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Michelle Obama: Why I left a "big ol' fancy" Chicago law firm

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WASHINGTON--First Lady Michelle Obama, visiting the offices of the Corporation for National and Community Service, on Tuesday, talked about her own journey from Harvard Law School, to a Chicago law firm, to Chicago's City Hall and then to running an AmeriCorps project in Chicago called Public Allies.

And I went from college to law school to a big ol' fancy law firm where I was making more money than both of my parents combined. I thought I had arrived. I was working on the 47th floor of one of the largest buildings in the city of Chicago. And I thought, well, I must be doing okay.

But then several things happened over the course of my life in a year to make me stop and actually think for the first time about what I wanted. I lost my father. I lost one of my good friends to cancer suddenly. She was in her mid-20s when she died. And I thought that -- for the first time I had to think about life and the life that I was building for myself, and I had to ask myself whether, if I died tomorrow, would I want this to be my legacy, working in a corporate firm, working for big companies? And when I asked myself the question, the resounding answer was, absolutely not. This isn't what I want to leave behind, this isn't why I went to Princeton and Harvard, this isn't why I was doing what I was doing. I thought I had more to give.

So people were quite surprised when I told them at the firm that I was going to leave this big lucrative paycheck behind and a promising career, and go on to do something more service-oriented. They all told me to wait and to become a partner first, and then leave. And I was -- that was financially the better option, but I knew in my heart that I was making the right decision to leave then.

So I left my job at the firm and started to then think about what I wanted my life to become. And when I thought about the things that I cared about, the things that I was passionate about, service was always somewhere in there. I thought about the things that I did for enjoyment. They were always mentoring, working with other young people, trying to help them get to where I had -- I was to help them think about their lives differently. So I knew that service was always going to be a part of that passion. So my goal was to figure out how I could not do that in my spare time, but how I could make my work service.

So I started doing a bunch of crazy things: working in city government, and that's when -- after city government I left to start this wonderful organization in Chicago, Public Allies, which many of you know of, because it's one of the first model AmeriCorps national service programs.



THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the First Lady
________________________________________________________________
For Immediate Release May 12, 2009

REMARKS BY THE FIRST LADY
AT A CORPORATION FOR NATIONAL AND COMMUNITY SERVICE EVENT

Ronald Reagan Building
Washington, D.C.

2:42 P.M. EDT

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, guys. Thanks so much. (Applause.) Okay, you all can sit down now -- (laughter) -- because you've been working so hard. You need to relax, take a load off. I am just excited to be here. It's like coming home. (Laughter.)

I want to thank Nicky for her wonderful introduction and the leadership and dedication that she has provided. I mean, she talked about you all and the work and the hours that you've put in through this transition and even before, but Nicky has really been holding down the fort.

And I not only want to acknowledge her, but since I know her family is here, and I know how the only way that people can do this is -- and I see two young men in suits -- (laughter) -- and I think out of this crowd I think I've narrowed it down -- (laughter) -- to the two -- Nicky's sons right there. (Laughter.) So I want to thank you guys and Dad for hanging in there with Mom and loving her through all of this. So let's give you guys a round of applause. (Applause.)

And I also want to recognize a good friend of ours, somebody who I met on the campaign trail who has been a supporter of ours and a supporter of national service for quite some time, who's the chair of the board. I want to recognize Alan Solomont and all of the board members who are here today. Let's give them all a round of applause. (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. It is true that through their leadership and commitment we've helped to shape what national service is and will become.

I'd also like to thank and acknowledge Melody Barnes who leads the President's Domestic Policy Council, and she was instrumental in getting the Serve America Act passed, and she's right over there. Melody, raise your hand. Melody Barnes. (Applause.) We are lucky to have Melody. She is, as some person -- somebody said, "wicked smart." And she's not just working on this piece but so many important pieces of the domestic policy agenda. She has been fabulous and we are just so delighted to have her onboard.

And finally, thanks to the men and women here who have been with the Corporation since its founding. Your commitment is an inspiration. You know, just knowing that there are people who have been here throughout all of these transitions, who have dedicated their life to this work, and who have seen this Corporation through so many transitions, this couldn't be possible, this day, this growth, this expansion without all of you.

And as you know, national and community service is near and dear to my heart. It is the reason that I breathe. And as Nicky said, it has become my life's work in so many ways. Like many people, when I was coming out of high school and going into college, I did what most working-class kids did -- I had to work. And I had to work all the time because I had to have enough money for books for the year, and I had to help out with tuition. I had to chip in.

So during my college years I had to do work-study in order to get through. And what I had to do to get through, I typed, I worked at a bindery, I did a whole bunch of babysitting and piano tutoring and dog training. I did a little bit of everything. (Laughter.)

