Empathy is just a small, seven-letter word but its significance is packed with such a strong influence that it could change an entire country, at least that’s the message the potential First (Black) Lady of the America is putting forth. For Michelle Obama, who is not simply the wife of presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama or the mother of their children but also a woman in her own right, empathy is how she connects to the over 300-million people living this country. And, that connection provides an understanding of what this country needs to create a positive future for generations to come.
“Without empathy, you don’t get change,” said Michelle Obama in an exclusive interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel. “You don’t get the kind of fundamental change that we need, and when you don’t get that fundamental change then we all hurt.
“...We know what we need to do,” she continued, “but without that empathy, that core sense of mutual obligation, we don’t get the right answers. We need that first, and then we can go through the issues that are affecting the Black community—from healthcare, to education, to an ineffective criminal justice system, to the dwindling of blue collar jobs. Everything that we are lacking as a society, right now today, is hitting the Black community hard. But we don’t get to those answers until we get to our souls.”
With the Sentinel, Michelle shared private moments of being a woman, wife and mother that have allowed her to see the world through compassionate eyes, and reveal her genuine accessibility and appeal to other women across the country. She offers a sense of comfort in knowing that the future of this country could rest in the hands of this strong, Black family unit.
Right from the start, Michelle was candid in her responses, giving a sense of down-to-earth, openness about her persona. She responded “absolutely not” when asked if she had ever imagined herself being in this position of future First Lady and admitted that she was a “reluctant political participant” for quite some time. But it was her husband’s steadfast belief that one has to be able to impact change through politics that pulled her in.
“From the beginning of our relationship there have been a lot of unexpected, wonderful twists and turns,” said Michelle when describing her marriage to Barack as an amazing journey. “We’ve affected each other’s lives in pretty significant ways, and obviously the most significant way he’s been affecting my life is getting me more involved and encouraged about politics.”
But what the couple was always on the same page about was the notion of family unity. She said the two have structured their small family, which includes daughters Malia (9) and Sasha (6), based on what they saw growing up.
Explained Michelle, “Both Barack and I came from similar households - not in terms of race, he came from a bi-racial family and lived in Hawaii - the values that we were raised on were the same. There’s nothing more important than family and community. That’s always the priority.
“...I think what keeps us strong is that we remember those values. ... We’ve stayed really close to our families and rely on the broader family unit. We want our girls to grow up understanding that at the core, there’s nothing more important than that.”
Keeping the family first has been the commitment they have made throughout their marriage. So, when the time came for the decision to be made for Barack to run for presidency in 2008, there was no exception.
In talking it through with Barack, Michelle wanted to be assured that the decision would work out for their family and that they would be able to structure their lives to make sure it didn’t impact their children. Once she received answers she felt were sufficient or satisfactory, she was on board.
“You have to make sure that home-base is strong and that you’re solid in that relationship,” she explained, “because if you’re not solid, then it makes it more difficult to impact the rest of the world.
“...We have to make sure that young men and women, boys and girls growing up, if they don’t see that type of stability in their own home then they can look at some model out there, something that gives them the vision for what life can be for them. ... The hope is that [Barack and I] offer a model.”
Michelle will be the first to admit that it’s not always easy being a wife and a mother. She said that trying to make the right choices in the best interest of the family is a constant struggle, particularly when it comes to balancing work and family. And in that sense, she feels she is like most women.
“We all agonize about that work-family balance,” said Michelle, who has most recently worked at the University of Chicago Medical Center as vice president of community and external affairs and where she also managed the business diversity program. “We always feel like whatever we decided to do we worry that it’s the right thing to do, whether it’s working part-time or staying at home. I think at every level women are racked with guilt and feel like they’re not doing enough. I am no exception, and I can’t say that I’ve completely resolved it.”
“What I know is that life changes and I never see one set of decisions as permanent. I look at it as this is what I’m doing for this time and make sense at this time in my life and I don’t try to predict what the future will hold in terms of those types of decisions.”
Those here-and-now family decisions are visible across the country, as women and families struggle to make ends meet.
“It has become harder for the average family to just keep it together,” Michelle said as she reflected on her travels across the country. “If you couple that with the lack of healthcare, the absence of quality childcare, and public education ... we’re going backwards, and backwards motion is impacting women and families at the core.
“We as women have to start speaking out about the struggles that we’re facing and what we need to do as a country to move us back into a place where families have a chance. Those are the kinds of things that I care deeply about because it’s stuff that I’ve felt.”
It’s in her words of this struggle to keep the family together and a mother’s work-family balance that start to form an agenda for a First Lady to address.
“At the core, I think one of the things we have to do as country is that we’ve got to have a vision for the kind of world that we want to live in and that we want to pass on to our kids.”