Community the key to happiness: Michelle and Barack Obama get real

'I was ticking my boxes, doing what I said I needed to do because I was poor'

30 July 2020 - 08:55 By Cebelihle Bhengu
Barack Obama and his wife Michelle discussed the importance of community service during the first Michelle Obama Podcast on Wednesday.
Barack Obama and his wife Michelle discussed the importance of community service during the first Michelle Obama Podcast on Wednesday.
Image: MIKE THEILER/REUTERS

The long-awaited Michelle Obama Podcast premiered on online streaming platform Spotify on Wednesday, and the former US first lady had her husband and former president Barack Obama as her guest.

The pair had a candid discussion about the importance of community and the role it played in their upbringing.

They reminisced about how the relationships they had with their family and community members shaped their perspectives, underlining the significance of having a tight-knit community and multiple role models.

Michelle said current family dynamics are different from what she was exposed to growing up in South Chicago.

“The way families ran, before recently, was an economic necessity. You know, my parents were poor. We lived in the second floor of my aunt’s house because that was a way to save money so that my mother could stay home. My mom was able to work at our public school because she and a couple of other mothers, who could afford to stay home, stayed home and they kept their eye on everybody at school.”

Barack added that among the reasons why this is no longer the case is the “wage stagnation” and pressure to have multiple streams of income.

“All these institutions that used to be support systems are shrinking. So more and more people start saying in terms of ‘me’ — ‘I pursue a career, I make money, and then, if I’m successful enough, I can be self-sufficient and my family can be self-sufficient.’”

He said when he started his legal work in Michelle's old neighbourhood, people always told him that they missed how “everybody raised everybody's children”.

I had a limited vision of what I could be because schools don't show you the world - they just show you a bunch of careers.
Michelle Obama

Michelle shared how she too fell into the individuality trap when she pursued a corporate job. She admitted that she later felt lonely, despite having had a fancy job and money.

She attributed her choices to a lack of knowledge and understanding of her potential.

“I was ticking my boxes, doing what I said I needed to do because I was a poor child, so I didn't feel like I had the option to off and do other things. But I also had a limited vision of what I could be because schools don't show you the world — they just show you a bunch of careers.

“I came to learn, while working at that fancy law firm and making all that money, that it felt lonely. It felt isolating ... I had this amazing view and I could see the neighbourhood that I came from and I never felt further from it than when I was sitting in that office.”