The Importance of Female Mentorship as Explained by Michelle Obama
In case you hadn’t heard… Michelle Obama now has a podcast. It certainly is brightening my quarantine. If you have not already listened to “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” I highly recommend it. It makes me think, laugh, feel hopeful, and realize all the work that needs to be done.
The show releases episodes on Spotify every Wednesday. So far the former-FLOTUS has spoken with many people who are important in her life including her husband, brother, and best friends. They’ve discussed racial justice, being mothers, childhood, COVID-19, and so much more. Each episode is fabulous and has its own pieces of wisdom; however, I’d like to highlight both parts of Episode 7, which aired back-to-back on September 9th and 10th.
“...Our challenge is, is that we've got to tell those stories. And we have to start with telling our own. Loud and clear. And that starts with, not telling it with our voice, but telling it with how we exist in the world, by bringing our Blackness and brownness and womanness to every table that we're in” - Michelle Obama (1).
Image from: The Obama White House Archives
Both episodes touch on female mentorship, friendship, and empowerment in life and the workplace. Michelle Obama is not new to mentoring. In 2009, she even launched a leadership and mentorship program at the White House that paired girls with top administration officials. She told this first group of 20 young women that "in every part of government, there are women who are hungry to help bring you guys up" (2). In hearing her speak with her friend Valerie Jarrett and some of her mentees, you can tell how much this means to Michelle.
In Episode 7, Part 1: “Working Women: Valerie Jarrett and the Importance of Mentorship,” Michelle and Valerie speak about their friendship and how it has developed since they met in 1991. Aside from being a close friend of the Obamas, Valerie Jarrett served as a White House Senior Advisor who oversaw the White House Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls. Before these roles, she worked in the public and private sectors - including as Deputy Chief of Staff for Chicago Mayor Daley, where she hired Michelle (3).
These remarkable women dive into how crucial female mentorship is for women and growth within the workplace. They also talk about the necessity of representation in these spaces: “...it also speaks to the importance of having the diversity of leadership, what I experienced was having a boss that was a woman. Women bring a different perspective to the workplace. That is important and relevant. - Michelle Obama (4).
Image from: Michelle Obama’s Twitter
Episode 7, Part 2: “Across Generations: Michelle Obama and her Mentees” approaches the topic of mentorship from the other side. Three of her younger team members - Kristin Jones, Chynna Clayton, and Yene Damtew - speak about their mentor-mentee relationship with Michelle over the years. Each of the women started working with Michelle in different capacities in the White House and have stayed with her ever since. Kristin was in the first White House intern class in 2009 and then became Michelle’s research associate, then assistant. Chynna was a White House intern in 2010 and then became the First Lady’s “body person” (aka trip director) in 2015. Yene is Michelle’s hair stylist and she entered into the Obama world back in 2009 (5).
From left to right: Kristin Jones, Chynna Clayton, Yene Damtew
Images from: Michelle Obama’s Instagram
These episodes stuck out to me because of the deep importance of true mentorship in life and work. This feels especially true in the world of politics. Historically, women and people of color have been hugely underrepresented in rooms where people are making decisions that impact everyone’s lives.
Pat Mitchell, another ceiling smasher in the world of journalism and media, is a passionate mentor. As a journalist, producer, and executive she has worked to share the stories of women. She continues to do this as the editorial director and host of TEDWomen (6). Like Michelle Obama, she understands the value of the female mentor-mentee relationships in male dominated fields.
She describes it as “one lever we can activate to advance more women in their work, to help them gain access to capital and economic opportunities they might otherwise miss…” (7). You can check out her TedTalk from 2019, “Dangerous times call for dangerous women,” to hear her speak directly about the importance of female mentorship in our world.
“I believe that one of the responsibilities of being a woman who is committed to working toward a more just world is being willing to be a mentor when and where needed. All of us — mentees and mentors — are dangerous women in the making or already boldly declared to be in the sisterhood” - Pat Mitchell (7).
Image from: Forbes
Hearing Michelle Obama speak with women she admires so much who admire her as well made me feel hopeful for the future of women in public service. These women and so many others have already made space for us to become more involved and have our voices heard.
Women are doers. They’re running for office, serving as senior staffers, leading protests, starting organizations, and inspiring others to do the same. Not only inspiring, but lifting others up as well. The entire roster of Democratic women running for office this November are adding to the goal of making sure women are included and represented and valued in this democracy.
Growth and mentorship is yet another reason why it is so important to have women, people of color, and representatives who look like all Americans in office across the country. If these people rise to positions of power, they can bring others up with them. Then, hopefully, our government will start to better reflect our nation and create policies that benefit our America.