And when I was coming up, volunteering and doing an internship seemed to be a luxury that a working-class kid couldn't afford, because ironically, you know, in order to do some of that service, you had to have somebody supporting you for the summer that you weren't working and you were doing something interesting. So I could never afford to do that.

And I didn't realize how much I had missed. I had some good experiences, but some of these wonderful internships and opportunities to work in community groups, I didn't have access to those. And more importantly, I felt guilty to even ask parents who were already working hard to let me take a summer or a semester off to do something like that. So oftentimes I never asked. I studied, I worked, I worked and I'd studied, and that's how I sort of developed my thinking of career.

And I went from college to law school to a big ol' fancy law firm where I was making more money than both of my parents combined. I thought I had arrived. I was working on the 47th floor of one of the largest buildings in the city of Chicago. And I thought, well, I must be doing okay.

But then several things happened over the course of my life in a year to make me stop and actually think for the first time about what I wanted. I lost my father. I lost one of my good friends to cancer suddenly. She was in her mid-20s when she died. And I thought that -- for the first time I had to think about life and the life that I was building for myself, and I had to ask myself whether, if I died tomorrow, would I want this to be my legacy, working in a corporate firm, working for big companies? And when I asked myself the question, the resounding answer was, absolutely not. This isn't what I want to leave behind, this isn't why I went to Princeton and Harvard, this isn't why I was doing what I was doing. I thought I had more to give.

So people were quite surprised when I told them at the firm that I was going to leave this big lucrative paycheck behind and a promising career, and go on to do something more service-oriented. They all told me to wait and to become a partner first, and then leave. And I was -- that was financially the better option, but I knew in my heart that I was making the right decision to leave then.

So I left my job at the firm and started to then think about what I wanted my life to become. And when I thought about the things that I cared about, the things that I was passionate about, service was always somewhere in there. I thought about the things that I did for enjoyment. They were always mentoring, working with other young people, trying to help them get to where I had -- I was to help them think about their lives differently. So I knew that service was always going to be a part of that passion. So my goal was to figure out how I could not do that in my spare time, but how I could make my work service.

So I started doing a bunch of crazy things: working in city government, and that's when -- after city government I left to start this wonderful organization in Chicago, Public Allies, which many of you know of, because it's one of the first model AmeriCorps national service programs. It was right when President Clinton got elected to office, and there was an infusion of new resources for wonderful innovative ideas, and Public Allies was an organization that would help 18- to 30-year-olds pursue careers in public service. And I helped to build that. And I had -- I was never happier in my life than when I was working to build Public Allies.

And for those of you who have committed your lives to careers in service, you probably know what I'm talking about. You probably understand that feeling that you get when you help somebody achieve their goals, when you help a group of young people learn more about themselves by working with others, when you hire young diverse people, and you see them grow and develop. There is nothing more fulfilling. It's an opportunity to put your faith into action in a way that regular jobs don't allow; to use your larger talents for the greater good. It felt really good.

And for many Americans, it may seem impossible to squeeze even more time out of the day and do more, because we all have busy lives, but I still strongly encourage people to think about volunteering and community service.

And people are doing it all over the place. Families are getting involved every day in their communities more and more in ways that are just inspiring, serving food at homeless shelters or giving time to their church or their mosque or their temple, or participating in walk-a-thons. I mean, there are so many ways, big and small, that people can and are engaging.

And for parents in particular, now that I have my own children, service is a great way to demonstrate values and to teach children firsthand what it means to think outside of themselves. And we've relied on service so much as a tool of teaching and education for our kids.

And when I talk to kids everywhere, I remind them that they're never too young to serve, that they're never too small to do something big, because that's the way that they learn what it means to make a lifelong commitment to service.

And volunteering as a family has a very lasting impact. In many ways this campaign has been a family-service initiative for us. Supporting Barack in this post has been just a wonderful way for our family to connect and grow and become stronger, because with whatever little sacrifice we give together, we're coming together even more as a unit.

So as we begin to think about what national service can be in this time, we've got to think about all these wonderful components; you know, what it means to the individual, to the family, to our children. So we're grateful for where we are today. I know I am.

And we wouldn't be here today without the bipartisan support for the Serve America Act. It's just beautiful to see this country and people of all walks of life, regardless of party, recognizing that this is a really good thing; that this is where patriotism begins.

So it was nice to see this Act pass by such an overwhelming amount of support. And it happened because of many of you laying that foundation, being able to help a set of programs grow, to show the impact that these programs can have on young people and on communities. That hard-core evidence helped us get to where we are.

And you all know what this bill has done. Because of this bill we were able to dramatically expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 positions a year to 250,000 by 2017, and focusing that service on the issues that are so important today: clean energy, education, health care, economic opportunities, and caring for our veterans. That's how this service is going to be targeted.

