Former First Lady Michelle Obama has a book, “Becoming”, and a Netflix documentary about the aforementioned book. The documentary is a peek into the world of a former First Lady who very much would like to return to a normal life but understands that will never happen. Propelled to the world’s stage as her husband, Barack Obama was running for president, she lived in the White House for eight years, showcasing a picture-perfect existence while championing causes close to her heart. Since leaving the White House in 2016, she has been able to speak more freely about the extreme pressures of being the first Black inhabitants at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Her memoir, “Becoming”, explored those years, but that’s just a snapshot of who Michelle Robinson Obama is – and, freed from protocol and political correctness, who she is becoming.
Shonda Rhimes, writer and TV producer, recently interviewed Michelle Obama about why voting matters – maybe now more than ever before.
Shonda Rhimes: 2020 has been an uncomfortable year. One that I’ve found to be, at times, scary, frustrating, painful and yet hopeful at times. The peaceful marches worldwide after the wrongful death of George Floyd come to mind. It has been an important year. When you look out at the world right now, what gives you hope for the future? And is there anything that this experience we are all living through right now has revealed to you that makes you hopeful?
MICHELLE OBAMA: With everything that’s gone on over these past few months, I know a lot of folks out there have been confused, or scared, or angry or just plain overwhelmed. And I’ve got to be honest; I count myself among them. I think we’ve all been there. Our foundation has been shaken—not just by a pandemic that stole more than 100,000 of our loved ones and sent tens of millions into unemployment, but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines of race, class and power that our country was built on. The heartache and frustration that boiled over after the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others has caused a lot of us to grapple with the very essence of who we are—the kind of people we want to be. But even in that, I find hope. I think a lot about the younger generation growing up right now, about how they’re seeing just how fragile even the best-laid plans can be. In this tumultuous period, they’ve been learning something that often took previous generations years, or decades, to understand: that life can be unfair. It can be unjust. And more than anything, it is always uncertain. But if you live by foundational truths, like honesty, compassion and decency, and if you channel your frustration into our democracy with your vote and your voice, you can find your true north even in times of crisis. Because of all this upheaval, this generation is learning those lessons faster than folks our age did. They’re learning it together and making their voices heard. And I couldn’t be more inspired by so much of what I’ve seen. So even while there’s a lot of pain out there, and that pain is very real, that’s something that gives me hope—the hope that this generation will not only learn these lessons earlier than ours ever did but apply them in ways that we never could. But also, let me be clear: Making progress on these issues isn’t just on the shoulders of young people. It isn’t just on people of color. It’s up to all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from. We’ve all got to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting out racism and fighting for real justice. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. I hope we all have the strength to take that first step.
SR: Yes, that is my hope as well. The first step and every step thereafter. We’ve had so many pivotal moments in history where a huge segment of this country has had to come together to promote and protect equal rights. August 18 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women in the United States the right to vote. When you look back at the events that led up to the ratification of that amendment and the struggle to secure equal rights for women, how important is that moment? What does it have you thinking about right now?
MO: I am thinking about how the story of progress in this country is written by the people who believe what should happen actually can happen. One hundred years ago, there were plenty of naysayers who thought granting women the right to vote would lead to societal decline. And there were plenty of others who were sympathetic to the cause but dismissed it with an “Oh, well, that will never happen.” But history is made by the people who show up for the fight, even when they know they might not be fully recognized for their contributions. That’s why I think it’s so important we spend this anniversary reflecting on all those women who fought for us today, but especially women of color like Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. The suffrage movement may not have been fully welcoming to women like them, but they kept on working anyway. They weren’t thinking about themselves; they were thinking about their daughters and their granddaughters.
SR: So many people seem to feel that voting or not voting does not directly affect them. What do you think has led them to feel that way?
MO: You know, some folks don’t see the impact of their vote on their day-to-day lives—if the trains still run, the kids are still going to school and they still have a job, what difference does one vote really make, right? When you get whole families thinking like that, whole communities, then you start to see how the impact multiplies. But the pandemic has pulled the curtain back on that line of thinking. It showed us just how important it is to have competent leaders in office—leaders who prioritize their citizens’ well-being over their own poll numbers. We have all sorts of examples right now of that leadership in action and its effect on our daily lives. So, every single person out there needs to ask themselves, do they trust the folks in charge to make the right call? Whether it’s school boards or statehouses or those in Washington—are my neighborhood’s interests being represented, or are they being ignored? They’re questions we should be asking every year, in every election, and at every level of government. Because when a crisis hits, there are no do-overs.
