Michelle Obama talks racism, social media, mental health in Toronto
“It’s that resilience that makes me who I am,” said Obama. “It’s not the degrees, it’s not the schools I went to, it’s not the titles — it’s my ability to get back up again and again and to be a human being which connects to my story."
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It takes considerable power of personality to envelop 3,000 people in a conversation that feels like a family room chat. Michelle Obama, whose path has taken her from the public schools of the south side of Chicago to Ivy League schools and the White House, did just that — and effortlessly.
The audience that included Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, MPP Michael Coteau and corporate bigwigs, was teeming with youths (half the crowd, the organizer estimated). All were swept up by the strength and wisdom of someone they had grown up seeing as an inspirational hero, a woman who began her history-making journey when some of them were still young children.
Obama didn’t pontificate during the talk titled “The Economics of Equality: Advancing Women and Girls to Change the World.” She employed her characteristic charm and rhythmic cadence to reflect, to explain, and even to good-naturedly admonish.
“That journey for me from the south side to now, that journey for me has not been a story of success,” she said Tuesday at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto. “It’s been a story of stumbles and tumbles along the way, and missteps and embarrassments, and hurts and pains, and cuts and bruises. But it’s the getting back up part of all of that — that is really what’s important.
“It’s that resilience that makes me who I am. It’s not the degrees, it’s not the schools I went to, it’s not the titles — it’s my ability to get back up again and again and to be a human being which connects to my story.”
About 1,000 of the young people there were able to attend because they were sponsored by the ticket-buyers who shelled out anywhere from $250 to $1,000.
“We don’t always do a great job of inviting diverse perspectives,” Economic Club of Canada president Rhiannon Traill told me. “I wanted to see how the dialogue changes when we change who is sitting at the table.”
Quite a bit changed. The talk explored topics such as the use of social media, mental health concerns and racism.
Obama had much to say about social media. “What’s up with you young people? This tweetin’ and snapchattin’ . . . this is generationally something that I just don’t understand.
“Would you take your journal, your diary and open it up in the centre of the town square and let people just read it? Just come up and go ‘Ooh, this is how you felt? About your mother?’ ”
Ok, but wasn’t it Barack Obama’s presidential campaign that first tapped into the power of social media?
“Here’s the thing people need to understand,” she says. “We use social media by committee. So when we use social media, I usually think about what I want to say.
“I talk to my team about it.
“We talk about it.
“Then we go back and think about it.
“Then we do a draft of it
“Then we look at it again.
“Then we put it down.
“And then we go back and we talk to some more.
“And then we press ‘Send.’
“Communication requires that kind of thought and connection.”
Upon reflection, this plea for thoughtful tweeting applied to the youths present as well as to the casual war-threatening tweeter of a president who followed.
As with her husband in Toronto in September, she didn’t once mention Donald Trump by name, except to say “One thing I’ve learned in politics. One person can’t make the change. Change is from the bottom up. Not the top down. And that’s a good thing . . . . That means that no one person can break all this either.”
If Obama was scarred by the negative side of her eight years as First Lady, by the racism or by the questioning of her patriotism, she didn’t show it. But her dignified attitude reflected her earlier words on resilience.
“Racism is not about you. It’s about the other person and their fear. Their fear of the unknown, their fear of losing something.”
“When somebody attacks me, the first thing I think about is what happened to them? What is going on in their lives that makes them hate so much? That makes them so afraid — of me? What is going on in their world?
Othering, the social rejection of diverse experiences, inbuilt inequalities, all have known effects on mental health. Obama called it “the health piece that we haven’t even begun to explore. We’re still in a state where people are embarrassed, afraid to even identify that they have mental health issues. Those issues are still stigmatized.
“And sadly, I think we still have a long way to go before we get to a place where we need to be where we’re addressing these issues where we’re providing support and resources.”
The Economic Club partnered with Plan International to bring Obama to Toronto, and Traill said they brought in youngsters from across the country, including Indigenous youth from Arctic nations and First Nations youths from Montreal, from Manitoba, from Ottawa.
Plan International Canada ran an ambassador challenge, leading to 5,000 young people applying for a chance to have access to the event. The winners were Amir Siddique, 18, from Oshawa, and Kanwarpreet Karwal, 21, from Brampton.
Karwal worked for hours and hours on a video for her submission. “I poured out my heart in that video,” she said.
For Siddique, “It was simply a day consisting of self-education on how I can make a difference.”
Both of them got to sit at the head table on Tuesday.