Manitoba

Parents 'more powerful than any world leader,' Michelle Obama tells Winnipeg audience in reflective speech

A self-reflective Michelle Obama reminded Winnipeggers a couple of times in her address that her life in the White House wasn't normal, but seemed to strike a chord with the audience with her relatability.

Bestselling author and former U.S. first lady visited Winnipeg as part of speaking tour

Former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama, seen here in a file photo, stopped in Winnipeg Tuesday as part of her 'A Conversation with Michelle Obama' speaking tour. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

A self-reflective Michelle Obama reminded Winnipeggers a couple of times in her address that her life in the White House wasn't normal, but she seemed to strike a chord with the audience with her relatability.

The speaker, bestselling author and former first lady of the United States was contemplative as she spoke to  around 7,500 people at Bell MTS Place Tuesday, during the Winnipeg stop of her "A Conversation with Michelle Obama" speaking tour.

In a 70-minute lunchtime Q&A-style presentation, sponsored by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, Obama told the crowd that women too often doubt themselves when a man wouldn't, explaining how she finally realized she was good enough in her 50s.

She also talked about the challenges of parenting and the power all people have to inspire others — singling out parents for the important role they play. 

"The power to raise a good human being, to me, is more powerful than any world leader," Obama said to hearty applause.

The event was moderated by University of Manitoba chancellor Anne Mahon. The media was not allowed to photograph or take video of her address. 

Obama, the author of the bestselling memoir Becoming, ruminated on her actions and motivations during the eight years she spent in the White House while her husband, Barack Obama, was U.S. president.

She sought to connect her experience, though one of privilege in her later years, with the lives of her audience, which skewed female and included hundreds of school-aged students.

She spoke, for example, of shedding tears as she sent a daughter off to college, and the insecurity she felt as the parent of a newborn.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama signs copies of her bestselling book Becoming in New York City in this 2018 file photo. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

She also offered inspirational messages of empathy, unity and family that appeared to resonate with the crowd.

"I want everybody in this auditorium to think to themselves, 'I can change a life,'" Obama said. "The question just becomes: whose life are you going to pick?"

She cited her upbringing in a working-class family in Chicago's South Side as a study in the arbitrariness of life.

Obama said her mother liked to say that while many kids were as special as her own, some didn't get the same opportunities in life.

"For every one of me, there were hundreds of kids who, but for the grace of God, didn't get to be where I was," Michelle Obama said.

She called education the "most powerful equalizer" because it means providing a chance to people.

"We know we live in a world where opportunity isn't doled out equally, and it isn't based on merit or ability."

Her answers to Mahon's questions rarely delved into politics, instead offering introspective observations on her own role in the White House, where she championed education for all and the potential of the younger generation. 

Those who react with anger to politics they disagree with are afraid of the changes their country is undergoing, she said, and deserve understanding, not shunning.

Good enough in her 50s

On a more personal note, Obama, 55, told the audience that she's found new confidence in her 50s.

"I can sit in my real self and say, 'Yes, I'm OK,'" she told the crowd. "I'm happy with who I am — the bumps, the bruises, the blemishes. I am in a good place."

She joked that while our society values youth, "you all don't know nothing."

At moments, her address was light-hearted. She took jabs at men, who, she said in jest, always speak with certainty, even when they shouldn't.

Obama also said she didn't think highly of the man who would become her husband before meeting him. She knew a person coming to her Chicago law firm was a guy with a "weird name," she said. Although he was being talked up by colleagues, she was skeptical.

"He benefited by me having such a low bar," Obama quipped.

Winnipeggers love a freebie. 470 high school students were given a free ticket to see Michelle Obama speak. Just how excited are they to see and hear from the former First Lady? Elbethel Masrisha and Sarah Horishney join Marcy Markusa in studio. 6:14

A number of attendees said they left Obama's speech inspired.

"It was fantastic. I could have listened to her for hours," said Catherine Chepil.

Leonie Thompson said the ideas that drive Obama's life have long influenced her.

"She talks about generosity and serving others, and that's always my theme, is to serve others and to be generous," Thompson said.

"This is why I've become a nurse."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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