Michelle Obama is charging millennials to pursue an important mission: Make democracy work for you.
It’s one of the crucial calls to action she made in an exclusive email interview with Blavity on Sunday. The interview is one of few the former first lady has conducted this midterm election, likely because she has otherwise been busy rallying voters to the polls through her non-partisan, non-profit campaign “When We All Vote.”
Over the last few months, Obama and her team have released several videos and initiatives calling on people everywhere to register to vote and to make their voices heard at the ballot box. She has teamed with organizations like the NAACP to increase Black voter turnout and encouraged folks to assemble their crew and gather their voting squads before heading to the polls.
Obama’s efforts to encourage people to vote are unmatched — and in granting Blavity an exclusive interview, it underscores her desire to drive impact among young Black voters specifically. In Obama’s responses, she shares a special message to millennials who may feel discouraged or disappointed with America’s political system as well as other compelling information about Election Day. Read her answers in full below:
Blavity: A lot of Americans wish that your family was still in the White House. What would you say to those who have given up on politics since Barack left office?
Michelle Obama: We miss you all, too, but what I want to emphasize is that our system is a whole lot bigger than just Barack or our family. And this country cannot afford for anyone, especially all of you, to give up on anything.
Here’s the thing: If you let your frustration get the best of you, and you silence yourself on Election Day, the truth is there are a lot of people who are still going to speak up. If you stay home, others are still going to make their voice heard at the polls—and you probably won’t like what they have to say. Chances are that they probably see things differently than you do. They might not understand your lives or the kinds of challenges you’re dealing with. They might not have any problem leaving you and your family behind. So, when you don’t vote, what you’re really doing is letting somebody else take power over your life.
And as I’ve said before, you wouldn’t give your grandmother the power to decide what clothes you wear to the club, would you? You wouldn’t let your crazy uncle post a picture to your Instagram feed. So, why would you give a stranger the power to make far more important decisions in your life?
Blavity: As a mother to two young Black women, what do you say to other young women who feel like Washington doesn’t care about their voices or their bodies?
Obama: I can understand the frustrations because there have been a lot of troubling news stories lately. But the thing about this democracy is that it ultimately does listen and respond—but only to those who participate. So you have the power to change Washington—and your state house and city hall. But if you sit out of the process, you can’t be surprised when your elected officials don’t reflect your values or respect your community.
Here’s some helpful data: Generation X, millennials, and the post-millennial generation make up a clear majority of eligible voters. There are more women than men in this country. So to all the young women out there—the numbers are actually on your side. You’ve just got to make that real at the polls. That means you’ve all got to show up tomorrow—before work, after class, over your lunch break, whenever—just vote. Bring your friends, bring your family, and create your voting squad to make sure everyone you know makes their voice heard. And if you need more information on when and where to vote in your neighborhood, go to whenweallvote.org.
Blavity: Recently, others have put a different spin on your “When they go low, we go high” phrase. Since we’ve seen others remain low, do you still agree with that saying? What do you say to those who say they don’t want to take the high road?
Obama: I absolutely still believe that we’ve got to go high—always and without exception. It’s the only way we can keep our dignity. Because if we lose our dignity, what do we have left? I know that when someone calls you a name, it’s a lot easier to call them one back than to hold your tongue. When someone’s trying to pull you down into the mud, it takes a lot less effort to give in and join them in the muck than to keep yourself upright, standing tall. If you allow yourself to play on their terms, they win. It’s what they want you to do. You can’t give them the satisfaction.
Now, going high doesn’t mean giving up or ignoring reality. It doesn’t mean you shy away from the fight or weaken your principles. It means you lead with your whole heart and your whole soul—your whole value system—and not just whatever happens to be your stance on a given issue. Going high isn’t just about the fight you want to win, but it's also about the person you want to be—and the kind of country you want to have.
What Barack and I have always tried to do is this: When the haters come our way, we don’t let them distract us from our purpose. We brush them off when we can, and we deal with them when we need to. But we never lose sight of our goal. We never stop working. And we never stop trying to set a good example for the next generation—not just for our two daughters but everyone’s kids. Do we want the next generation to be angry? Do we want them to be spiteful and petty? Or do we want them to live by the values that our parents taught us—values like honesty and generosity and respect?
I think the answer is easy enough. And it’s an answer that always applies, not just when it’s easy.
Blavity: What are some of your favorite Election Day traditions or memories?
Obama: When Barack was running for president, we went through a lot of Election Days—not just in the general election, but a whole lot during the primary season, as well. So we had our Election Day routines down pat. Barack would always play basketball in the morning. And then in the evenings, we’d wait for results to come in as a family, usually surrounded by friends and staff.
There’d be trays of appetizers sitting out. The girls would put on pretty dresses, and Barack would prepare his speeches—he had two: one for a win and one for a loss. Those nights could be pretty tense—it’s when all the pressure from the previous months and years came to a head. Thankfully, most of those nights turned out to be pretty good memories.
Some of my warmest memories about voting come from even earlier. I grew up in a household where voting was just something you did all the time. My father had multiple sclerosis, and he struggled just to make it to the voting booth. I would watch him balance himself on his crutches, walking gingerly down the stairs to the church basement where our polling place was. He’d take me inside the voting booth with him, and I’d watch him pull the levers, even though I didn’t really know what they did. It filled me with a sense of wonder. I had a feeling that voting must be something special if my dad, someone for whom voting wasn’t easy, always made sure to make it to the polls to cast his ballot. It’s a memory that stays with me—and it’s a lesson I want to teach my girls, all these years later.
Blavity: What advice do you have for those who feel like the system doesn’t support them? Or millennials who think there is not a place for them in politics?
Obama: The thing about a democracy is that no matter what you’re going through, there’s always a place for you. Sometimes you’ve just got to carve it out on your own. You might be outnumbered at first; you might take a few losses, but if you keep fighting, if you keep reaching out to people, you won’t be outnumbered for long.
I think we’ve seen good examples recently of communities taking action and making democracy work for them. We’ve seen everything from counties deciding to fund better mental health care for children to communities voting in prosecutors who they think will better reflect their values.
I know that a lot of times, it feels like the deck is stacked against you. But no matter what, you’ve got to keep the faith. You’ve got to vote, and you’ve got to get others to do the same. If you check out of the system, you’ll be even worse off.
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