playing, with all of those rigged up record players. And what it is to have art at the ready all the time to help you feel and live life. Could you talk more about living life with art in all kinds of ways?

Michelle Obama: I don’t think I appreciated how much art was a part of our little, modest working class life, and it was essential. My father was an artist. A beautiful artist. He was a painter and a sculptor. Again, had he been from a different family, of a different era, of a different race, he might have known that art could have been a way of life. But to go back to the skepticism, that was a luxury. To watch him paint and sculpt. He loved to do nudes and take a plain mold of clay and turn it into from the bottom-up, something beautiful. He worked with charcoals and oils and water paints. It was a gift his. So there was that part of it. He used to paint all of the backgrounds of our little operetta workshop foundation. We used to sing and dance. Most of my family, they were musicians. My great-aunt, she was a choir director at the church and they taught us to sing and to be in plays and performing was a big part of growing up. Not to mention, the music.

Elizabeth Alexander: I didn’t know that. Operetta?

Michelle Obama: We didn’t sing operettically. One year, my brother was Hansel in the Hansel and Gretle production. And I was a fairy princess.

Elizabeth Alexander: Mommy’s laughing [ref: Marian Robinson]. Remembering.

Michelle Obama: Every year there was some big performance at a church basement or in a school theatre that was borrowed. It was sort of a rag-tag little theatre group that my aunt used to teach. Those were the little things in my life that brought art into my world. But then as I went to school, I realized that there were kids who were only there because of art. That’s the power of art that we all know. Art is the first language we speak. Truly. Every child before they can talk, they’re given a pencil, paper, some crayons and they’re drawing.

And it’s life that yanks that instinct from them. We’re now living in public school systems where art and music and PE – the things that bring life and joy – are the first things that are cut. But when I was growing up, those were the things that would hook some of those kids that weren’t good at math or reading because their brains worked differently. They were motivated by something different. For them, you would see those kids light up when it was time to draw or speak or to sing. That’s the power of the arts, we know it’s often the hook that gets kids to then understand why math is important.

It’s the thing that gets them to school to do reading, which is why we made art and music and culture such a centrepiece of our White House because we are trying to remind this country, this world that arts are not a luxury. It’s not something to be given to those who can afford it. That we have so many talented young people who are shaping this world and can shape a vision. It’s the thing that unites us.

We see that with my favourite piece of art to date right now is Hamilton. We see the power of arts – music, dance, rap, poetry, spoken word, you name it – to teach history in a way that history teacher just can’t reach people. So how we deny that, how we don’t support that is amazing to me.

Elizabeth Alexander: It makes no sense. I think that also you brought up all of the culture in your time in the White House and I think that Earth, Wind, and Fire was the first concert that you had. So what I thought was amazing about that –

Michelle Obama: The Governor’s Ball. See these Governors jamming to Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Elizabeth Alexander: It called them into that space. But what I thought was so important about that, it was saying that just because you groove to it doesn’t mean it’s not high art. What it would take for any musician to have the precision and bright light of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s music, it is virtuosity.

Michelle Obama: It is intellect. It is a skill. It is a talent. It’s a gift. And we take it for granted because we enjoy it, which is a sad kind of thing.

Elizabeth Alexander: Yes. And also moving out, to me what I see in that is Earth, Wind, and Fire is of the basement. Earth, Wind, and Fire is of –

Michelle Obama: Red light –

Elizabeth Alexander. Yes, of intimate spaces. But then it was on the world stage. I’m just carrying on so you didn’t just do that. But I think that the bard of Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks, whose name I always must call when we are in space. She had a wonderful poem where she contrasted the Chicago Picasso – which is a wonderful thing, it’s in Downtown space – with the Wall of Respect. To talk about what it meant in community for people to experience art and beauty and greatness as a way of saying, this is who we are, and this has brought us together.

Michelle Obama: Well, when you think about how little public art there is in communities on the southside, which is one of the things we hope to do with the Obama Presidential Centre. There needs to be places for public art outside just like downtown, just like the Picasso, just like The Bean. Those pieces in community are few and far between. And they become the gathering places for community, not just a place to see beauty and possibility. But it’s a place for people to come together. We deserve those things in our communities just as much as the rest of the city.

Elizabeth Alexander: I haven’t even turned a card.

Michelle Obama: Okay, let’s turn a card.


Elizabeth Alexander: We’ve covered all of it so we’re an inspiration. Now, this is an interesting zone and there were some wonderful questions. One from Sri Lanka, and some others about using your voice. Moving out of the zone of the voice in an artistic sense, how do you use your voice to express disagreement. How can you be productive in disagreement? What do you know about that? Where did you see that modelled? And how do you take that forward?

Michelle Obama: Well, in thinking about this question, I started a little bit – I pulled back a bit because I think the question of how you use your voice comes after you find your voice. I think that that’s something that a lot of people take for granted – that having a voice just happens. In order to know how to use it and how to use it carefully and how to debate, you have to find it. I think in particular, women we’re seeing now finding that voice, in doesn’t just happen overnight.

And I think about me and sort of where did my voice come from. Again, we talked about this at our table, our dinner, but again going back to Marian and Fraser, I realized now in hindsight that I had some special parents who from a very very young age – again, not people who read parenting books, they probably didn’t think that their role model parents were perfect for them; my grandparents were better grandparents than they were parents – for some reason my parents understood that teaching children at a young age that their voice was valuable was important.

