Saturday, May 16, 2009

Motivator in Chief

Doug Mills/The New York Times First Lady Michele Obama reading to third grade students in an after school program in Washington, DC. this week.

For years, the divide between the White House and the impoverished black and immigrant neighborhoods in the nation’s capital has often seemed insurmountable. But in recent months, Michelle Obama has become something of a human bridge between the two worlds.

Mrs. Obama has repeatedly traveled to Anacostia and other neighborhoods rarely visited by the power elite here in an effort to reach out to young people who are struggling to succeed.

Of course, reaching out to the underprivileged is nothing new for first ladies. And focusing on schools is a safe choice for Mrs. Obama, who has carefully steered clear of controversy.

But Mrs. Obama, the first African-American first lady, is also among the first to emerge from the urban working class, historians say. Her parents never attended college and rented an apartment when she was growing up. At Princeton, she wrote in her senior thesis, she sometimes felt “like a visitor on campus, as if I don’t really belong.”

Is it imaginable seeing Cindy McCain in Anacostia?

At Anacostia High, where children walk through metal detectors every day and only 21 percent of students read proficiently last year, Tiara Chance, 18, was surprised that Mrs. Obama had decided to visit.

“We don’t deserve it,” she said. “People are fighting and cussing all the time around here. Who would want to be around that?”

At Mary’s Center, a health clinic that serves a predominantly immigrant community, Akrem Muzemil, 16, who dreams of becoming an engineer, asked the first lady flat out, “Like, why did you want to come out here to meet us?”

Mrs. Obama told him, “I think it’s real important for young kids, particularly kids from communities without resources, to see me.”

Her office sends signed photographs to the children she has met and has invited some, including Akrem, to visit the White House. And her aides responded affirmatively when Jasmine Williams, a high school senior from a crime-ridden neighborhood, invited the first lady to address her graduation from a charter school dedicated to math and science.

Jasmine burst into tears when she heard the news. For many of these children, Mrs. Obama has provided an incredible boost.

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