Michelle Obama Shares Thoughts on Running for President, Gender Equity at United State of Women Summit

“When I hear people say, ‘You run!’ It’s part of the problem!” former First Lady Michelle Obama told Golden Globe-winning actress Tracee Ellis Ross at the United State of Women Summit, about people calling for her to run for president. “We still didn’t get ‘Yes We Can’ right. It’s not ‘Yes You Can’ it’s ‘Yes We Can.’ Until we get that right, it doesn’t matter who runs. I don’t think I’m any different from Hillary [Clinton].”

“Change starts close to home. So looking for the next person to run, and I don’t mean to cut that off, but that’s been our distraction. We’re just going to wait for the next person to save us,” Obama continued later in the conversation, which took place in front of a crowd of roughly 6,000 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. “We thought it was Barack Obama, and then he didn’t end racism.”

The question and answer session between Obama and Ross was the culmination of day one of the United State of Women Summit — a conference packed with activists and heavy-hitter speakers addressing issues women face today. This year’s event was the second United State of Women conference; the first was held in 2016, and the goal is to connect and amplify activist organizations who are working towards the advancement of girls and women.

While the conference was mainly upbeat — centered on how to use your voice, reclaim power, find joy, and tackle issues of sexual violence, economic inequality, mental health, mass incarceration, disability rights, and immigration — Obama was blunt about her worries, saying, “In light of the last (presidential) election, I’m concerned about us as women and how we think.”

“I think if we want our daughters to dream bigger than we did, then we have more work to do,” she said of the next steps she believes women need to take. “So many of us have gotten ourselves at the table, but we’re still too grateful to be at the table to really shift the thinking. And that’s not a criticism, because for so many of us just getting to the table was so hard, right? So you’re just holding on! But now we have to take some risks for our girls.”

Obama also had advice for men on how to advance women’s rights — especially fathers who want their daughters to be able to realize their dreams.

“Because the workplace you work in — the times you turn your head, you look the other way, the times you’re sitting at a table where there are no people of color, no women,” she said. “If you’re tolerating that, that’s the workplace that is going to be waiting for your little girl. You’ve sold her a bill of goods! You told her she could be anything, but you’re not working to make sure that can be actualized.”

Still Obama, who joked amiably with Ross and alternately shared anecdotes from her childhood and raising daughters, finds hope in children.

“I find hope in all of these beautiful young people,” she explained to the crowd. “That’s why when I was First Lady, whenever I got down, or read some bad clips, or something happened, I was like, ‘please just put me with some kids, I just need to be with some kids,’” she said. “Because that’s what this is all for. You know? We all have young people in our lives and they all come onto this planet, onto this Earth with all this possibility.”

It was a day for powerful pairings at the summit, where a wide-range of speakers bookended a full-day of breakout sessions, a mentorship cafe, and an expo with booths from everything from artisan liquor to Planned Parenthood, all of which were packed into the labyrinthine Shrine Auditorium and Expo Center on the University of Southern California’s campus.

Actress and activist Connie Britton took the stage with Netflix vice president of original content Cindy Holland to discuss female representation in media; U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, “grown-ish” actress Yara Shahidi, and co-founder of Campaign Zero Brittany Packnett discussed activism and representation of women of color with former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth; and 13-year-old “black-ish” star Marsai Martin along with 13-year-old creator of #1000BlackGirlBooks Marley Dias introduced marquee speakers Obama and Ross.

One of the most impactful duos was actress Jane Fonda and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. The two held a discussion about mass incarceration, which event co-chair Tina Tchen told Variety was a topic Fonda picked for herself.

“I realized that the lens through which I had been looking at race was too shallow, so I’m studying,” Fonda said. “You see it takes more than empathy, it takes intention to even being able to comprehend what people of color — no matter their class — face every day.”

Other speakers included, Aly Raisman, Tiffany Lopez, and other victims of former U.S. Olympic Team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct; and teenage activists from Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Following the event, ICM Partners’ nascent political department hosted a dinner, spearheaded by creative director Caroline Edwards and senior political strategist Hannah Linkenhoker, that followed the day’s theme of women sharing stories of activism. The event was emceed by former White House staffer during the Obama administration, Carri Twigg, and speakers included Melissa Tillman, who runs the Downtown Women Center; April Grayson of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition; Sally Smith who runs the Nexus Fund; Taulene Kagan of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles; Megan Smith, CEO of shift and U.S. chief technology officer in the Obama Administration, along with Tchen and others.

ICM Partners’ Hannah Linkenhoker joins speakers Sally Smith (Nexus Fund), April Grayson (ARC), Jill Habig (Public Rights Project), Caroline Edwards (ICM Partners), and political commentator Carri Twigg on the carpet at the official after party of the United State of Women Summit, presented by ICM Partners. Courtesy of ICM Partners

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