While it's hard to tell what her husband's legacy will be, First Lady Michelle Obama will probably be remembered overwhelmingly as a loved and respected presidential spouse. But until this week, she wasn't known for her particularly active role in government. The Associated Press reports that Michelle plans to change that, shifting her policy platform from emphasizing that kids eat right and stay fit to making sure they don't die because of gun violence.
Obama's Let's Move campaign has been well-publicized, though it's any one's guess if her emphasis on teaching kids to eat healthier and work out more has really changed America in four years. She's done high-profile things, like adding a larger vegetable garden to the White House grounds and grabbing big names like Beyoncé to create viral videos in hopes that kids will get excited about the prospect of physical fitness.
But health doesn't have the same sexiness as the many, many kids dying in poor communities around the country because of gun violence, most notably in the Obamas hometown of Chicago. And despite the probable eventual backlash from conservatives who think a FLOTUS's position should be in her wing of the White House, Michelle's move to expand her reach is totally unsurprising and a clear sign of her and Barack's priorities going forward as the Obama presidency's second terms rolls on. According to the AP:
Aides say the first lady isn't making gun violence a new and distinct issue, but is folding it into her work encouraging youth to focus on getting an education.
By reaching beyond the pair of relatively safe issues she has pushed — reducing childhood obesity and rallying public support for military families — the Harvard-trained lawyer who some say has played it safe is showing a willingness to step outside of her comfort zone.
They note that a big indicator of Michelle's move towards emphasizing gun violence was foreshadowed in her many mentions in speeches of meeting students at Harper High School on Chicago's South Side. It's Harper High that can be given the credit for shifting the administration's priorities about gun violence. While much of the national debate on gun violence has focused on tragedies like Sandy Hook or Aurora, it's unquestionable that the Obamas recognize that the bigger gun violence issues run rampant in poor communities, not at the hands of a few mentally unstable individuals.
In February, after installing several reporters at Harper High for months, This American Life aired two back-to-back episodes that tried to answer the question of why, at that time, 29 current and former students had been shot in a year, eight fatally. The work was highly publicized and praised around the country, and Harper administrators have since attempted to raise $2 million to support their community.
The episodes revealed how ubiquitous gang violence is in many poor, predominantly black urban communities; how kids become part of a gang whether or not they want to be; how anyone can get a gun and the effects of PTSD on those who have lost friends and family, whether teachers or students. For Chicago, it was just the latest development in a story that had been growing and dominating city news for some time; since then, local news organizations like DNAinfo and the Chicago Sun-Times have dedicated resources to tracking every death from gun violence in the city. It clearly struck a chord with the Obamas as well, but as long-time residents the South Side, not far at all from Harper, it's impossible that any of this was news to them. That, added to their close relationship with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who has been attempting, with debated levels of success, to quell this issue, has merely given the Obamas a reason to do something about a story that is driven by racial inequality more than anything else.
In June, some Harper students visited the White House. Their principal, Leonetta Sanders, said that the First Lady "wanted to really just have a deep conversation with them, one-on-one, and just really hear their stories. But also, at the same time, to encourage students to keep going."
This visit was the second time the First Lady met with Harper students; in April, she went to Chicago specifically to talk with students about gun violence, echoing statements her husband had made in February at a high school on the South Side after the TAL pieces aired. The Chicago Tribune reported then that, she "sent a clear message that she does not plan to sit on the sidelines and watch Chicago's children succumb to street violence." The First Lady said:
When it comes to ensuring the health and development and success of young people in this city, for me, this is my passion, it is my mission. And for me, this is personal because my story would not be possible without this city.
Though her potential plan of action has not been detailed in the slightest, Michelle is even more uniquely positioned to do something about gun violence because of her years spent before the White House at the University of Chicago Hospitals, working with community and external affairs. Gun violence wasn't going anywhere before, and it certainly isn't now, but for as much flack as the Obamas get for not appropriately addressing race even though they are in fact black, shifting her talking points from obesity to gun violence is as strong a message as the First Lady can send to the country that she is here and she means business.
Image via Chicago Tribune, Nancy Stone/AP