SR: You and I have talked about voting a great deal over the years, and I am here to tell everyone that Michelle Obama explains voting’s importance better than anyone I know. But it’s not as easy when the rest of us try to explain voting to our own friends and family. So for everyone here, can you give us some clear, simple talking points that we can use on why voting is so important?
MO: Talking about issues, our duties as citizens, the impact our votes have—that’s all-important. But for me, when I’m talking to young people, I like to ask them a simple question: Would you let your grandma decide what you wear on a night out to the club? Would you want her picking out the car you drive or the apartment you live in? Not many people want someone else making their decisions for them, especially when that person might not see the world the same way as they do. That’s what happens when you don’t vote: You are giving away your power to someone else—someone who doesn’t see the world the same as you. You’re letting them make some key decisions about the way you live. And the truth is, that’s exactly what some folks are hoping you’ll do. They’re hoping that you’ll stay home so that they can make these important decisions for you.
SR: I remember after the last election hearing anecdotal evidence that some people did not vote because they did not feel “inspired by” or “excited by” the candidate choices. What do you think about this need for inspiration? Should it influence voter turnout?
MO: Voting is so much bigger than one election, one party or one candidate. It’s great to feel inspired by candidates and the visions they put forth, but it is by no means a prerequisite to casting a ballot. Because at the end of the day, someone is going to be making the decisions about how much money your schools get and how tax money is distributed. Voting gives you a say in those matters. It can also be your way of saying that you care about your community and the people in it, that you are going to keep showing up and making your voice heard, even when the candidates don’t set your heart on fire. Because if you wait for that to happen, you might be waiting a long time. And meanwhile, the world moves on without you. But when we all vote, in all elections, we get the kind of responsive leadership that speaks for our families and our communities.
SR: The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of complexity to the process of going to the polls and casting our ballots—and ensuring the health of everyone, regardless of their politics or party affiliation, is a primary concern. Obviously, now there are new challenges. How can we make voting both safe and accessible for all voters in this coming election?
MO: Nobody should have to choose between their health and making their voice heard. We all deserve safe ways to register and vote, which is why my nonpartisan When We All Vote initiative is working overtime to ramp up efforts to expand access to vote by mail, early in-person voting, and online voter registration. People shouldn’t have to endanger themselves or their families to participate in our democracy, especially when the public health risks can be so easily avoided, and an election can still run smoothly and fairly. And as we’ve seen for years, options like voting by mail and early in-person voting help make voting easier for Americans of all walks of life.
SR: I have three daughters, and I’ve always shared with them my passion for the importance of voting. In fact, I always take my younger children with me into the voting booth, just like my mother took me. Do you have any suggestions or ideas for seeding the concepts of voting and citizenship in younger kids and tweens?
MO: Taking them to vote with you is so important! Your tweens may not like to admit it, but they really do look up to you—and seeing Mom or Dad heading to the polls every time an election happens is something they won’t forget. That was certainly the case for me. I also think we should make a bigger deal out of registering to vote by your 18th birthday. It should be a rite of passage that’s celebrated like when you get your driver’s license or go to prom. That’s a big part of the idea behind our “My School Votes” program, which gives students and educators the tools they need to register every eligible voter at their school. Because while seeing what your parents do is compelling, being a part of what your friends are doing is awfully persuasive too. More than four million young people will turn 18 in 2020, and if we can get them and their friends excited about voting right now, they can all start building voting into their lives from square one. Then, hopefully, it’ll become a lifelong habit.
SR: In the last few election cycles, we’ve seen a lot of women run for public office. When you see the field of candidates who have stepped forward and run, how does it make you feel?
MO: First, I want to say: Women have always led. Even when they’ve been denied official positions of power, they’ve still done the work of keeping our communities together and fighting for a better future for our children. But it does feel exciting and different that so many women, especially women of color, are running and taking their rightful places in government. A democracy should actually look like the country it represents, and the women who have been stepping up to lead are doing so much to help bring us closer to that ideal. And the consequences of all this can’t be undersold. When you have a wider range of lived experience at the table when decisions are being made, you get better decisions—decisions that take a wider range of people into account. And that, in the end, is good for everybody.