Grading Michelle Obama’s Legacy At Her Former High School | WBEZ
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Grading Michelle Obama’s Legacy At Her Former High School

President Barack Obama made Chicago his hometown in the 1980s, but Michelle Obama is a true Chicago native.

She grew up in the South Shore neighborhood and attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. WBEZ’s Jenn White and Natalie Moore last week spoke to current and former students at the high school about the connection they feel toward the first lady and what could be her legacy. Below are highlights from the conversation. 

On Michelle Obama and her Chicago roots

Brooke Gist, an 11th grade student at Whitney M. Young High School, speaking with classmates, alumni, and WBEZ host Jenn White. (Andrew Gill, WBEZ).

Brooke Gist, 11th grade student

“Genuine is the first word that comes to mind when I think of Michelle Obama because she hasn’t -- I don’t know, we say ‘Switched up’ … [If you’re not ‘switched-up’ you] just stayed true to like, where you grew up, where your morals are, what you believe in. Not really wishy-washy. You’re just grounded.”

Candice Smith, alumna

“She’s fabulous. Being FLOTUS (first lady of the United States) is not something you aspire to do. I thought, ‘Oh, she must come from the best background,’ and I come to find out there’s a lot of similarities. They didn’t have much growing up. Working class family, same as me. Then I just got exposed to things and excellence was instilled in me. And I think that’s probably the same thing she most likely faced. And then just sought what the possibilities are and went after it.”

Shayanna Love, a 12th grade student at Whitney M. Young High School, speaking with classmates, alumni, and WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore. (Andrew Gill, WBEZ).

Shayanna Love, 12th grade student

“Something really important that Michelle Obama brings to the table is this idea that you should be proud to be a girl from the South Side. You should be able to bring that into your professional life. You shouldn’t have to hide your roots. You should embrace your roots and hold on to the fact that you’re unique -- in the sense that you were brought up in a situation that a lot of people would see as adverse. But you overcame and you continue to overcome and push towards greatness every single day. I think that’s really important for girls like us to see. Because you’re seeing this elegant, beautiful young lady who still stays true to herself, and that self is something that reminds you of you.”

On the challenges Michelle Obama faced

Anana Upton, a 12th grade student at Whitney M. Young High School, speaking with classmates, alumni, and WBEZ host Jenn White. (Andrew Gill, WBEZ).

Anana Upton, 12th grade student 

“It seemed like it was the minutiae. They would pick at the smallest things. But that’s why I also respect her so much, because of the way in which she handled that. She never let it get to her. She remained that studious, gorgeous woman in the face of adversity.”

On how Michelle Obama has changed perceptions of black womanhood

Kanyinsola Anifowoshe, a 10th grade student at Whitney M. Young High School, speaking with classmates, alumni, and WBEZ host Jenn White. (Andrew Gill, WBEZ).

Kanyinsola Anifowoshe, 10th grade student 

“It’s a really big honor to know that the first lady of the United States was a black woman. And I think that her being in that position and accomplishing the things that she accomplished made it clear, without a doubt, that black women … are capable of so much. It was nice to be reassured -- to have proof in the highest office that we can affect change, that we are valuable members of this country and this society.”

Anana Upton, 12th grade student

“A couple days ago I saw the movie Hidden Figures, and it inspired me on a whole other level. Because when you see black women achieving so much -- achieving so much -- and then on the same level they’re dealing with adversity, yet they are still excelling? That is the most inspiring thing to me. Because it proves that no matter what, you can get through anything and you can excel, and you can become a phenomenal black person in this society no matter what anyone tells you.”

Candice Smith, an alumna of Whitney M. Young High School, speaking with current students, other alumni and WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore. (Andrew Gill, WBEZ).

Candice Smith, alumna

“One thing that I loved seeing is that she brought her mom into the White House to help out. How many of our mothers relied on their mother, and auntie and neighbor, to help? That’s important in our community. So I loved seeing that. She moved her mom in .... and I think she made it OK for some of us who are trying to be mothers -- and trying to be the executive and trying to get on our grind and achieve -- to say I need help. And the help comes from my community.”

On favorite Michelle Obama moments

Mya Seals, an alumna of Whitney M. Young High School, speaking with current students, other alumni and WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore. (Andrew Gill, WBEZ).

Mya Seals, alumna

"I think it was during his first run where she gave a speech and she said she was proud of her country for the very first time. And that’s speaking truth to power. We all understood -- everybody in this room understood -- what she was saying, but she was telling America a message for us.”

Candice Smith, alumna

“I think FLOTUS did a much better job of addressing issues in our community than the president did, maybe because she had the leeway to do so. But the Black Lives Matter, the police shootings, what happened here in Chicago with Hadiya [Pendleton]. She addressed those directly and I think more vocally.”

Hailey Love, 8th grade student at Whitney Young’s Academic Center

“My favorite part of her has to be her role as a mother and as a figure of motherhood for America. As FLOTUS, she gave a feel to the White House of this protecting place, of this governing place, not only for the United States but for the African-American community personally. Under the Obamas, I felt safer, I felt more connected to my country, and I think it’s really important to recognize her role in that.”

Hailey Love, an 8th grade student at the Academic Center at Whitney M. Young, speaking with classmates, alumni and WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore. (Andrew Gill, WBEZ).

These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire segment. Jason Marck provided production assistance.  


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