So I didn’t live in a household where kids were taught to be seen and not heard. I was allowed to speak my mind at three, and four. They asked my opinion. They wanted input from me and my brother about things that involved the family and life. We knew about money, and paying bills, we knew about issues in the family.

You had to be respectful but the notion that a five-year old wouldn’t have feelings about how their life went was not something that my parents believed in. My mother always said she was raising adults, she wasn’t raising children.

So she spoke to us as people because that’s what you needed to practice. I think that all of that early stuff, those of us who are parents out there who are thinking about how to empower our children, it starts very early. So you can’t shush them because you don’t agree with them. Because every time you shush them, you’re telling them to respect your elders even when they’re wrong. There’s a difference between just respecting something you see as wrong, and not feeling it and speaking out it. You do it in a respectful way but we were never taught that what we saw and what we felt wasn’t real.

So if a teacher treated me unfairly in class, I couldn’t just immediately go off on them, I could come home and go off about it in the kitchen. And then we’d talk about it. And then Marian would hustle on up to school and quietly go off on them unbeknownst to me, I’ve heard of many teachers that got shut down. “Well you go on back to school and you do what you’re supposed to do.” But I always knew I had a defender, I had an advocate, which made me ready to use my voice.

So when we think about, women in particular, we ask them to speak up, we ask them to speak their mind, we ask them to just say no, to speak out against sexual harassment, to speak out against inequality but if we don’t teach our young girls to speak at an early age that doesn’t just happen. It takes practice to have a voice, you have to use it again and again and again before you can say “no” or “stop, don’t touch me.”

If you’re taught that adults are right all the time, it’s hard to go against the power that is around you. I don’t think that I had those roadblocks when I was young. I thought I was funny, I thought I was smart when I was little, I thought that I made sense.

Moving from that place of understanding the power and the rightness and the truth of my voice, then how you use it is more linked to your values then anything else. Then it goes back to how you were raised. Because when you have a voice, you know you can’t just use it any kind of way. You can’t just say … this whole “tell it like it is” business, that’s nonsense. You don’t just say what’s on your mind, you don’t Tweet every thought. Most of your first, initial thoughts are not worthy of the light of day. […] Tweeting and social media, that is a powerful weapon that we just handover to little kids. A 10-year old, here you go, tell it like it is. It’s like, no you don’t. You need to think and spell it right and have good grammar too.

Elizabeth Alexander: I think also that understanding of not only of having a voice but also understanding that you have advocates in your parents, and it is part of that. I was thinking, was I taught that way specifically? And I think I was actually. My dad also, I always had a crisp bill on me at all times because he said if you have to leave the job, the man, the situation, danger, you got your twenty. It was a twenty and it was crisp but you get out and people will help you sort the other things out later and that is a profound thing to carry in this life with all of its unexpected things.

Michelle Obama: When you have the power of support, how you debate – you’re a lot more respectful. You’re a lot more cautious. You’re not so ready, you’re humble, you’re skeptical. And that skepticism is not just about the other person but you have to have a healthy skepticism in your own view. That you’re not always right.

As Barack had said, we have to be open to the differences and the possibilities of other people’s truths. So you’re careful with your words. You’re careful with how you debate. When you’re the First Lady, or the President, or the Commander in Chief and you have that voice and that power and that platform, what comes with that is a responsibility to know that every word you utter has consequences. I said this in the course of many of my speeches, that words matter at this level and you learn how much they matter at this level. That doesn’t mean that anybody in this room is free to be careless with words and how they debate because at this level, you see how much words matter.

But the truth of how much words matter is true for each and everyone of us.

You can’t just slash and burn up folks just because you think you’re right. You have to treat people as if they are precious, all of them, even the people you don’t agree with. If we thought that way, if we lived life that way, we wouldn’t have to be taught how to debate, we would just be treating each other as decent human beings, and we would treat one another with respect.

But again, I think that starts with the values of growing up. Because if nobody’s valued your voice, it’s hard for you to know, control and compromise. It starts very young I think. And the consistency of seeing those values throughout your life affects how you debate, how you disagree, how you talk, how you advocate. How you speak up for yourself. And it’s all practice.

Elizabeth Alexander: When that leads us into civic work, community work, and this is sort of a bit of a move into thinking about how you take care of yourself so that you can be a helpful person in your community so that all of this wisdom can be shared. I wanted to just read a few lines from a poem that I really love that feels like its speaking to what you were describing earlier with your parents. Maybe it’s not here but it’s by Marge Piercy, a great Detroit poet, just a few lines. This is her poem, many of you probably know this, but it’s called “to be of use.” The excerpt goes:

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows …

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again. …

The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real. …

I love it and I think that that’s all of you who are here. You are the people who just get up and do what has to be done. That is you, that is the President, but you can give and give and give to be helpful but how do you think about staying strong and the role of self-care not as a luxury but as a part of being a helpful person in community?

Michelle Obama: My girlfriend’s circle, we talk about that all the time, self-care. I think that self-care is something that you have to practice as well but you have to value yourself to want to care about yourself.

• • • 

View the video on YouTube here.