The bill is going to invest in service learning, a concept that now is a part of this culture, thanks to you. When I was coming up, no one knew what service learning was. And now it's a part of educational experiences throughout this nation, so more kids are going to have the opportunity to serve, not just those who can afford it. And that goes back to my story.

It is so important that young people, regardless of their race or their age or their financial ability, that they have a chance to serve; that it isn't a luxury just for wealthy kids but it's something that all kids can do. And we're seeing that through programs like YouthBuild and City Year and Public Allies and Teach for America, and we could go on and on. You go into these programs and you see kids, young people of all walks of life, serving together and learning together and growing together.

It's going to help this Act tap into the experience and the knowledge of our retired Americans, as well. Service isn't just for the young. We have so many people who are retired who are at the prime of their lives, because now 70 and 80 is like 50 and 60 was. Let me tell you, with my mom, we got to keep her moving. (Laughter.) And this bill will allow us to capture the energy of so many of our older Americans, and allow them to continue to use their skills and gifts to pass on to the next generation.

This Act is going to also help fund a new Social Innovation Fund, which is very cutting-edge. And thanks to the hard-thinking of Melody Barnes and many other people, this fund will invest in ideas that work. It'll leverage private-sector dollars to encourage further innovation, and then expand those innovations to other communities. That's how AmeriCorps got started, model programs that were sort of at the cutting edge of getting more funding and expanding to become national organizations that have gone on to impact thousands and thousands of people in communities across the country.

The President has asked Congress for $50 million in next year's budget for this fund, and it'll be housed right here at the Corporation. And we are so excited about that.

By creating this infrastructure, President Obama has sent a clear signal: The nation must invest in innovation targeted at the public good. This is a new vision of how government can work. We know that the next great social innovation won't just come from government programs. Rather, it's likely to come from someone out there that's trying to fix a problem in their own community. That's when some of the best ideas happen, because they come organically out of real problems.

We're at a critical time in our nation's history, and we need all the hands-on-deck kind of experience we can get to help solve these big problems. And as you know, government resources are scarce. As you know, philanthropic dollars are dwindling. So it's imperative that we all use our resources more effectively. And the Corporation for National Community Service is the link between the government, non-profits, foundations, community organizers, and social entrepreneurs. You play that important role of bringing them all together.

And the President is counting on you to take this vision and make it a reality. Thomas Edison once said, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." (Laughter.) And for some people that's what service sounds like, it sounds like work. But for those of us in this room, service is a limitless opportunity, it is the reason why we breathe.

So I want to simply thank you all as I've done on many of my agency visits. But this one is a special one for me, because national service helped to transform my career. I could be some rich lawyer somewhere -- (laughter) -- only slightly writing a check here or there to President Obama's campaign. (Laughter.) But instead I'm at the core, so this message is personal. And I know how hard you have all worked, how hard the people on this stage, many of whom have been here more than 15 years, have worked to get us where we are today. And I am personally grateful to all of you all for your belief in this possibility, for your dedication.

But now that we've got this Act passed, we're going to need you now more than ever, because we've got a lot to do. We've got to get this money out. We've got to develop strong and impactful programs. And you guys know that there's a difference between programs that work and programs that don't. Yes, I hear that groan. (Laughter.) And not every well-meaning idea is worthy of development. But that's why you're here.

So we're going to need you every step of the way feeling just as encouraged, just as excited, even more so, ready to roll up your sleeves, put in more time, and really push service to the point in this nation where it belongs. It should be a part of everyone's life. From the moment someone can walk to the day they leave this planet, service should be a part of how we give back, how we say thank you, how we express our gratitude for the lives that we've been given. And I know you all understand that, and you can help to spread that message.

So I want to thank you in advance, and I look forward to seeing great things coming out of the Corporation. You all take care. And good luck.

END 3:01 P.M. EDT


16 Comments

Left a well paying law firm job for a better paying "public service" job. What a sacrifice. Funny how all these public service people end up so personally wealthy. Sounds more like serving oneself.

She's fabulous

Didn't Mrs. Obama wind up with a hospital job that paid her about $300,000 a year? Didn't she and President Obama become multi-millionairres and move into a big house in one of the most exclusive sections of Chicago?

If they both earned this income fairly and legally, congratulations to them-but please don't revise history and make yourself into Mother Theresa.

change, hope, yes we can...lol!! buyer beware. you should take a look at what she and 'val' did to neighboring communities while at u. of c.

I admire Mrs Obama but I do not like that she consistently talk in a negative way about working for a big corporation. WHAT IS WRONG WITH WORKING FOR A BIG COMPANY? After all, if there were no big corporation in U.S.A. then her husband, Mr Obama, would have a serious tax problem as he is now looking to collect more taxes from them to finance his social programs. I guess these companies, according to the Abamas, are only good to be taxed.

Jft.

