A steady hum of chatter reverberated through the stands as thousands of men and women conversed in anxious anticipation. The DJ danced behind her table, offering the power and strength of female voices to soothe the crowd.
On Tuesday, Feb. 13, Women’s Fund of Central Indiana, a special interest fund of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, hosted “A Moderated Conversation with Former First Lady Michelle Obama” at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
More than 12,000 people were in attendance, raising more than $1 million in ticket sales to support women and girls across the state. Proceeds will go to helping women move out of poverty and into economic security and to fighting addiction and abuse.
Nearly 300 students from Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) were invited to attend, four of whom were selected by Dr. Lewis Ferebee, IPS superintendent, for displaying an “exceptional commitment to academics and peer leadership,” to be seated center-stage in the second row.
The four girls—students at Arsenal Technical High School—were gifted new outfits courtesy of Dress For Success and were given the opportunity to meet former first lady Michelle Obama backstage after the event.
Including the hundreds of IPS students, young people dominated the audience. When Obama walked on-stage, she greeted them by saying, “Love you guys.” Her affection was met with great enthusiasm and applause.
Obama encouraged young people across the nation to participate in democracy by utilizing their right to vote. She explained that making the most out of the right to vote means voting in as many elections as possible, because “the people who vote will dictate the country you live in.”
“This isn’t about party,” said Obama. “Truly, it isn’t. An active, engaged, intelligent, informed electorate helps us all.”
Zach Smith, a freshman global business and international relations major, didn’t attend the event, but highlights the importance of voting and encourages everyone to participate.
“So many more people are choosing not to vote because they feel like they don’t have a voice,” says Smith. “But the fact is, the less people who vote, the less of a voice certain sections of our society have. If you want a voice, then you need to vote.”
Speaking to the importance of women engaging in public service, Obama said, “Get some other people in the room.
“We need diversity,” she said. “We need strong female voices. We need people who bring different perspectives to the problems we’re trying to solve.”
Dr. Kimberly Majeski, an associate professor of biblical studies, attended the event last Tuesday.
She says Obama’s comments on women in leadership roles were “super inspiring and really relevant for women now.” Majeski says it’s important for women to be knowledgeable and informed so they can contribute to society.
“I think Jesus was a political figure,” she says. “I think that Jesus’ message was subversive and counter-cultural. I think that Jesus’ people have to be those things too.
“While it’s probably not in our best interests to be overtly partisan, I think that it is in our best interest to be political, and for women in particular to be educated, to be informed, to be aware, so that they can contribute to the conversation and to the running of the government,” Majeski says.
Obama claimed that women are hesitant to make their voices heard because they tend to put themselves last. “We just don’t feel like we deserve it,” she said. She then told the men in the room, “You guys are probably the cause of a lot of it.”
Anna Fiske, a sophomore social work major, participated in the Women’s March in January. Fiske says the mentality Obama described is harmful to women, and that Obama’s intentions were to encourage and empower women.
“By saying women are weak and women don’t think they deserve the same treatment as men, that is enforcing society’s perception of women,” said Fiske. “I don’t think Michelle was trying to do that. I really think she was trying to snap people out of it.”
Fiske wants to call women out on their “lack of assertiveness” and encourage them to take responsibility for their own actions or lack thereof.
“There are people in the feminist movement who just want to place full blame on the men and say ‘It’s your fault,’ when it’s also, in my opinion, the woman’s fault for letting it happen to them,” she explains. “I think we share the blame. I don’t think it’s right to put the full force of the blame on men, because I know a lot of women who know that this is happening, and they just let it happen. They don’t care.”
Obama devoted a portion of time to discussing racism in America. She said that many people of color “grow up with a lot of doubts” in their minds, and that in order to move past those doubts, they often have to “practice achieving through other people’s low expectations.”
She went on to emphasize the importance of being able to empathize with others, encouraging people to consider what life is like “as a minority in a culture of racist people.”
Leslie Lofton, a freshman psychology and youth leadership development major, didn’t attend but describes a time in her life when she had to work hard in order to achieve through low expectations held by a teacher.
She explains that her teacher had a history of making racist remarks, and that in order to move forward, it was crucial for her to maintain focus on what was most important. Lofton warns against trying to prove someone wrong, saying it causes you to “lose focus of what really matters to you.”
She says it’s also important to be understanding of where others are coming from because “you don’t know what people go through unless you walk in their shoes.
“Everybody has challenges,” Lofton says. “It’s not like only black people or only people of a different race have challenges. Everybody does. It would be a wise thing to do, to just put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. See how you could help each other. We’re all just trying to live in this world.”