A Southside reunion: Coming face to face with one of my queens

Happy Black History Month to me

Image credit Chris Ho

Michelle Obama. Former first lady of the United States. A vision of Black excellence. Beginning as a lawyer and eventually working at the University of Chicago for many years, Mrs. Obama has remained focused on supporting the voices of marginalized communities in any area where she is present. Gracefully, she served her country for eight years as her husband led the United States through some of the most difficult and turbulent times of its history. She raised two incredible children along the way, and advocated for the rights of women and girls all over the world. Plus she beat America’s sweetheart Ellen DeGeneres in a push-up contest in 2012 which she will not let DeGeneres live down. She doesn’t really need an introduction.


Who am I?

Soon to be former student of SFU. An attempted vision of Black excellence. Just as the southside of Chicago is fundamental to who Mrs. Obama is, so it is to me. As a matter of fact, I grew up in the same neighbourhood, Hyde Park, where Mrs. Obama and her family lived before her husband ran for office. My father is a southside of Chicago native and after my parents married, that is where they chose to settle down and raise their three children. Like Mrs. Obama, I grew up in church, spending long and sticky summer Sundays in a hot cathedral on 79th and Racine, right next to Chicago’s most dangerous neighbourhood, Englewood.

It was this city that taught me the value of social justice. It was where I was taught to speak up for what I believed in and to never let societal limits dictate what I could and could not achieve. As a writer and a musician, much of my art is shaped by the gritty streets, the cacophony of cultures and sounds, and my love of blackness. Despite being away from the city, I still trace much of who I am to Chicago and the vibrant Southside community.  

When I was twelve, there were whispers amongst the adults that a young, local politician with a unique name was going to make a run for the presidency. We had seen him around the neighborhood at various times buying breakfast from the local diner Valois, playing basketball at the rec centre, and my mom even recalls spotting him sneaking a cigarette in an alley near our old house. My family ended up moving to Canada just before former president Barack Obama began what would become a historic political campaign, but I like to think that even back then I knew something special was brewing.


Who is Michelle Obama to me?

It wasn’t until her husband’s historic acceptance speech in Grant Park that I developed a personal connection to Mrs. Obama. As my family cheered, cried, and celebrated in our living room in Vancouver, I distinctly remember the moment when Mrs. Obama walked onstage with their children to wave to the crowd. I realized that the first lady was black, and that she and her family reflected my own reality.

As the years went on and I matured with the presidency, I began to realize the significance of Mrs. Obama’s presence in the White House. She invited black authors and musicians to play in the halls of the White House which is, as she so brilliantly put it, “a house that was built by slaves . . .” As the racialized attacks grew against her family, she continued to press ahead, emphasizing the importance of helping other people and remaining motivated by love. She supported and encouraged young women to pursue higher education starting within the Southside she called home.

As I progressed in my degree, I found myself hoping to follow a similar path to Mrs. Obama’s. Perhaps not to the White House, but to instead inspire others to be their best selves with elegance, grace, and a little swagger. You can imagine how stoked I was when I found out that Mrs. Obama was coming to Vancouver.


Who is Anne Giardini?

A writer and a lawyer, passionate about sustainability and trade. The chair of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade (GVBT). Also, the chancellor of SFU. The chancellor’s responsibility at SFU is conferring degrees to graduates in addition to representing the university on a uniquely global scale.

Upon discovering this SFU connection and Giardini’s creative background as a writer, I considered this: here was a person at my very own university, who has done a lot of what I aspire to do in my own career and I had had no idea whatsoever. As a student, sometimes you can be so wrapped up in your own little world. As we walk to and from classes, chatting with our friends, rushing around jobs and extra-curriculars, we can forget that there are those who have gone before us on this same journey who have now built their own connections, careers, and communities beyond Burnaby Mountain.