Trust me, that's a tough decision to make coming out of law school. Those loans are no joke. Beyond that it's REALLY not the path of many young, black successful achievers, so kudos to her for skipping the big-shot life. And about the hospital job, check out the job description, seemed like good work.

Well, well, you can run pretty far from the truth in your $500 sneakers and other fancy designer get up for slumming it in the classrooms of schools your kids will never attend.

To KBNYC: Well, they bought their house with the help of an indicted man, now a felon, and she made $300,000/year in a job so essential it was eliminated when she left, only after her husband became a state senator and directed earmark money to her employer...not my definition of fair and legal, but that line becomes shady when your place at a top law school is due to your race rather than merit.

Re: KBNYC. Describing Kenwood as one of the most "exclusive sections of Chicago" is just plain false. Lots of great, old mansions down there surrounded by slums.

it's funny that people will comment on how much money they ended up with without knowing their story and how much money they didn't have during his climb to the top. and "if" they earned this money legally?? wow.
they could barely afford to pay their student loans and were living with her mother when they first got married. they didn't become wealthy until the royalties from "dreams from my father" became substantial (after the 2004 dnc).
she is not mother teresa and she never said she was, but she did take a substantial step down and deviated from the pressures and expectations that came with her shiny ivy league degrees to follow her heart. .and that is all she's saying.
so yes, they did end up with a lot of money, but she definitely didn't step out of one high paying job to another, and ending up with a lot of money was not the likely outcome of either of their early career decisions.

To KBNYC: I'm curious how you know that Mrs. Obama only made it into a top law school because of her race. Do you know her personally? Have you seen her high school and college transcripts? Do you know anything about her educational background? Based on the tone of your comment, I have a feeling your opinion is based entirely on your bigotry and not on anything resembling fact. Your racist insinuations only confirm that you would never be accepted to a top law school, regardless of the color of your skin.

Dear Austintx:
You are right, the fact that people can get into these Ivy league schools based on race rather than merit makes me absolutely sick. What the hell do they think they are doing using the ol' boys club or donating enough money to build a new wing in the library just to get their sons and daughters into schools they couldn't otherwise get into on merit. All these legacies have no idea what it really is to EARN your way to top because everything is just HANDED to them. How far would they have gotten by starting at the bottom in a school that can't afford new books and maybe has a handful of honors or AP classes, because lets face it, most of the kids there are never going to college anyway. Being the best student in the worst school and hoping you get a scholarship somewhere because mom and/or dad are working two jobs and can barely afford to pay the rent and put food on the table. Then getting to that Ivy and finding out that while you are stuck doing your work-study in the library or cafeteria, your peers are building up their resume and contacts so that when they graduate they already know the people that are going to get them the job they want - or maybe they just had the chance to study abroad and see the world. Meanwhile, hopefully you worked hard enough to get good grades - even though you were working anywhere from 15 to 40 hours a week - so that you can get into a good graduate program. Its a shame to know that in these big Ivy League schools some of the students had to go above and beyond to get there, while others just had to check a little box to let Admissions know the color of their skin and the crest imprinted on Daddy's degree.

I'm sorry but it was still wrong that Senator Obama got Michelle Obama's employer the University of Chicago hospital a large, undisclosed earmark grant. The excuse they gave was that the money was used for cancer research, but we have a number of fine research hospitals in Chicago and nothing stopped Senator Obama from disclosing it. Admit it Dems: if it were Laura Bush and Governor George W. Bush who got her the money you'd be ticked. And you'd be right to be ticked. Don't compromise yourselves here.

mrs first lady, please stop making 'big' corporate law firms seem evil. u dont want your legacy to be one that had u working at a big company, heaven forfend. making money, working hard, believing in ur company's work. that sounds awful. u sound like such a ivy league elitist saying these things, especially when jobs r tough to find. not everyone can leave to find their passion. we all should do something we love, but we should all have personal asst's to, right ma'am??????

hey quintessential virgo, just like 'dreams of my father' had many glaring omissions so does your comment. #1 how did they buy the lot next to them, im sorry 1/2 of it, from a convicted felon. while that may have been on the level it's suspicious, very suspicious.

Sean,

You sound defensive. I believe the main point of her speech is that there is something internally rewarding about working hard for the things you believe in. Naturally, there aren't a lot of people in this world whose values and beliefs circulate around the corporation. And, to be perfectly honest, that's a good thing. It's admirable that the small percentage of us who do have an education and who have been granted opportunity, take the pay cut and serve our fellow man. That is the point. That is what's inspiring and noble and beautiful about her speech. We should all appreciate that there are people who are moved to assist us and society at the expense of monetary benefit. If you love your corporate job, that's great! But this speech doesn't suggest that firms or corporations are evil - it merely helps us gain perspective, and to help us realize that service to individuals is also important.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on May 12, 2009 4:44 PM.

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