On Feb. 13, the Women’s Fund of Central Indiana hosted A Moderated Conversation with Former First Lady Michelle Obama at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. Moderator Alecia DeCoudreaux (right) asked Obama questions about her formative years, time in the White House, fashion, mental health, public service and being authentic. Photo provided by Photography by Daniel Arthur Jacobson

Executive Director of Women’s Fund Jennifer Pope Baker welcomed the audience and spoke about the Women’s Fund. The event was a fundraiser for Women’s Fund. According to Baker, the funds raised will go toward supporting women who struggle with addiction, are victims of domestic violence/abuse, economically insecure or need help with childcare.

“By purchasing a ticket for this event, you [the audience] have helped to raise more than one million dollars for women and girls in the area,” Baker said.

Baker introduced one of the benefactors of the event, philanthropist and Chair and Founder of the Samerian Foundation Cindy Simon Skjodt, who introduced former first lady Michelle Obama. Founding member of Women’s Fund board Alecia DeCoudreaux moderated the event. DeCoudreaux was the president of Mills College in Oakland, Calif. for five years and a former employee of Eli Lilly and Company.

DeCoudreaux started the conversation by asking Obama about her formative years. Obama said that her family was her support network growing up and spoke about going to church and celebrating birthdays with her extended family.

“You don’t get anywhere in life without people holding you up, and I was absolutely no exception,” Obama said. “I was fortunate that I grew up like a lot of folks on the southside where families and extended family lived very near…. We grew up with this amazing extended family.”

Both of Obama’s mother’s parents lived close to where she grew up, as did her aunts and uncles. She said that although as a child she thought her father’s side of the family lived on the other side of the city, they only lived five minutes away. Obama said having family close by gave her good role models while she was growing up.

“A lot of young kids think a role model has to be someone far away,” Obama said, “That it has to be the former first lady or somebody important, but the truth is, for me and for so many people, the most important role models you have are right in front of you.”

DeCoudreaux asked about Obama’s experience as First Lady. As a people person, Obama said she did well in her role as First Lady because she enjoyed being around people.

“That gave me energy. It gave me strength. It gave me purpose,” Obama said. “I didn’t have to be anybody other than me… I wasn’t tired, because I was Michelle Obama… When you know who you are, nobody can take that from you. So that made the job for me, easier.”

Although she enjoyed being around people, Obama said at times she would be so exhausted she would just pass out in a chair. Obama explained that while her husband was campaigning, she would limit her activity in the campaign to three days a week. Obama explained that at the time she was also working and taking care of their two daughter so she told his staff not to bother her on her days off.

She said when the Obama’s went to the White House her mother moved there as well, “kicking and screaming.” According to Obama, her mother would have rather been at home in Chicago than in Washington, D.C. and as soon as the Obamas left the White House her mother went home.

“It [constantly being in view of the public] is hard on the people in your life…before you jump in, you’ve got to know that it’s hard,” Obama said. “There’s sacrifice, not just from you but from the people you love.”

Obama also spoke about opening up the White House to children. She said that they would have children come to the White House to try out the meals before state dinners and invite them in to spend time with musicians and performers before evening concerts. Obama attributed these actions to the perspective she had from childhood and the feeling that it gave her.

“That experience will change a life and I guess, selfishly, I enjoyed the feeling of giving kids that feeling,” Obama said.

DeCoudreaux also asked Obama about topics related to the organizations that Women’s Fund supports, such as Dress for Success, and asked Obama about being a fashion icon.

“It’s interesting because I never sought to make a fashion statement,” Obama said. “I approached clothes like most women do, we want to look cute. That was my goal, to be cute and be comfortable.”

Women’s Fund also focuses on mental health with the Campaign to Change Direction. DeCoudreaux discussed the five signs of emotional distress and asked Obama to comment on mental illness. Obama mentioned her time living in a military community and how they focused on mental health. She also said that the way people thought about mental health in the past was different than they do now. She explained that it used to be ignored or thought of negatively, but now there is more of a focus, however, it could still be improved.

According to DeCoudreaux, the Women’s Fund Helps women struggling with economic insecurity, so she asked Obama was what she would say to those women. Obama spoke about the importance of fixing the problems that cause poverty and economic instability. She said that there is not much to be said to those who have little to no opportunities.

“The better use of my time is trying to fix those problems that they’re facing,” Obama said. “Not spend the energy trying to pump up people who don’t have options when we need to be doing the work to change those circumstances….You can’t just ask people to live on platitudes and well-wishes. That’s why we have a social safety net in this country, that’s why we have welfare, that’s why we have school grants and pell grants because sometimes people need a hand up. And it’s not enough to tell them that. You, know you, can’t pull yourself up by bootstraps if you don’t have boots…It doesn’t make sense to ask people to make something out of nothing when most of us who are successful have something. You don’t make something out of nothing.”

Obama also gave advice for those looking to have an influence on politics. She said not everyone has to be a politician to influence politics and society. According to Obama, people can also volunteer or work on a political campaign, but what she recommends everyone do is vote. She said each person is the only one who knows what he or she wants, so they need to get out and vote on every level. Obama also said the main thing that people have control over, however, are their own individual actions every day.

“Waking up everyday and being a decent person, being kind, and open, and generous and compassionate, showing empathy for others, just trying to figure out what’s happening in other people’s shoes. Assume the best in your neighbors, not the worst,” she said.