What does this have to do with Michelle Obama? Well, it turns out that the GVBT was the organization inviting Mrs. Obama to Vancouver. There was someone, not so far away from me, who had built this connection that I could only dream of building several years in the future. And suddenly came this crazy idea . . .

Now if there’s one thing that my parents taught me, it’s that the best way to make something happen is to ask; the worst that can happen is getting a ‘no.’ The Peak took a leap and sent an email making our case to Ms. Giardini.  But not before having at least five different people crowd around the desk to proofread the simple three-paragraph email, asking for an opportunity to attend the GVOT’s event and report back to the student body. Our message needed to be perfect. This was one of the biggest appeals that I had ever made in my 20-something years of life and I got a black momma who often needs a five paragraph essay explanation of my requests and a lawyer father who can poke holes in any argument.


“Are you ready to fangirl a bit?”

That was one of the first questions my new friend Anne asked me. Because fast forward nearly a month of planning, and I was sitting right next to her in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on a cold and chilly Thursday afternoon. I had prepared myself as best as I could for what was bound to be one of the best moments of my life. The crowd was a wild variation of people from all over the Lower Mainland, and even further. Young professionals mingled with older established business figures as high school students chatted away with excitement. After a short delay and a brief introduction, the crowd rose to its feet to applaud the guest of honour.

I could have sworn there was a glow around Mrs. Obama as she walked onstage, greeted by the applauding crowd. The same grace and elegance that emanated through my TV was right there in front of me. She waved and smiled to the crowd as they cheered and cheered. It sounds silly now, but in that moment, I realized that she was real. Like, really real. She was a person right in front of me and we were able to share in this moment together. As she chatted with the crowd, it felt significant that she really focused on connecting with the young people that were present in the room. She shared the heart behind her initiatives that were focused on supporting post-secondary education and the education of young women and girls, while simultaneously sharing how the leaders present in the room could begin to make a difference in the world around them.

One of the most significant moments was when she gave the audience a peak behind the curtain of what it’s like to parent as the first lady in the age of social media. As the moderator asked her about her children and social media, she took on a character very rarely seen in the public eye — a mildly annoyed mother. The crowd laughed as she shared her own challenges with social media from fumbling with her iPhone to gently poking fun at people that post pictures of their food because, and I quote, “I don’t wanna see a picture of your food. Just eat it.”

The authenticity of the moment reminded me of why she is so loved. Perhaps it is because it reminds me so much of my mom and her foray into Instagram, but mostly it was because she is unafraid to challenge perceptions while simultaneously being aware of the joys of living life in this day and age. She so believes in the power of being kind and working hard, reminding us that living a life of excellence and balance doesn’t just happen but instead requires constant effort.


“I believe in you”

As the afternoon came to a close, I really couldn’t see it getting any better. That was until Anne turned to me and said, “Now, come along. You gotta go get your picture!”

Colour me SHOOK.

It turns out that she had arranged for me to be a part of the post-event photo op, which meant that I was going to be able to come face to face with one of my queens. I nervously stood in line, praying that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. But all of my worries evaporated as Mrs. Obama greeted me with a smile and a big hug. There we were. Two black women from the southside of Chicago sharing a moment together. I’d like to think that we bonded a little bit but more importantly as I left she took a moment to say:

“You’re gorgeous, babe. You keep working hard. I believe in you. Now go get it.”

She didn’t have to do that. Yet even in our short, two-minute encounter, she took the opportunity to see me, encourage me, and to tell me that she believed in me. Moments like this are the ones that reveal who a person really is. Beyond the lights and the glitz of being a former first lady, she created a personal moment for the two of us to share. She lived out what she shared just moments earlier: reminding a young person that their voice mattered and seeing them for who they are capable of being.

This whole experience has truly made me realize the power of having other people come alongside you to support you. To open doors that you could not have opened and to see opportunities to reach out and take a risk. From the gritty Southside streets to the glittering halls of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, a little black girl from the southside of Chicago got to meet one of her biggest heroes. And it all began with a simple ask.