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Biographer Peter Slevin pulls back the curtain on her previous career, which is little known and even less understood

Not all smiles

Michelle Obama: Who she was before the White House

By Peter Slevin on April 14, 2015

Hillary Clinton, embarking on a new run for the presidency, is not the only first lady determined to step out of her husband’s formidable shadow. Consider Michelle Obama, who spent 20 years building a strong professional identity, then entered the national spotlight and was forced to start over.

Long before Barack Obama was the president of the United States, and long before her most public claim to fame was president’s wife, the current first lady was an independent player in Chicago. She adopted challenging issues at the intersection of race and community, and she became accustomed to taking flak.

In 2001, when the University of Chicago brass gathered to break ground for a $135 million children’s hospital, the voice of a protester with a bullhorn broke through the crisp morning air. Obama, the new director of community outreach for the university medical center, went over to talk with him.

The man’s name was Omar Shareef. His beef was that the university was not giving enough business to African American construction workers. Obama set up a meeting with university administrators. After the session, the Rev. Gregory Daniels complained that the demonstrators were being fobbed off on officials “who have jobs to protect or do not have the best interest of blacks at heart.”

Daniels demanded that Obama be removed, claiming that she was in cahoots with white university leaders to divide the black community. Obama persisted. Within a month, the university pledged to deliver business to qualified minority-run companies and Shareef promised to end the protests.

Obama followed through. At a later meeting, she spoke firmly with the white owner of a large construction firm who thought he could nod agreeably and ignore the hiring requirements. The owner got no more business until he met her demands, said Kenneth P. Kates, the hospital’s chief operating officer, who described her as “tenacious.”

Michelle's graduation picture from Princeton University.
Michelle’s graduation picture from Princeton University. Courtesy of Obama for America

“Tenacious” is also the word chosen by Charles Ogletree, Obama’s Harvard Law School professor and mentor, to describe her style of legal advocacy. As associates and staff quickly learned, in Michelle Obama’s shop, there would be no trifling.

Obama is hardly a mere appendage to her supremely accomplished husband, the leader of the free world, but six years into their White House tenure, it is easy to forget her previous career, which is little known and less understood.

After a three-year stint at Sidley & Austin, a white-shoe law firm that specialized in corporate work, Obama pursued jobs that held meaning for her, the self-described “regular little black girl from the South Side of Chicago.” Her path took her through City Hall to Public Allies, a leadership training and mentoring program, and on to the University of Chicago, where she spent a dozen years.

Obama built the Chicago office of Public Allies from scratch, mentoring a diverse array of 30 to 40 young people each year and guiding them into internships at government agencies and nonprofits. Within two years, she oversaw an annual budget of $1.1 million. It was “the first thing that was mine and I was responsible for every aspect of it.”

“I was never happier in my life,” she said soon after reaching the White House, “than when I was working to build Public Allies.”

Julie Sullivan, who worked alongside her, was impressed with Obama’s ability to be “understood anywhere” as she crossed back and forth among Chicago’s disparate realms. She recalled drives across town in Michelle’s Saab: “We’d go from some burned out shithole on the West Side, where she’s talking to really scary people, and then we’d go downtown to a meeting” with the chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“She was unafraid to put issues on the table and talk about them clearly,” Sullivan remembered. “She always had a really, really uncanny combination of unruffled calm and extreme clarity about what needed to happen next, whether it was in the small picture or the big picture.”

When issues of race and class surfaced in Public Allies staff discussions and training sessions, as they always did, Obama had little tolerance for dogma or endless debate. Getting from Point A to Point B was her focus, an approach that would become a hallmark of her professional and political life.

Paul Schmitz, who ran the organization’s Milwaukee office, said Obama was the person who would say during a conversation, “That’s nice, but we’ve got to get things done.”

A particular focus of Obama’s Chicago work was community development, an interest she cultivated at City Hall, where she was hired in 1991, at age 27, by future White House counselor and friend Valerie Jarrett. Michelle was skeptical of the approach of many outsiders and government workers, however well intentioned, whose style was not to consult, but to pronounce.

She refined her thinking with the help of a neighborhood organizing approach known Asset-Based Community Development, or ABCD. It was developed by Northwestern University professor John McKnight, who had written a law school reference letter for Barack Obama, and his colleague Jody Kretzmann.

As McKnight and Kretzmann saw it, do-gooders often failed to appreciate the abilities of people they were trying to help and too rarely drew on them for solutions. To be effective, solutions needed to be crafted from the inside out and the ground up. A key goal was self-reliance. Only if the project were practical and made sense to the residents would it be sustainable. And only if it were sustainable would it make the neighborhood stronger.

To be a success, the thinking went, outsiders would recognize a suffering neighborhood and its needs as a glass half empty, but work with it as a glass half full. They would see deficits, of course, but also assets.

Obama introduced members of Public Allies to the ABCD approach and she carried the outlook to her work at the University of Chicago, where she spent five years developing student community service projects before moving to the outreach job at the medical center.

For senior hospital staff and trustees, she organized volunteer days, as well as field trips to grittier parts of the city. At an appointed intersection, she would ask the driver to stop the bus and her guests would get out. In one direction, they would see a street of broken down and boarded up houses. Then they would turn and see a block of renovated homes with sparkling windows and fresh paint. Assets, in other words, not just deficits.

Michelle Obama as a child with her brother Craig Robinson. Credit: Obama campaign photo
Michelle Obama as a child with her brother Craig Robinson. Courtesy of Obama for America

Obama grew up in a one-bedroom apartment that was within walking distance of the campus stocked with Nobel prize winners and thinkers of great renown. But she described it as an institution that had turned its back on African American children like her, and she said she had never set foot there.

Yet the university was trying to change, she said in 2005, and “somebody like me, who has feet in both worlds, can help to bridge the gap.” During her tenure, Obama pushed for greater diversity in medical center hiring, and, according to university records, she helped channel nearly $50 million in construction work to firms owned by women or minorities.

To make the gears turn smoothly at a time in her life when she recalled “making the endless to-do lists that I never got through and often lost,” Obama set a standard of efficiency at the medical center that would become familiar to aides throughout the years.

When, for example, her hospital outreach team proposed a community meeting on a Saturday, cutting into family time, Michelle wanted evidence that the purpose was clear, the scheduling was essential, and the meeting would run on time. “It was never willy-nilly or just to meet,” said Leif Elsmo, her longtime deputy.

Colleagues in Chicago and the White House describe Obama as disciplined and inclined to over-prepare. While an aide can hand Barack Obama a new speech just minutes before the president is due to speak, Michelle Obama expects drafts well ahead of time. For smaller events, she studies briefing books, thumbnail biographies and photographs of the guests so that she will have something relevant to say.

Obama’s former White House policy director, Jocelyn Frye, described an imperative to move the needle, as the staff liked to say, to make sure her evolving agenda contained substance, not fluff, as the invitations and opportunities piled up. The first lady told her staff, “Don’t just put me on a plane, send me someplace and have me smile.”

Obama will be only 53 years old when she moves out of the White House on January 20, 2017. Unlike Hillary Clinton, her ambitions do not run to electoral politics. As Barack Obama said, she would first have to be abducted by aliens. She plans to do some writing and continue her focus on education, which she calls “the single most important civil rights issue that we face today.”

She is making it clear that she is not done yet.

Peter Slevin’s new book is “Michelle Obama: A Life,” published this month by Alfred A. Knopf. He spent 10 years on the Washington Post national staff and now is an associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.